How to teach nutrition
In the 1970s there is a lot of rote learning for my students to learn about the nutrition to pass their CSE and O level exams. I have to invent ways to help them memorise details of which vitamin and mineral does what and where it is found. I underestimate what students already know. They are surrounded by TV ads, magazine features and at breakfast sit opposite a packet of Kelloggs Cornflakes which screams out that it is enriched with vitamins and minerals. They arrive in my lessons packed with these parcels of knowledge which I just need to tie up with a ribbon to make perfect.
I teach nutrition through stories and warnings, like the messages hidden in fairy tales. My visual aid is an ancient book from my mother’s school training called Modern School Hygiene which has scary photos of people with a variety of diseases which you can get if you don’t eat the right diet.
We start with calcium. The Milk Marketing Board has drummed it into us to Drinka Pinta Milka Day to answer our nutritional needs for calcium, and that a deficiency leads to rickets and bad teeth. The book shows a picture of stick thin Victorian girls with bowed legs ‘due to a diet low in calcium’. It fails to mention that these children are probably starving and dirt poor.
‘Now class, we know that good sources of calcium are milk, cheese, white bread where it is added, hard water, green vegetables and the bones of salmon and sardines. You have to plan a two course meal that is rich in calcium.’
They look at me in horror, dumbstruck by this unspeakably dreadful food choice.
‘Miss, do you mean a meal like sardine bones with cheese and cabbage and milk pudding?’
I can see they would rather have bowed legs and rotten teeth than tuck into this feast.
‘Cookery for Schools says that tinned salmon and sardines are rich in calcium because the bones are soft and you can eat them.’
Bones, soft, eat them? Cabbage and milk pudding maybe, but they are not eating bones.
‘Lack of iron means you get anaemia and feel very tired.’ Brian stifles a yawn and the rest of the group look exhausted.
‘Women are most likely to suffer from anaemia as they lose iron rich blood when they menstruate.’
The boys perk up. Menstruate? What secret business is going on with women that makes them lose blood?
‘Women lose blood in their monthly periods.’
Oh gawd, their biology and sex education have not covered this yet. I can see that the boys fall into two camps. The sexually aware, ‘in the know’ camp and the totally innocent camp who have yet to find out, but don’t want the rest of the group to know as they can’t stand up to the merciless teasing.
‘OK class, another exercise. You have to plan a two course meal which is rich in iron. Foods rich in iron include liver, kidney, meat, egg yolk, dried fruit, black treacle and watercress.’
Ugh! There is a collective groan. What ghastly meal can you kmake from this disgusting choice?
‘How about liver paté with watercress salad followed by treacle tart and custard?’
They are open mouthed with horror. No-one eats liver EVER. They may try and serve it for school dinner, but no-one EVER EATS IT. Liver and bacon cooked in globby gravy gets scraped in the pig swill bin beside the stacks of dirty dinner plates. Earth the earth, pigs liver goes back to pig.
‘You can go to the doctor and get iron pills if you suffer from anaemia.’
The girls look relieved. This bead of comfort means they will never have to eat liver even as they recline on their sickness couch in the final stages of suffering for iron deficiency.
There are some good stories about iodine deficiency, and Modern School Hygiene has a picture of some poor woman with massive neck swelling like an inflated balloon, and the disease goitre.
‘So you must eat fish and things that come from the sea which are rich in iodine. Otherwise you might get goitre.’
‘What about eating seaweed miss?’
I haven’t thought this through.
‘Yes, seaweed is good.’
‘How do you eat seaweed then?’
I burble on about the Welsh making it into bread but they are not convinced that it is an edible food.
Iodine deficiencies are so rare, and probably due to some other underlying health problem, but I continue with my stories about Derbyshire neck and sufferers found in Switzerland, both areas that are miles from the sea and access to seafood in the olden days when they think I grew up.
The next lesson is vitamins.
In 1980 I wrote my first book Finding Out About Food which is still in print. We used a picture of a child with rickets, but to disguise its identity, its head was blacked out. So my future students thought that rickets made your head go black.