Eat Your Vegetables!

Mark Langenfeld

Associate Professor of Anthropology Mark Jenike gave a talk titled “Eat Your Vegetables! Observations on Nutrition among Appleton High School Students” Friday, Jan. 9. The lecture, which took place at 11:30 a.m. in Lucinda’s dining hall, was part of a “Lunch at Lawrence” series. Jenike, a nutritional anthropologist, noted that since the mid-1970s, the percentage of obese and overweight Americans has more than doubled, now at 32.5 percent of the population, and has tripled among children. This is significant because obese children are more likely to become obese adults.
In his study, Jenike collaborated with several Lawrentians and the faculty of Fox Valley Tech to compare the dietary habits of students at Appleton East and West High Schools. This provided a nutritional baseline for what kids were eating, and evaluated the impact of earlier nutritional programming at the elementary school level known as Education for Healthy Kids, which was primarily taught to the current Appleton East students. Appleton West’s incoming students did not take part in any such program and thus functioned as a control group.
There were strong social influences on nutrition in the “nutritional culture” of both schools. Students at East who had gone through EHK were more health-conscious and wanted the school to do more to promote a healthy environment. East students had “cognitive categories” for food, perceiving more food items as being unhealthy than the West students.
The study of garbage cans revealed that fast food and cafeteria meals were the most popular food items and most likely to be consumed. The most frequent uneaten items found were fruit, vegetables and homemade sandwiches. Flavored milk symbolized the dichotomy between what is “healthy” and “unhealthy.” It was the most popular beverage at both schools, and although it is nutritious, its flavorings contain sugar, corn syrup and added calories. Promoting it as healthful was sending a “mixed message” to students.
Both groups of students favored control and autonomy over their nutrition. In their dietary intake, according to Jenike, there was “no significant difference” between the two groups. All of the students were consuming excessive sugar and empty calories. Up to 26 percent of the students’ daily caloric intake was derived from the added sugars in processed foods. Students also consumed too much sodium and not enough fruits, vegetables or whole-grain foods. However, the students were not consuming excessive amounts of fat or saturated fat and were receiving adequate amounts of iron and calcium. Jenike emphasized that these trends are common among all Americans, not just the subjects of the study.
To improve the nutritional habits of Appleton high school students, Jenike suggested outreach to parents, coaches and athletes; a rescheduling of lunch periods to reduce student need for snacks; more nutritional information provided to students; and better pricing and presentation of healthy items. People are hopeful that the cohesiveness and financial resources of the Appleton community will make real nutritional change possible.