Thursday, August 12, 2010


A Frumsatire post I read today, about frum people being unhealthy, got me thinking about the obesity epidemic sweeping the yeshiva system. I can certainly relate to that having gone through the system myself.

In eighth grade, rabbis would regularly reward us with "Mishnayos Pizza Parties" and things like that. They'd offer chalav yisrael doughnuts to the kids who would refrain from eating chalav stam. Boys in my class who were the best learners always got little rewards in the form of candy and other types of unhealthy foods. The rebbes are right on track with knowing what pre/post pubescent kids like. Just one look at a garbage can in your typical yeshiva classroom after recess and you'll see the class' taste in food manifested in the form of a giant pile of candy wrappers, soda cans and chip bags. Kids eat junk food. That's understandable. Schools supporting that habit by regularly rewarding kids with junk food? Not so much.

Now I'm not innocent of having eaten junk food as a kid, or even as an adult. Who is? I think most people partake in unhealthy eating habits some of the time. However, as some folks pointed out in Frumsatire's comments, these bad eating habits in the yeshiva system are formed from a combination of a few things.

School lunches are probably a factor. Unlike public school lunch menus that are regulated by nutritionists, most yeshivas serve greasy, calorie heavy foods that are most probably prepared and regulated by some guy who cooked shmaltzy meals in a sub for the Russian navy. (The cook in my childhood yeshiva had a bunch of Russian sailor tattoos.) If they're fed pizza and hot dogs on a weekly basis (supplemented with Kugel or fries of course. Not a green vegetable in sight.) how are they going to eat when they're not at school? Even when they cook "healthy" meals that contain a vegetable or two, the food is usually drowning in oil. Sadly, many yeshiva moms just don't care. They're not happy about their kids being fat, and some struggle with it because they want their kids to be healthy, and at the end of the day its hard to get a kid to diet. So what does mom do? Either gives up, or doesn't care in the first place.

Why are yeshiva kids getting fatter? Especially around puberty? Well, besides for all the regular reasons, theres one possible prime factor that could get kids to think about their weight that isn't present in the yeshiva community. Attracting the opposite sex. Yep. Some kids start to look at each other in that way sometimes as early as 5th grade. Of course, boys and girls are separated and basically discouraged to even look at each other until they're in their 20s, which in the case of bad eating and obesity, makes it easy to not care about looks until that point.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking boys/girls only schools and I'm certainly not saying this happens to every yeshiva kid, but it is a pretty common problem and I think the lack of social interaction between boys and girls leaves no incentive for older kids to want to look good, and that goes hand in hand with healthy body weight and eating habits. Moishy is never exposed to girls in a social setting, so he doesn't care if he's fat. His friends poke fun at him every now and then, but he just shakes it off and moves on. However, if a girl he fancied was periodically in his environment...he just might care about how he looks. So the question is, who is at fault? The parents? The yeshivas? I'd say both, in that order.

The parents will obviously never agree to letting their boys and girls mingle (a topic for another day...) so they need to crack down on schools to serve healthier foods and get the educators to encourage healthy eating habits and not write it off as some kind of issue that's not the schools' problem.

This of course applies to the schools that are not feeding their kids junk food so they can keep their minds off the opposite sex. (Yes, there are institutions that practice that for this reason!) Those places really need to rethink their chinuch strategy. Nefesh Briah Beguf Bari (A healthy soul lives in a healthy body). Of course a change in habits would require effort on the kids' part, but the proper direction needs to be shown from the responsible adults. Building healthy eating habits at a young age is the key to making sure our kids are healthy throughout their lives. Lets hope some change comes so that out future doesn't end up being a race of obese yids rolling around in motorized chairs.


  1. My kids' school used to be the epitome of what you describe. Then the Early Childhood director instituted the Healthy Snack Train. Every week, one child in the class was responsible for bringing in enough fruits and/or vegetables for the whole class. For kashrut reasons, parents had to send in uncut produce, and the teachers would cut up the apples/oranges/carrots for the class. As a result, the process was very easy for parents. I highly recommend this method to all school. (About a year ago, after the Healthy Snack Train was instituted, the school got a new caterer. Now the lunches, as well as the snacks, are healthy, low in fat, and filled with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.)

  2. i completely agree that our schools are woefully guilty in producing a generation of unhealthy people and while i prefer co-ed schools, i think what you describe is a silly reason to intergrate the schools. it would be a lot simpler to insist on healthy kitchens and (what you don't touch on in the post) real phys ed programs in school and more time outside of school for physical activity.

  3. I wasn't proposing integrating the schools, just simply not forbidding the social interaction between the kids. Actually its more of me stating a negative effect separation of boys and girls has on their health. I do agree that healthy kitchens are certainly part of the way to go.

    In an upcoming post I plan on discussing the yeshiva system's lack of phys ed (as well as art and music) programs.

  4. I'm sure you've heard that eating disorders such as anorexia & bulimia are not uncommon in frum girls' high schools, because of the excessive pressure they anticipate in the shidduch market.

  5. I have heard of this and it is a very real problem, but not the topic at hand, even though they are both related in some ways. I plan on discussing it in the future.

  6. As a Christian who has worked in the Jewish community for 5 years, this is an unbelievably accurate description of what I have seen. Pizza, chips, french fries, onion rings, salami (kosher, of course, but that doesn't mean it was healthy), and so much more were daily fare in the organization where I worked. On top of it, much of that food was over-packaged, and nothing was ever recycled. Never a mention of "healthy food" or anything of the sort. We just ate the stuff and didn't question it.

    Now, it might seem like I'm just one bitter gentile, but I swear I'm not (that pizza did taste good, I must say). ;) I have absolutely nothing against Jews (in fact, I find great fascination in learning about their religion), but I must admit that the eating habits of the frum community could use a little bit of work. If those girls in high school ate healthier food, maybe there would be less sidduch-related insecurity and fewer cases of eating disorders.