Unlearning Diet Culture at School, with Gwen Kostal

We won't get fatphobia and diet talk out of the classroom unless parents and teachers work together.

  
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Hello and welcome to another audio version of Burnt Toast!

This is a newsletter where we explore questions and some answers around fatphobia, diet culture, parenting, and health. I am Virginia Sole-Smith. I’m a journalist who covers weight stigma and diet culture, and I’m the author of The Eating Instinct and the forthcoming Fat Kid Phobia.

On Tuesday we talked about why parents need to question our own biases around school food. Today we are getting into all of your concerns about the diet culture your kids encounter at school. I am very excited to be chatting with Gwen Kostal, a Canadian registered dietitian and the co-founder of Dietitians4Teachers. Welcome, Gwen!

Gwen

Thank you. It’s so great to be here. I’ve followed your work.

Virginia

Well, likewise. You are who I always send everybody to when I get school questions, because your Instagram is amazing. These topics come up in such complicated ways and I always want to make sure I’m sending them to someone who is a dietitian and really understands this issue from multiple sides. So why don’t you tell us a little more about yourself and your work? How did you end up launching Dietitians4Teachers?

Gwen

That’s a great question and a little bit of a funny story because we sort of stumbled into it. So I started this work with a colleague of mine, who’s moved into consulting for this, but we were honestly going for a walk in September of last year and sort of grumbling around, like, Oh, shoot, it’s started already. The comments are back. And then we had a really great chat about, Well, how come this isn’t working? So many dietitians, so many people are talking about this. How come it’s not landing?

I’m trained in change management and quality improvement, which is really a fancy way of saying solving problems that people think, well, it’s just the way we’ve always done it. And so we started to look at the problem a little differently. And we said, Oh my gosh, what if we showed up for teachers, instead of just chastising people and making people feel like they’re always wrong? What if we showed up and started to help people unlearn this?

And so we started testing the water, seeing if there was interest with an Instagram account, and talking to some teachers we knew, and it’s just gotten so exciting. And so it’s me, and then I consult with different dietitians, depending on the expertise needed, but I’ve worked with so many great teachers, and many, many of them are ready and they want to do this differently. They know it feels icky. They just don’t have the time, the resources, and the knowledge. And when we keep wagging our fingers and not showing up to help, nothing’s going to change. So that’s a big part of where it’s come from, and it’s just been so exciting. Teachers are incredible to work with.

Virginia

I love this because, you know, I’m mostly hearing from the parents, as I’m sure you do, too. And often, the moment a parent notices this is an issue is when something has happened to their child. So they’re very emotional, understandably. They’re feeling extremely concerned about harm being caused to their child. But then immediately, we’re in this parents-versus-teachers place, which is really uncomfortable, really unfair to the teachers, really hard to navigate out of. And so I love the idea of, let’s not start there. Let’s start by engaging with these incredibly hardworking professionals, and in a respectful way. That’s fantastic.

So let’s talk big picture. I’m sure I have some listeners who aren’t parents or teachers and are kind of new to this conversation, or parents of preschoolers who haven’t totally experienced it yet. How is diet culture showing up in schools? What are you noticing the most? And why is it there?

Gwen

This is such a complicated question because it’s there for so many reasons. It’s in the curriculum to teach healthy eating, in every curriculum you come across. It’s there somehow, and 99 percent of the time, it’s written in super vague language, which is then on the teacher to interpret. Dieting has been the lay of the land for the last 50 years, so most of our teachers grew up in pro-diet culture space. So when our curriculum writers have left things really vague, they’ve left that interpretation into a space where the diet culture machine has programmed us to think healthy eating means X, Y, Z. A healthy snack is X, Y, Z. So the curriculum is part of why we’re here.

Even national food policies, like food guides, they’re new. It’s just over 100 years since the first micronutrient was identified. This is not something that’s been around a really long time. And our first food guides came out of scarcity, right? They came out of war measures and all of that, and then they got adopted more widely. And anytime there’s a national policy on something—when curriculums are national, or here, provincial, and I think in the U.S., state—they get adopted because it’s endorsed material. They don’t have to source out new things.

So that’s how we got here. And diet culture is showing up because there are companies that profit by make programs for schools, and schools are resource-tight. They don’t have a ton of time to research and read all the up-to-date evidence on what would be good. If someone’s offering them a canned, ready-to-go way to teach a certain set of subjects, that’s great news for teachers and schools and educators.

The other thing is sort of innocent. Teachers inherit resources from whoever taught the classroom before, or they’re googling online on their own time, looking for things and up comes Teachers Pay Teachers or different types of resources and free things that they’re like, “That looks good.” And because they’re not dietitians, they don’t really have a way to vet it. And it’s super important to remember that teachers were taught, at least in the Canada and Ontario context, teachers were taught how to teach. They weren’t taught all the minutiae of every topic they’re going to teach. Some of them cover aerospace!

