Walking into the elementary school kitchen in the South End neighborhood of Hartford where I serve with FoodCorps, the smell of fresh cilantro hit me as soon as I crossed the threshold. Kyluanis stood at the table in the corner taking her turn chopping the onions. Her eyes were full of tears, but she was determined to take the longest turn. Meanwhile, Jorge had developed a certain affinity for cleaning black beans. Something about picking out the rocks and draining the purple soaking juice really excited him. It excited me to see him draining purple tinged water from the beans rather than a gelatinous mixture of salt, water and calcium chloride that accompanies beans in a can. Darniel and Yanaires stood at a little table by the window carefully measuring out the right amounts of ground pepper, cumin and garlic powder—only a half teaspoon of salt for a recipe that will feed 15.
Salt is essential to sustain life, but too much of it can raise blood pressure and increase the risk of stroke in adults. High blood pressure is becoming a norm for children in this country, largely attributable to our overconsumption of salt. This problem doesn’t affect America’s children equally either. Children in low income families and children of color—children like my students Kyluanis and Jorge— are more likely to have elevated salt intakes,in large part because of the use of salt in food processing and preservation. If you have a processed or canned food with a ridiculously long shelf life, it’s guaranteed to be full of sodium (look at the nutrition facts).
The nearest market to most of my students is well over five miles away. Even when my students and their families can make it to a market, it makes sense for them to buy foods with a longer shelf life rather than fresh fruits and vegetables. In this way, it isn’t financially possible for most of them to have a “low sodium diet.” This doesn’t only affect “American” foods, since all foods, at this point, can be and are processed.
Searching online for low sodium recipes and methods for encouraging young people to reduce sodium intake I see things like “butternut bisque,” and cucumber salad. I don’t see things like pozole or Jamaican beef patties. I sometimes struggle to find a good low sodium curry recipe. I have yet to find a nutrition or cooking curriculum that truly incorporates any ethnic cuisine other than that of white Americans. I think that some people doing this work even look at Latino and other ethnic cuisines as a bad thing. I recently heard a white public health and nutrition professional say in a public forum that “we have to teach Puerto Ricans that they can’t just eat rice and beans and salted meat and expect to be healthy.” What we are seeing here is food being used as a weapon. We have to be careful to not whiten our students diet in the name of health.
So, how do we help our children and their families reduce their sodium intake with all of these factors playing against us? How do we do this without “whitening” ethnic cuisines? (For real, please don’t put butternut squash in an Ethiopian dish.) These are some methods I have used:
- Use food to explore your student’s heritage. It doesn’t matter what part of the United States they come from; they probably have a rich heritage full of wicked delicious flavors. Just like I did making black beans with my students.
- Shout out to the grannies, yayas, abuelitas etc. Your community’s elders have a wealth of flavor knowledge. Reach out and find a mentor in your community to find those delicious herbs and spices.
- Have a class where kids bring a recipe from home, or a day for them to research a food from a country they’re interested in.
- Steer kids away from processed food.
- If a recipe calls for cubed caldo, just turn it into a lesson about making broth.
- If they love salted processed snacks, teach them how to make them at home using less salt. Home cooked potato chips are still a sometimes food, but way healthier than the ones you buy at a store!
- Get kids to develop a love for other flavors.
- At FoodCorps, we love taste tests! This is a great opportunity to make a base dish and offer several fresh herbs and spices to make it flavorful with little or no salt.
- Make flavor guessing games! It’s hard to get them to try something new, so get creative.
- Let them be creative with mixing flavors to make new tastes.
Our kids have known nothing but super salty and super sweet their whole lives. It takes a lot of effort to change that, but we can do it! Not only are we making our children healthier, but we are changing a generation’s taste buds. Just imagine how the snack industry will change if we have a whole generation of dried fruit eaters. What about food preservation techniques? Maybe we will have new alternatives to salt preservation hit the market if we have a generation of kids grow into adulthood refusing salty canned vegetables. Remember that this is a social justice issue – a product of an unequal food system. Keep fighting the good fight y’all!
Those are just some of my methods. Have more? Share them in the comments!