Peer Pressure and Leafy Greens

I stood behind a long table in the high school cafeteria, small plastic cups lined end to end. Half the cups were overflowing with shiny, curly, green leaves speckled with dried cranberries and pumpkin seeds: Kale Salad. The other half were filled with kale too, but darkened, flat, and crispy: chips. I was standing next to my supervisor and the school district’s Food Service Director in suspense. Would high school students try the kale*?

Youth Food Movement interns from Chelsea High School massage a kale salad.

My hopes were high based on the previous afternoon. Two youth groups at Chelsea High School in Chelsea, MA–Youth Food Movement (YFM) and the Culinary Club–had prepared the kale salad and chips in celebration of Food Day and as an early plug for November’s dark green Harvest of the Month veggie. The reactions as they sampled their creations had been almost unanimously positive. One 8th grade student, a first-year intern with YFM and a cautious and picky eater, ate cupfuls of the salad. Another 11th grade intern, an athlete, ate it until she held her stomach and groaned. “I could eat this stuff forever,” she announced. A second-year intern, who would barely eat anything that was not brown or white before she joined YFM, eagerly asked for the recipe to make it at home.

Youth Food Movement, an internship for 8th-12th grade students, is one of the programs I help lead as a FoodCorps service member in Chelsea. The three-year-old internship, run by Healthy Chelsea, teaches students about food justice and school food issues as they work to improve what is served in their cafeteria. They conduct and analyze the results of an annual school food satisfaction survey, make their own “zine”, maintain an urban garden, and help with cafeteria taste tests–which brings us back to the little cups of kale.

The green snacks were not received as favorably in the cafeteria that day. A few students walked by, their eyes lighting up. “YES! I love kale!” a couple of them said. They were the minority. Most rushed by, whispering and laughing with their friends. Some reluctantly tasted it, and a few dramatically fake-gagged and ran to the nearest garbage can.

We didn’t take it personally. There are multiple reasons why the kale wasn’t “a hit” this time around.

  1. It was unfamiliar. Most of the students who saw our table had never seen, let alone tasted, kale before. Slimy green leaves can seem like… well, just that to a teenager who has never encountered them before.
  2. They didn’t feel ownership. I don’t blame them for not wanting to take kale from a random stranger. The difference the previous afternoon was that our interns have a relationship with me and my supervisor. Plus, they were the ones who made the recipe. They were becoming intimately familiar with the green veggie as they massaged it with an olive oil, lemon, and honey dressing.

Not every Chelsea High School student can or wants to be a part of Youth Food Movement. I hope that seeing more vegetables–and their peers eating those vegetables–in the cafeteria will ever so slightly shift norms in the community. But I am also grateful that other parts of my service are helping to change norms for future Chelsea High School students.

FullSizeRender (5)
Two after-school students chow down on kale from their school garden.

Every Thursday afternoon, I hang out with a great group of 1st and 2nd graders at an elementary school in the city. They have a small school garden with an admittedly meager harvest this fall–grape-sized radishes, parsley, some undersized kale. Regardless, their enthusiasm for helping and learning in the garden is gargantuan. Their excitement about tasting the vegetables is even greater. Each week, I am increasingly surprised as they beg me for more parsley–raw parsley!–and kale.

“Okay,” I say, shrugging my shoulders. “You know, it would taste a lot better if we cooked it and put it in a recipe,” I add, defensively. They can’t hear me over the chomping as they gobble it down. One young boy asked me if he looked stronger already. Another followed me around for 10 minutes, as I cleaned up the classroom, suggesting different ways he’d like to use this parsley at home. (How about I put it in a soup. Or what if I made some chicken and put it on top of that. I could make some rice and put it in. Yes, yes, and yes.)

Even students who were shocked by the spiciness of the radishes or the bitterness of the parsley kept eating because they saw how thrilled their peers were. They kept eating until they, too, chimed in: “I love this, Miss Maddy!” Peer pressure in its best possible iteration.

The Harvest of the Month tastings at the elementary schools are my favorite part of the job. So far, we have offered samples of tomatoes, pears, and–yes–kale. The first two were hugely successful, but I was nervous for kale day.

My fears dissipated as soon as lunchtime started. The same throngs of students crowded our table. Kids came up and snuck seconds, thirds, fourths. I saw only one or two fake gags.

“I love this stuff!”

“How do I make this at home?”

“I had 11 cups, Miss Maddy!”

Chelsea students rush up to try two different kale recipes in the cafeteria.

We also had the most important tool at our disposal: every-color-of-the-rainbow, “I tried it!” stickers. As anyone who works in schools knows, kids will do or eat anything for a colorful sticker.

I wish that worked on high school students. But I hope by the time my younger students enter 9th grade, they won’t need the stickers–or a cafeteria vegetable tasting at all.

* Writer’s Note: I want to acknowledge some of the issues surrounding kale. Although it has become trendy in the U.S. over the past few decades and been dubbed a “super food,” it has been eaten in other parts of the world by poor and working class families for centuries. I am happy to see young people in Chelsea eating and excited about it, only because it is a whole food, nutrient dense, a dark green vegetable, locally grown in this region, and relatively easy to grow in urban and school gardens. You can read more about “food gentrification” here and here.