By Ha Ta
Special to the Gazette
At the Tobin K-8 School on Mission Hill, children ask their lunch monitor Maria Rodriguez for advice on healthy eating, leading to what is known affectionately as the “Maria Effect.”
Rodriguez, 48, was recently awarded Boston’s 2018 Henry L. Shattuck Public Service Award for her work in creating an environment in which students can learn about sugar content in their food and drinks because she checks in with them during lunch on what they eat. And then she tries to talk them into trying healthier snacks and veggies.
Rodriguez moved to Mission Hill from Puerto Rico when she was 20. She had worked as a housekeeper and a childcare worker at Mission Main Tenant Task Force while raising two sons. For the last 25 years, she has been a lunch monitor at the Tobin School, where she is widely known as an inspiration and the glue that holds the staff and students together.
“When I look the children in the eyes, I see my sons in there, so I need to take care of them,” Rodriguez said, referring to why she is concerned about children’s eating habits and wants to encourage them to choose healthier foods. She oversees about 150 kids every day at lunch.
The Gazette recently sat down with Rodriguez to talk about her work, her life and how she discusses nutrition to school children. (The session has been edited.)
Q.: When did you first think about encouraging children at Tobin School to develop healthy eating habits and why?
A.: Right now, we have more Latino students and they bring food from their house. I want the kids to see the difference between the food from home and the food here at school. I say ‘Ok the food mommy cooks is delicious, I believe it – I love mine. But right now you’re in the school and our lunch is delicious too – you should try different options too.’ Then we also start to look at the sugar. If the children eat a lot of sugar, they become active active active and their brain is tired. So we started looking at the sugar content in the milk and compare it with the juice they bring from the house and definitely the milk is healthier than the juice so I would say something like this to them: ‘How about you drink the milk we have right now and leave the juice for home.’ This was where we started and then everything they bring from their home they want me to check. ‘Ms. Maria, what about this, what about that?’
Q.: How did the students first react to this?
A.: Oh yes, they accepted it. They accepted it because I said ‘Do you want to be jumping all day in class or you want to be focused to get ready for your class for learning?’ and most of them answer ‘I want to be alert and I want to learn.’
Q.: And what about the reactions from their parents?
A.: Some parents called in to ask if it was true that I told the students those things. Then we said yes and had a conversation with them about the effect of healthy food on their focus; then they start to bring more vegetables, more fruits in the lunch box. So most of the parents were approving of what we did.
Q.: How hard was it to get students to think about healthy eating habits?
A.: You know what, it wasn’t hard, because as they eat we start normal conversations about what is healthier. That wasn’t hard, and I remember one day, one of the kids came with a bag of chips and they said ‘What about this, Maria, could you check this?’ And I said, ‘I told you I don’t say you cannot eat that but in this school I want you to eat what we have here because it’s better.’ We have chips but it’s another kind, not the traditional ones they have in store. So instead he said ‘Ok, I want to save this for home – do you have the good chip for us today?’ And I said ‘not today but I’ll save it for you the next day.’ It starts like a game you know; they start to show me anything they eat. They like it.
Q.: How close are you to the students? Do you know all their names?
A.: Yeah! I’ve been here 25 years. So now I’m taking care of sons and daughters of the students who went here in the past. I can remember names of students’ moms and aunties. The kids would come to me and say ‘You were my mom’s lunch monitor!’ ‘Really, what’s your mother’s name?’ ‘Oh yes! I remember.’ So it’s amazing when they said you took care of my mom, my auntie. I feel old – I feel old. But I feel so happy.
Q.: What is your background in nutrition? Did you learn it yourself and what motivated you?
A.: I learned about nutrition because I had a surgery. I had a gastric bypass. After my surgery I started to learn more about nutrition myself, what is good to eat, and not only for beauty but for health and I started seeing the importance of nutrition in being healthy.
Q.: Have you noticed any positive changes from the students ever since?
A.: Definitely. Definitely. Before, everything they brought to me to check had a high content of sugar and they were active active active in class. But when the sugar starts to reduce, I see, ‘Wow, this is much better.’ They became more calm and focused when they eat less sugar. Maybe I was serving lunch and they come to ask me: ‘Ms. Maria, what about this? What about that?’ They want to continue to know about this.
Q.: So with the increasing interest in nutrition, does the school have any new class to teach children about healthy food or is it done informally?
A.: There is no class but the school cafeteria changes its nutrition. Every month, we’ll send a calendar with the menu of the breakfast and lunches so the parents and the community know our menus are changed. We also write down why we are changing our nutrition – this is something that comes from the central office of the whole school. In our menu now, there are more vegetables, more fruits, nothing is fried, everything here is cooked in the oven and we use wheat bread and wheat noodles. The changes are hard for students, some of the lunches the students don’t like. It’s difficult for them to see something like brown rice, which is very different from what they normally eat at home. I encouraged them by saying ‘Well you should try it because it’s good – don’t say ew before you try it.’ So they try it, and say ‘Wow it’s good!’. So my words were ‘Try it, taste it – it’s good!’
Q.: Outside of your work at Tobin School what are your hobbies? What is your passion? And what matters to you the most?
A.: Well, this is my second home. After I leave [work], I go back to my house; I have two sons. I live like everybody else. We are a happy family. My passion? My kids. I’m passionate about my kids.
Q.: Looking into the future, what do you hope can be done at a larger scale to develop healthy eating habits among school children?
A.: I really want to have workshops for parents to learn about healthy eating habits. We teach children everything we can, but children forget easily and by the time they come home, they would forget most of the things we tell them. So I think a workshop for parents where they are given instructions about nutrition content and healthy foods is something I want to see in the school. Because this is something that families would benefit a lot from, children will be more calm and focused in class – they are happier and they do better.
I also want to see more physical activities encouraged in children, because it is not enough to just have good nutrition. I think it is important for children to get out there and be active and play as well.
Q.: I saw the term “Maria effect” appear in your Shattuck award announcement – can you tell me about it?
A.: [Laughs] Like I told you, after a while, the students started coming to me with their snacks, their milk and ask for my advice about sugar content. So people say that it is the ‘Maria effect.’ These past few weeks have been crazy because of the news of the award, but to be honest, it was all because of my team, everyone around this school, the principal, the teachers, my lunch monitor team, the coach. We are a team. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without them. I am thankful to them; they made this school a second home for me.
Ha Ta is a graduate student in journalism from Northeastern University.