Virginia

Yes, yes, absolutely. Yes. That makes sense. The standard teaching certification doesn’t include a quick six months through nutritional science to get you ready for this.

Gwen

And, you know, food and nutrition and health is often not the testable material. And so in Canada, we have standardized testing. It’s on math and reading and all these sort of things. So when it comes to pressures on, what do we need to standardize and make sure is taught the same way? Those are the subjects that are getting the attention.

So we see it coming out of curriculums and health class and gym class and different assignments that are trying to reach these teaching points. We also, though, see it in something I think your followers have commented quite a bit on: in just comments, or a funny policy-not-a-policy.

Virginia

Right, right.

Gwen

You know, rules that are in school, like, you have to eat your vegetables before you eat your cookies. Those kind of things. So we see it there, too.

Virginia

Yeah, absolutely. It seems like there’s the official curriculum-version of this, and then there are the unofficial comments on lunchbox contents and general off-the-cuff remarks that people make in these settings. And they can both be really tricky. So yeah, this is definitely an issue where parents feel a lot of anxiety over how, or even whether, to engage.

I’ve gotten a couple questions recently, like, Should I try to lobby for change in my public schools before my kid is attending them? If so, what? To which I would say, No. Maybe wait until you’re there and see what’s happening. Get to know the community.

But on the flip side, is there any way to even start making this kind of change without it becoming a full-time job? I can also relate to that overwhelming feeling of, how do I even begin to push this boulder up the mountain?

So how do you suggest we begin to think about these conversations? From the parents’ perspective, what can be helpful? How do you start to engage on this?

Gwen

I think the instinct or the gut-reaction that we’re going to need to do it 100 percent and for every child and for the whole school board, district, state is there and it’s real—and some reassurance to parents that there are really fabulous people working on that. There are ways you can get involved. I know there are people, especially in the States, working on that, and there are groups up here working on that, as well.

What I would say is, should you try and lobby—lobby is a really tough word. So, lobby is a fighting word. Maybe I’ll start with when your kid is already in school and you’re noticing something, and work back to whether you should approach it before your kid’s even there. My general approach is, remember that this teacher, especially in September, you’ve got eight months, and there’s a whole lot more relationship with this teacher than just around the food part.

Virginia

Yes, great point.

Gwen

The food part is really important, but so is learning safety and good communication, and building a relationship of respect and honesty and transparency is going to ripple effect through your whole year. So when you when you have a hunch that something’s going on at school, whether you’ve read something that came home and you explicitly know something’s going on at school, or you’ve heard little comments here and there, you see the cookie come back every day, the very first thing I’d say is, take a minute. And that’s not intending to sound disrespectful. I take lots of minutes. When you’re in this space, we’re so aware, right? Once you start learning about diet culture, you see it everywhere.

Virginia

Yes.

Gwen

So we do need to remind ourselves to approach with calm. The next thing I would do is, depending on the age of your kid, but if they’re school age, it’s probably appropriate, is ask some curious questions, like, what happened at lunch? Tell me about lunch? Who’s in the classroom? Is there a movie playing? And what’s going on? Does it feel rushed? Do you feel like you have to hurry? Try and understand what’s actually going on before jumping to conclusions because we assume that this is ill-intentioned. And we know that impact and intent are different and separate. But a reminder that no teacher is intentionally doing harm. They’re stuck with some unlearning to do of their own or some policies that they don’t like and they have to find ways to work around.

If you determine that you want to go forward and talk about it, I would get out of email space. We’re so comfortable with email, and teachers are so great at it after last year, but email is the land of misinterpreted tone and miscommunication. I would see if I could get a call, or even in person, if your school is doing that, and just listen to understand first. So there’s a few different models from the change-management side of things that help you approach this. And you really just want to say, Here’s what I’m seeing, or, here’s what I heard. I’m curious, or—depending on how bad or severe it is—I’m curious about it because I’m concerned about it, because I’m worried about it. All these feeling words are appropriate. You can attach them. And stay focused on your kid because you are in a parent-teacher partnership for the next year.

Virginia

Yes, yes. That’s great. And what happened to your kid is kind of the only piece you really can be knowledgeable about, right? You don’t know what’s happening in other kids’ lunchboxes, so that’s really helpful language.

Gwen

The other thing I would say is a lot of things that do happen at school are counter to evidence. So when I’ve heard from people who have reached out to parents, and they say, oh, I got an email back, but it says we do this because we know that sugar makes hyperactivity in the afternoon and worse behavior. We know the evidence doesn’t support that. That is based on one study from the 70s with one child. Feingold is the pediatrician that did that work. Thank you.

