Students prepping food.

Nourishing Our Relationships with Minds, Bodies, and Media

On a cold winter morning, 8th graders at Alanson public school were asked to mull over some tough, vulnerable, yet critically important questions by FoodCorps Service Members. Through an anonymous poll, we asked them, “Where do you receive messages and ideas about food and bodies? How do you decipher between which food and body messages are true and false? How does this messaging, negative or positive, affect your relationships with food and your body?”

The responses followed a familiar pattern: the internet, social media, family and friends, and many very honest responses essentially saying, “I don’t know.”  Who could blame these students for being confused about this important topic? When’s the last time you analyzed your relationships between the information you intentionally or unintentionally consume, the information you deem to be accurate, and the resulting intersecting connections among food, bodies, and minds?
 
As FoodCorps service members, our mission is to nourish kids’ health, education, and sense of belonging through hands-on food, nutrition and garden-based education. Curt Ellis, FoodCorps CEO and Co-Founder and Dr. Robert S. Harvey, President said it best. “We’ve also learned that our work is about much more than children’s physical health. Food is a tool for emotional resilience, community connection, academic learning, and cultural affirmation.” Food has also been used throughout history as a tool of shame, of power, and of control. FoodCorps service members work to reimagine what this looks like in our food systems, school food, and in our personal relationships to food. This is highlighted in the book our Service Member Action Committee, or SMAC, wrote titled “How to Make Friends With a Carrot,” and in our continuous commitment to educate ourselves and our communities
 
It’s a remarkable experience to hear from students about how they feel when they eat their favorite foods or to see their faces light up with excitement and intrigue after tasting a new fruit or vegetable. However, after being approached by 8th grade teachers concerned about disordered eating habits they witnessed in their students throughout the school day—for instance skipping lunch—we knew we could effect change. There was a clear disconnect between the nutritional lessons we teach and the lived experiences of our students when it comes to nourishment and body image. The teachers asked us to find ways to communicate to students the importance of, and nuance needed, to nourish their bodies and minds. Our lessons would stand in stark contrast to what social media platforms like TikTok or Instagram typically communicate about the “ideal” lifestyle and body type for teens. 
 
The influence of social media on perceived body image for all age groups is significant, but it can be especially detrimental for teens. Nearly 50% of teenagers interviewed in a 2022 Pew Study reported being on the internet “almost constantly.” Through this mass amount of media intake, teens’ perspectives on how to look, act, and care for themselves are constructed through influencers and celebrities, who often spew destructive diets, workout routines, or unrealistic “what I eat in a day” content. Teens who develop a sense of trust and community with media personalities can blindly follow harmful, and oftentimes costly, routines to obtain an idealized body type and lifestyle, ignoring the real needs of their still-developing bodies and minds. Moreover, many teens report social media as the biggest influence on the perception of their body image and report attempting to change their bodies based on what they see online. 
 
Given the alarming influence of social media, it can be easy to conclude that it should just be avoided altogether. In the clearest example yet of this trend, earlier this month Seattle Public Schools sued social media companies for costs associated with treating the many damages of “mental and behavioral disorders including anxiety, depression, disordered eating and cyberbullying.” Despite its downfalls, however, social media also contains a multitude of platforms sharing positive messages about body image and evidence-based nourishment. 
 
This is why FoodCorps’ lesson series aimed to promote media literacy skills within the 8th graders to better equip them to thrive in a society where technology and social media’s presence are only going to continue. We encouraged students to think critically about why content creators post what they do, what incentives they may have to post, if they advertise a “one-size-fits-all” solution and more. These critical-thinking skills allow teens to distinguish if what they see on social media is helpful or harmful to them, enabling them to “personalize their algorithm”—that is, students can change what social media channels present to them by changing whom they follow, implementing ad blockers, and engaging with content that cultivates a positive personal relationship with food, nourishment and their bodies.
 
Relying on resources from teachers, school counselors, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), health and nutrition experts,