Crowding Out in More Ways than One

“What is your favorite color?” is a fun question for 2nd graders. Even more fun were the answers to “what is your favorite color to eat?” These opening questions helped shape the discussion for our Color Harvest lesson. We related the need to eat all the colors of the rainbow to the way we have many different friends. Spending time with different people means we get to know unique things about each person and experience special times with each one just as eating a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables gives us a myriad of health benefits that are unattainable with a monochromatic unvaried diet.

At one cooking station, students scooped and mashed butternut squash and added a touch of salt and cinnamon. At another station, students measured ingredients and shook things up by crafting a vinaigrette for the salad greens and radishes from our very own school garden.

Local butternut squash mashed by students.
Local butternut squash mashed by students.

Salad greens from our garden.
Salad greens from our garden.

At another station, students created cards for the cafeteria workers to express how thankful they were to the ladies for serving them breakfast and lunch each school day. They will be displayed in the cafeteria this week in advance of the Thanksgiving holiday.

As we approached the much-anticipated tasting portion of the lesson, I was careful to frame the tasting experience as a positive culmination of all of our hard work. We brainstormed and practiced positive, descriptive language in advance to help us express our evaluation of the food we tasted. We extended the theme of gratitude previously visited in the lesson by thanking the classroom teacher for inviting me in, thanking our new volunteer and the principal for their presence, and thanking each other for the collective effort.

I see this cultivation of gratitude as central to the overall wellness message we as FoodCorps service members bring into schools. It brings to mind the nutritional concept of “crowding out” that I have come to adopt from Joshua Rosenthal in his book Integrative Nutrition. He says, “I have found that one of the most effective methods to overcoming habitual consumption of readily available but unhealthy foods involves crowding these foods out.” He suggests beginning with increasing your intake of water and nutrition-dense vegetables to crowd out sugary drinks and unhealthy foods.

In the school food context, “crowding out” and adding in healthy, tasty and fresh foods is a fabulous message to share with our students rather than proclaiming many of their favorite foods off-limits. We can shape the conversation away from “you shouldn’t eat those chips and cookies” to “wow, isn’t it wonderful to have the opportunity to eat this bright butternut squash.” Over time, their bellies will be full of nutritious foods that their taste buds actually enjoy, and there will be less desire and frankly less gastrointestinal real estate for junk foods.

So it is with the expression and practice of gratitude. The more we learn to fill our inner lives with an awareness of the blessings we have, the less likely we are to feel disgruntled, to be jealous, to be demanding, and to be impatient. The thankful feelings crowd out the negative, self-focused ones. A singular act of saying “thank you” may not achieve immediate transformations in a child, but the practice must be taught and modeled. Just as the nutritional concept of crowding out is an ongoing process where benefits are realized over time, so too the development of habits around gratitude eventually inform lifestyles, habits and attitudes.

Back in the classroom, we finally got the chance to sit down and taste our delicious, colorful creation. After filling our hearts with gratitude and our minds with positive words, the only things that overflowed were smiles and thumbs up. The kids loved the vegetables and most asked for seconds. Let the crowding out begin!

First radish harvest.
First radish harvest.
First lettuce harvest.
First lettuce harvest.