Talkback: you speak, we listen

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
When my school decided to drop food technology because of low take-up, I was presented with a challenge: how to point our pupils in the right nutritional direction. After 25 years in teaching, I had retrained as a complementary therapist while keeping the day job going. Friends and colleagues watched with varying degrees of interest and amusement as I worked through my anatomy and physiology exams, then later my nutrition course. Now it was time to bridge the gap between my careers and put together a nutrition programme for Years 7 to 9.

First of all I had to find some teaching materials. There's plenty of stuff for food technology and "cooking for kids". But something informative about the issues that would appeal to teenagers? Most of the websites I found were based in Australia, Canada or the US and contained information on government-driven education programmes, but little else. I'm not "techie"

enough to put together a website, but I can write a handbook and assemble a few PowerPoint presentations. So that's what I did. As I started to put it all together I added newspaper cuttings on trans-fats, aspartame and food additives. Everywhere I looked, it was a hot topic. All I had to do now was put it down in teen speak and find an angle.

There is nothing more rebellious and insecure than a teenager. Show them that parts of the food industry are conning them into an early death and you're winning. In many respects, 12 and 13-year-olds think they're "bomb proof", but they really are interested in anything that impacts on their life expectancy and physical appearance.

I got hold of a DVD of Super Size Me, a highly entertaining documentary about a healthy adult male destroying his health by living on nothing but food from a hamburger chain for a month. Even the three supervising doctors are shocked by the negative impact. At the end, one boy in my class mournfully observed that takeaway chicken is probably no better. Many of the girls are paranoid about eating fatty food anyway, so we had to have a discussion about good fats and the fact that being too skinny is as dangerous as obesity. We've been colour-coding fruit and vegetables according to their vitamin and mineral content, calculating fibre intake and pulling apart food labels.

I know that the 40 kids I've used the handbook with so far will not affect the profit margins of the local fast food restaurant. However, I am delighted with the response. One mum has asked for advance warnings for her weekly food shop because her youngest is now checking his food "pyramid"

and demanding more vegetables. Another girl has moved her learning support time because she doesn't want to miss the nutrition lessons. And I've had my first request for a handbook from Year 10.

The targets we set each lesson are all about drinking more water and eating sufficient amounts of fruit and vegetables. We are not setting targets about stressful things like work. But it's good to think that these teenagers may function better throughout their exam years because they have taken some responsibility for their own health.

It's scary talking to them about what they are eating. One sporty boy started with a target of a maximum of four junk food sources per day, cutting back from 10. Another admitted to never drinking water. I'm continuing to develop my handbook; it could even end up as a book. I'm also planning a workshop for parents and my colleagues are hoping that the head will decide to employ me for a day a week as "staff wellbeing consultant".

Mind you, I'm keeping an eye out for those flying pigs... Yvonne Diment Yvonne Diment teaches geography, PSHE and citizenship part-time in an independent 11-18 co-ed school in Surrey and works as a complementary therapist in Dorking. Email: dimenty@boxhillschool.org.uk

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