Virginia

Thanks, Feingold. Big help.

(Note to readers: For more on why sugar doesn’t cause hyperactivity, check out this piece.)

Gwen

And, you know, it’s really tricky territory when you feel the need to start sharing resources, and journal articles, specifically. So once you have this conversation of, I’m worried, I saw. What can we do together? What can we do about it? If you built that with trust and empathy and understanding that teachers have a ton on their plate, you may get to the point where you say, Do you want me to send you some stuff to read about this? I’ve been doing some learning. I’ve been changing the way I see this. Would you be interested? That’s the moment to share resources. It’s very much like your New York Times article around teachers and virtual learning. Teachers were highly watched last year, right?

Virginia

Yes.

Gwen

So we have to give them a bit of grace and a bit of space to breathe, but remember that, if they’re getting like, Hey, so-and-so parent is on line three for you, they’re probably feeling a bit of a sense of, Oh, gosh. So they might be entering that conversation with tension.

Virginia

Defensive, sure.

Gwen

Yeah, and it’s normal, right?

Virginia

Yeah, absolutely. That’s great. And I like the asking if you can send—I mean, I’m definitely the parent who has to hold myself back from being like, Here’s some stuff I’ve written. Here’s some stuff other people have written. Here are all the things that have been written. And it’s not what they need, it’s not helpful. So I like the idea of asking first, before you start peppering them with links. I mean, we’ve seen that in every Twitter thread ever. Out-linking somebody never results in that other person being like, Okay, I got it now. They just feel bad because you gave them six things to read and they have a lot of other things to do.

Let’s talk about some more specific concerns that have come up.

You know this policy that a lot of schools have of encouraging kids to eat their sandwich before their cookies or their vegetables before—the order in which children eat food comes up a lot. There’s that great lunchbox note that Katja Rowell wrote. Do you recommend something like that? Or is there another tactic you’d suggest?

Gwen

Yeah, I do, but as a third defense. I really, really encourage parents to strive for partnership and understanding and compassion. Even if that means you try an opt-out without a template note—maybe borrowing the language without saying, Look, I found a PDF online and I’ve filled it out. That can feel really off-putting, I think.

Virginia

That’s a great point, to take the time to write it yourself.

Gwen

But there will be situations that you may need to use that. So if you get a really sort of traditional teacher, or someone who’s really rooted in their own body image struggle, their own diet culture stuff, and they absolutely cannot meet you where you’re at, then opt-out is a really good option. And in a situation where the school is not providing the food, you’re the one providing the food, in a packed lunch environment, that is outside of their domain. And so you have to say, I respect that you have a way that you’re running your classroom. It won’t work for my child. I’m giving permission for my child to not participate in that. Please let me know if we need to do anything to make that happen.

And you don’t need to have a lot of explaining with that. There’s that line that goes around that says, You don’t need to explain your no. Well, a little. But you can just sort of say, I respect that we see this differently. This isn’t going to work for my kid. Please opt them out.

Virginia

I love that. That’s really helpful language. Would you do something similar—obviously, it’s going be a little different when we’re talking about the class assignments, like the health class that’s having the kids keep food logs and exercise logs and calorie-tracking, school BMI stuff, which I’m going to be doing a newsletter about soon, but certainly it is a very common practice here in the United States still, despite being pretty under-supported by evidence. Those are things where parents officially can opt out, but again, would that be sort of a last resort? How do you approach that?

Gwen

Yeah, I think anytime you opt out or kind of throw the flag on the play—I cannot believe I just used a sports analogy; my husband will be so proud—anytime you’re going to do that, you’re going to raise awareness that there’s conflict or tension, right? And sometimes your kid doesn’t want you to do that—

Virginia

Yes, I’ve heard that a lot.

Gwen

And sometimes that damages the parent-teacher trust, right? However, that being said: Tracking, analyzing, weighing kids at school is dangerous. It’s dangerous. I would be a lot more apt to let it slide with the lunchbox policing and do some home-coaching with my kids and be like, I can appreciate that people see things differently and everybody has a different relationship, but we can be empathetic that different people think different things and you’re going to see diet culture. Here’s what it looks like, etc.

When it comes to a dangerous practice, like weighing kids at school, I would probably recommend saying: I’m concerned. I’m worried about it because this is damaging and dangerous and promotes eating-disordered bodies, fatness dissatisfaction, and these are 13-year-olds. I really would like to see an alternative assignment for this. Can you tell me what else is available for my child? Or, can you explain to me why this is still an assignment, given what’s known about the danger of these assignments?

