FERGUS – With diet culture prevalent online, at home and in some schools, a local dietitian wants to help teachers find the informative resources to help them create food neutral classrooms.
Gwen Kostal is a registered dietitian and founder of Dietitians 4 Teachers, a small business that began with an Instagram account in September 2020.
"I think it's a message and offer that hasn't existed widely," Kostal said about the concept of developing food neutral classrooms. "I think in general, people get really confused about where to get information about food."
Dietitian 4 Teachers was inspired by a conversation between Kostal and another friend and dietitian about people getting fed up about messages about food in schools.
"So we thought, 'What if we handled this a little differently and talked to some teachers about what would be helpful?'" said Kostal, "and teachers started to say, 'If you can just talk to us and you meet us where we're at?' which was social media, because a lot of times, they're looking for lesson plans online."
Kostal said the conversation led to finding an online community of teachers who were looking for these conversations, but didn't know where to start. She adds the Ontario curriculum wording around guidelines on teaching nutrition may lead some to interpret the rules with their own conceptions around the subject.
"A lot of what I do is point out resources that do exist," Kostal said about her work. "I think the opportunity is to bring teachers, who are really smart, to critically evaluate information online and give them permission to adjust it, change it or scratch it out."
"The pressure of having to control and monitor everything kids eat is too much to be asking our teachers to do this, and it doesn't work the way people think it does."
Dietitians 4 Teachers offers individual and group learning plans for teachers and resource reviews. For inside the classroom, posters and other resources are available for download.
"One of the things that really, really helps primary age kids have a better relationship with food is exposure," said Kostal. "It's a misconception that exposure has to be the actual thing, like we can have exposure through books, just at story time, or with literacy, or a math unit looking at a book that might have recipes in it."
"So there's all these different ways of doing exposure instead of, 'Here's the food! Taste it!' and I think teacher's just feel so much hope implementing that kids be healthy, but we have to challenge our own perceptions on 'healthy.'
"The model for the business is to support and walk with teachers as they start to unpack the stuff we all are surrounded by, because the diet culture messages are around us, and how they kind of seep into the classroom and really can affect kids."
Kostal adds kids hear messages about nutrition from parents and in society. Even little messages related to diet culture can add up.
"So like, 'Eat your vegetables first,' when most kids, especially little kids, need the energy, so by asking them to primarily eat vegetables might be undermining what they actually need, which they might actually need to eat half a sandwich at that time," said Kostal.
She adds teaching children rules about food and monitoring food can lead to children ignoring their own hunger cues. This can be harmful for all students, especially high school students who are still developing.
"With the rise in eating disorders, and how young eating disorders start, it matters that we're not teaching kids to be afraid of food," said Kostal.
Since launching her business, Kostal said it has been fun to work with teachers and wants to remain responsive to the needs of teachers. In the future, Kostal hopes to create more resources for high school students, as she notes there isn't as many resources available.
"I would love to do more locally," said Kostal. "I've worked with a lot of the different provinces and school boards all around Ontario, but I haven't yet gotten to partner up with Upper Grand or Waterloo Region, and I think it would be really cool."