With eight years experience as a public high school teacher, Deb Lewison Grant knows something about teaching kids. Soon, she’ll also have a doctorate in education from Teachers College, Columbia University. But when her first child was born nine years ago, she quickly discovered she had a lot to learn about nutrition. “As a new parent I was nervous about the things that all parents are nervous about: How do you keep a baby alive? How often do you change its diaper? What do you feed it?” says Grant. “What I hadn’t realized was how all-consuming the feeding aspect would become for me. As a former dancer and athlete, I had always been interested in healthy eating, but as a new parent, I became obsessed with learning about food and nutrition. The more I read, the more I wanted to know.”
And the more Grant learned, the more she felt compelled to share her knowledge with others — especially the teenagers she used to teach. So, together with her friend Carolyn Cohen, also a former public high school teacher and a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City, Grant launched FoodFight in 2009.
A nonprofit educational organization that helps high school students and teachers think critically about the food system and make healthy food choices, FoodFight now works with schools throughout New York City. Soon they hope to bring their unique nutrition- and food-policy curriculum to a nationwide audience.
Grant, 44, lives in Manhattan with her husband and their two children, ages 8 and 9.
EL | Getting teenagers to eat healthier seems pretty daunting. How do you approach such a major challenge?
DG | I hear this all the time, that it’s “such an intractable issue” or “why bother?” It’s funny, I don’t think we ever imagined, as teachers, that we were going to have to explain or defend the power of education to make a difference.
We absolutely do not see this as a lost cause. I feel so confident in saying that because I see how hungry people are for this kind of knowledge.
EL | What past experiences prepared you for this?
DG | Before FoodFight, I taught in underserved public schools, where we were constantly faced with social problems that felt almost impossible to address. But to be an effective teacher you have to believe that you have something of value to contribute, to believe that your words and actions can make a difference. And many times I did see that I had helped change the trajectory of a student’s life in a small way. When you celebrate those small victories, it helps keep you going.
EL | What advice would you give someone who wants to tackle a major issue, whether it’s a large-scale initiative like yours or a personal challenge?
DG | I’d advise people not to focus on the complications that stem from tackling the issue. So, for example, you have an issue — in our case it’s providing people with useful information about navigating the food system — and there are distinct challenges related to that, but if I spend all of my time worrying about those complications, I lose sight of the bigger issue and goal. So, I try to remind myself to focus on the core issue.
It’s also important to remember that there is no one solution and no one right way to approach the problem. So I listen to experts and I watch people who’ve been successful, and I try to learn valuable lessons from them. But I also have to trust my own gut and believe that I have something unique to contribute.
My other advice would be to not be afraid to ask for help. You can’t do everything, and it’s OK to ask for support.
EL | FoodFight works to educate teachers as well as students. Why educate both?
DG | The teacher piece really came from understanding that schools, like any other community, comprise these little microcultures, and the people who influence those cultures are the adult stakeholders in the building. As former teachers, we know that if you want to shift the culture of wellness at a school, you have to shift the mindset of the adults first.
Instead of saying that teachers are just conduits for getting information into the hands of kids, we look at them as individuals who work under enormously stressful conditions with very few resources. One of our goals is to empower and inspire them to become healthier, happier, and hopefully more productive professionals — people who will not just impart valuable information to students, but ultimately become powerful role models and change agents.
EL | What kinds of approaches resonate with teachers and students, and which don’t?
DG | Well, we learned very quickly that waving broccoli in front of people doesn’t work. Everybody already knows they’re supposed to eat more vegetables, but that doesn’t translate to changing eating behaviors.
So we do label-reading exercises that focus on identifying nutritious ingredients. It’s amazing to see how people who thought of themselves as sophisticated consumers suddenly have their eyes open to the fact that “fat-free” or “low-fat” or “sugar-free” can often be incredibly toxic and nutritionally bankrupt.
Another piece of information that resonates is how the real estate on packaged food labels is really being used to dupe consumers into believing that something is healthy when it actually is not. Young people are so desperate to be independent agents that when we show them how they are manipulated by messaging, they’re furious. That’s true of adults, too.
After working with us, people understand why a bag of potatoes is more expensive than a bag of potato chips, along with all the other forces that have created the diet-related health problems we currently face. By the time we’re done making our case, they are ready to join the fight.
Go Behind the Scenes with Deb Lewis.