Creating a Culturally Responsive Classroom - One Snack at a Time

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By Michael Titus

Here is an all-too-common sight in a middle school hallway. One of my students, Emma, was eating a bag of pretzels in the hallway. She was approached by a teacher who has seen Emma break the 'no eating in the hallway' rule too many times. Emma was reprimanded. The interaction escalated when Emma refused to give up her snack and became defiant towards the teacher. The altercation ended in detention for Emma and frustration for the teacher.

Students break many rules for many reasons: power, disrespect, revenge, absentmindedness. But in my experience, students violate snack-and-food policies for one reason only: they are hungry and our policies prevent them from meeting one of their most basic needs.

I teach in a semi-urban school with a poverty rate of just under 50 percent. This means that there is a good possibility that every morning at least half of our students come into the building hungry. In the name of "wellness" policies, our schools and districts have implemented plans that can be incredibly exclusive to our students in poverty. By limiting when and how much our students can eat, we are preventing a student from getting the nourishment they need to succeed.

That is why I have instituted an Anytime Snack Policy for my classroom. I did not present the policy as a way of helping disadvantaged students. Rather, the policy acknowledges the basic fact that kids get hungry and need food to make it through the day. A key aspect of the policy is requiring snacks be healthy. If a snack is deemed not to be so, I encourage the student to discuss with me after class how the snack might have hurt their academics that day and what other choices he might have made. And I make sure that my students get a chance to regularly see options for healthy eating, including the snacks that the adults in my school eat.

By creating a space for discussion, I've tapped into my students' natural inquisitiveness about food. My dried mango slices regularly receive a "What's that?!" reaction. They can then try them and realize they have an alternative to gummy fruit snacks. Of course, kids will be kids - an energetic scholar, David, recently asked me "Can I eat this apple pie?" Knowing I would answer no, he retorted "But it's organic!" In that moment everyone got a good laugh, but I also could see that my students were beginning to internalize the lessons the policy is aimed to teach. These conversations have been incredibly meaningful to our relationships, especially my relationship with my most at-risk students. In school, snacks are often banned because of the distractions they can cause, yet I am experiencing the opposite.

Research shows that children in poverty do not typically suffer from undernourishment. In fact, students in poverty tend to have higher rates of obesity than their more financially stable peers. The real issue is a lack of knowledge around what to eat and why certain foods are healthy. My policy aims to open up the discussion about healthy foods to all students so that they can lead long, healthy lives.

The policy may seem like a no-brainer, yet I have spoken with many educators from other districts whose students face the same challenges as mine but are steadfast in their belief that an Anytime Snack Policy would violate their district's wellness policy. One teacher told me that her district's policy is so extreme that any and all food consumed by students must be done in the cafeteria. This means time off of learning. More practically, students probably aren't eating enough.

As teachers, we can often feel that policy is something that happens to us which, in turn, can feel disempowering. But imagine if that policy prevented you from meeting your basic needs as a human being. We need to remember that everyday we walk into our classrooms, we are the policymakers in our students' lives. I encourage all educators to take an honest look at their classroom and district wellness policies and ask whether these are inclusive enough to ensure that students like Emma do not learn hungry. It is only when students have the necessary fuel in the tank to meet the demands of a rigorous and thought-provoking education that they have a chance for success.

Michael Titus is a 7th grade English Language Arts teacher at Collins Middle School in Salem, MA, and a Teach Plus Commonwealth Teaching Policy Fellow.

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