You might think this week that I am espousing the idea of introducing yourself to the vegetables in the supermarket (“How do you do, Mr. Potato Head, my name is Kristin”). Well, I’m not far off that tactic. I am writing in support of the “food revolution” concept that has been brought to light by celebrity chefs Alice Waters and Jamie Oliver… just in time for the students to be back in school and learning, not to mention eating packaged lunches.
Alice Waters is a chef in Berkeley, California. She started The Edible Schoolyard project twenty years ago, and it is now thriving in communities across the U.S. Students not only eat the food from the garden they plant but they learn science lessons and social studies concepts through the garden as well.
Jamie Oliver has worked with schools in the UK and U.S. to try and improve the quality of school lunches and educate families on eating healthy and realistically on their budgets. He has founded The Jamie Oliver Food Foundation to encourage people to educate and inspire people about cooking and eating well.
Stephanie Alexander is a chef and cookbook author in Australia. In 2009 she wrote The Kitchen Garden Companion for families to learn how to grow and use edible crops in their everyday eating. Her food education program through The Kitchen Garden Foundation now works in over 800 schools across the country.
All these projects and others like them prove time and time again that kids can enjoy good wholesome food, and it’s not harder or more time-consuming to prepare. Families can maintain good food habits with food education and children learn better when they are well nourished. So why don’t we do more of it? It seems the focus is often not quite on the mark… Alice Waters had this to say when asked about some of the mainstream improvements being made in school system lunch programs:
“Although many school districts are trying to improve the food they offer, the results have been unsatisfying”, she said. “It’s useless to coat frozen chicken nuggets with whole-wheat bread crumbs and fill vending machines with diet soda.”
Education about food is something we all take for granted, and unfortunately this is a topic we are all starting to fail, not just in terms of children but for adults, too. I think Alice Waters’ frustration is very valid and deserves attention even here in Canada, as we have much the same situation. I know not everyone can enjoy their own garden, or maybe not even get to the farmer’s market, but does that mean they shouldn’t see local food? And when I say local food, I don’t mean KFC from the local outlet (tongue firmly planted in cheek here – no offense to KFC).
Our world has changed from when my parents were kids, and certainly from the day of my grandfather’s stories – most food is bought in large chain stores now, and most things are available year-round. Many foods that people buy now have a list of ingredients as they are already in some degree prepared. I think to some degree we have lost sight of the importance in knowing our food, or at least what is in it. Did you know that some form of refined sugar is in most processed foods, even savoury ones like spaghetti sauce and soups? I am not saying sugar is the source of all evil, but since we are eating more if we are eating what is in those cans, we need to remember that when we eat the rest of our food. Personally, I like my sugar in dessert and I like herbs in my spaghetti sauce. (I know that a spoonful of sugar with tomatoes is a good cook’s secret, but that is one spoonful per recipe, not per serving.)
The technology we have today does offer us advantages. We can preserve things in tetra boxes or packaging with preservatives. Machines in factories make prepared meals cheaper so busy families can eat on the fly. Maybe in the not-too-distant future they will think of ways to make spaghetti sauce grown on the vine, and they will feed tuna mayonnaise so lunches could be even easier to make – maybe they could even slice it and freeze it with bread on either side so that your tunafish sandwich was ready to go!
Do I sound ridiculous? Well, I am sure if I asked my grandfather how he felt about the packaged products we eat continuously, he would think the current state of affairs was ridiculous too. A large portion of our population is overweight and unhealthy because of the food they eat – or perhaps I should say because of the food they don’t eat. We can fix the situation, but it does take all of us to do it. Kids should know that putting fresh fruit on their yogurt is healthier than eating flavoured yogurt. They should understand that a 12 ounce can of soda usually has the equivalent of 12 teaspoons of sugar in it (the recommended daily limit). They should know that food comes from farms and gardens, not supermarkets and factories. We should all get to know our food, and that does mean re-introducing ourselves to the ingredients (the ones we can actually pronounce in the packages).
So, take your kids grocery shopping and engage them in the process. If you don’t have kids, do the work yourself. Step out of your usual routine and try a new meal, or try to cook from scratch one day a week – make it a group project! Encourage children to eat raw fruit and veggies for snacks instead of prepared fruit leather or granola bars. Let them taste ingredients as you cook; get them excited about food. And if you have a garden at your school, ask about it. If it’s not being used, how could you start using it? Maybe next year it could have some new shoots!