So I think you can be a bit more clear and to the point in these situations. And this is probably one that I would move up the chain a little bit more aggressively on than, say, carrots before cookies. That’s probably not an involve-the-principal conversation. I bet you can deal with it in the class. But weighing kids at school is.

Virginia

Yeah, absolutely, because the school administration has signed off on that as a policy. And that’s a helpful line to think about in general. When it’s a teacher’s off-the-cuff comment that is displaying their own struggle or just where they are with this issue, that feels like a really different thing to me, than, this is baked in. This is the curriculum. The whole school has decided we’re weighing kids, that there’s been this decision that the seventh grade keeps calorie logs. That feels like a bigger fight. And I think that’s maybe helpful for us all to think about because the off-the-cuff comment can feel like the big fight when it happens to your kid. And that’s understandable because it can be really upsetting to the child. But I like that distinction you’re making.

You also touched on what was going to be my last question, which is, How do we talk to our kids about this? We’re obviously not going to get all of diet culture out of the classroom, so there are going to be times where—and a reader wrote in and said, our school has a no-candy, no-soda rule. How do I explain this to my kids on a kid-level without engaging in diet-culture reasoning? That is a tricky conversation.

Gwen

It is. And my first question is, How old is the kid? And every time I ask that, I think about healthcare and how there really is no age. You can start these conversations pretty young. You just might have to change how you talk about it, but avoiding diet-culture reasoning is probably not the goal. I think what we want to be showing our kids is that this is out there: school, workplaces, co-ops, on the bus. It’s around. And we want to be building up kids’ critical thinking to see it, spot it, reject it, and still be respectful, participating people in their classrooms, etc. But know that, Oh, that’s a bit funny. And come home and ask their parents about it, if that’s the safer place.

I think how I would explain that one is the same way I would explain, you know, grandma’s on a diet and talks about it all the time. I would be having a conversation with grandma and saying, you know, I really would prefer if you don’t talk about that. We can talk about that on the side, or separately, but not in front of the kids. And then I would talk to the kids and say, you know, This is happening, or, This conversation comes up and different people believe different things, and different people have been taught things, and we have to respect that everybody’s learning things at their own pace, but in our house, in our family, in our classroom—for teachers that are further along with this—in our classroom, we believe this. Because I do have teachers that are really doing awesome stuff, but that may not be the case when they go to their friend’s classroom, or they do reading in the library.

Virginia

Sure, that’s a great point. I think that’s really helpful framing, again, to help with that parental panic of feeling like you have to—we often have this feeling like we have to insulate our kids from these messages, and we just can’t. So thinking, instead, how to help them identify them and question them is just going to be a more useful set of skills.

This is so, so helpful, Gwen. Thank you so much for talking it through with us. Tell us anything else about what you’re working on, where we can follow your work, anything else I should be throwing in the transcript links?

Gwen

I would say the Instagram is where we’re the most exciting. We are on Facebook also, but I’m a bit of one of those old millennials that is still figuring out all the different social media platforms.

Virginia

With you right there.

Gwen

I think they call us geriatric millennials.

Virginia

Yes, yes.

Gwen

But we do have a Facebook page, as well. We are launching more and more education for teachers that are either ready to come individually or as a group. So I do professional development, and it actually doesn’t matter what state, country, province you’re in. As long as we speak the same language, then we can we can do it because there are no boundaries for this, and most of the curriculums are public space. And we do have a website, dietitians4teachers.ca, which gets updated when it gets updated, and all of those things.

Virginia

I hear you.

Gwen

And there are a few resources to try and compete with the ocean of bad nutrition resources. We’re starting to put some up on Teachers Pay Teachers.

Virginia

Oh, that’s fantastic.

Gwen

Hoping that teachers have new options.

Virginia

Yeah, absolutely. And I’m sure there are some teachers listening to this, so I hope they will check out your work and this will be helpful to them and the work they’re trying to do. And for parents, if you do get to the stage of sharing resources with a teacher, obviously Gwen’s stuff is your first stop. So thank you so much, Gwen. This was great.

Gwen

Thanks for having me. This was so fun.

Virginia

Thank you all so much for listening to Burnt Toast. If you like this episode and you aren’t yet subscribed, please do so. If you are a subscriber, thank you so much for being here. And please consider sharing Burnt Toast on social media or forwarding it to a friend.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Jessica McKenzie, who writes the fantastic Substack, Pinch of Dirt. This week we also had help from the also fantastic Rebecca Nathanson. Our logo is by Deanna Lowe. And I’m Virginia Sole-Smith. You can find more of my work at virginiasolesmith.com or come say hi on Instagram and Twitter. I’m @v_solesmith. I’m barely on Facebook anymore, so don’t worry about that. Thanks for listening and talk to you soon!