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, authors and activists such as Virgie Tovar, and yes, social media, FoodCorps School Nutrition Service Member and SMAC member Lauren/Ren Driscoll planned a carefully curated six-week lesson series, supported by Food Education Service Members Meghan Monaghan and Courtney Wilber. Each lesson included themes related to body image and healthful nourishment, as well as the preparation of a meal or snack, based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommends three meals and three snacks per day for growing bodies. Additionally, each lesson incorporated activities to involve students’ ideas and interests, such as Chopped style cooking competitions to see which team could make the most nutrient-dense, creative and balanced meal or snack. Below is the breakdown of our Nourishing Food and Body Education lesson series.
- Lesson 1: Introduction, Pre-Surveys & the Importance of Breakfast, Breakfast—yogurt parfaits
- Lesson 2: Importance of Nourishment, Effects of Limiting Food Consumption, Disordered Eating & Athletics, Snack—fruit or veggie wraps
- Lesson 3: Body Positivity vs. Body Neutrality, Body Image, the Oppressive History of Desirability Politics, BMI Junk Science, Fatphobia, Lunch—pasta salad
- Lesson 4: Media Literacy, Media Self Care, Marketing & the Diet Industry, Snack – yogurt/fruit and bean/chip dips
- Lesson 5: Fad Diets, Intuitive Eating, Food Neutrality, Dos and Don’ts of Language: Dichotomous and Moralizing Language, Dinner—stir-fry bowls
- Lesson 6: Eating for Mood, the Gut-Brain Axis, Mental Health, Post-Surveys, Celebrating What we Learned, Snack/Dessert—holiday cookie decorating
As our lessons with the 8th graders wrapped up, their understanding of invaluable concepts such as proper nourishment, health at every size, body neutrality, food neutrality, and avoiding moralizing/dichotomous language became apparent, especially upon comparison of the pre- and post-surveys that we administered during our initial and final lessons with the group. Across the board, students reported improved confidence on every question in the survey. They also reported developing a newly diversified knowledge base and reputable sources of body and nutrition information. The biggest—and by far most encouraging and heartwarming—improvement shown was a rise in confidence with students’ relationships with their bodies. When students began the lesson series they initially reported an average body confidence of 4.27 on a scale of 1 to 10. Following the six lessons, they reported an improvement of more than two points, to 6.33. While we’d love to see this number be even higher, the improvement the students showed over just six weeks is promising of more improvement to come, as they continue to build upon their media literacy and healthful nourishment skills. After all, these are lifelong skills that many adults struggle with, and thanks to zero specific federal requirements regarding nutrition education in schools, many people head into adulthood uneducated on topics of health and wellness, leaving the internet as the predominant educator.
It is our hope that discussion of the topics presented in our lesson series will become prevalent in schools across the country. While we are proud of the incredible progress of the 8th grade class, we recognize that such continued improvements will only be ensured through repeated exposure and opportunities to engage with these topics. This will be accomplished if our educational system continues to dismantle diet culture by engaging with nourishing food and body education and interventions, and by supporting programs like FoodCorps in schools. This is especially important as the usage of social media continues to increase alongside a continual decrease in the age of users. The effort to interrupt harmful media with open, educated, and vulnerable conversations in schools has the potential to allow children and teens to formulate peace and acceptance with their bodies from a young age, as well as perpetuate a new wave of acceptance for all bodies and lifestyles.
With a “Tried it, Liked it, Loved it” poster in one set of hands and a tray of Harvest of the Month parsnip pancakes in the other, we were recently able to witness the effects firsthand of education that dismantles diet culture and food shame, while equipping students with knowledge on how to care for their bodies. Students who regularly skipped lunch were instead munching on nourishing snacks, others who typically avoided trying new foods on our monthly Try Day Friday reached brave hands out for a taste test, and some who usually gobbled their grub so they’d have more time to run in the gym spent a bit more time connecting with their food and their friends. While these achievements may seem small, in a world where we spend every day eating and engaging with food and bodies, these positive domino effects become monumental, and we hope that they only continue.
Lauren Driscoll, FoodCorps School Nutrition Service Member
Meghan Monaghan, FoodCorps Service Member