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A no-fright, Total Delight Food Curriculum for Children

Teaching about to children is a bit depressing these days in America. Kids are taught to be afraid for their safety - read the label! Does it have bad fat, sugar, salt in it? Are there evil chemicals? Kids are taught to be suspicious: is this cereal trying to seduce me with its bright colors and glistening surface, with toys in the box? Does my meal have all the food groups in it? Is it low on the food pyramid? Will I get too fat? Will I get diabetes like Uncle Morris? In some circles, kids are taught that poor people in less developed countries are suffering as they produce our food; in others they are taught that the environment is destroyed as their grapes or bananas are brought to their table by fuel-wasting and air-damaging transport. You should not eat anything that had to travel more than fifty miles; you should not eat any animal that was not free-range, that was dosed with antibiotics or which possibly ate byproducts of its own species. A lot of "nots."

Don't get me wrong: I am completely in agreement with those who document the decline of health and the growth of obesity in our population and blame industrial foodways, poor distribution of good food and the marketing of foods that damage our bodies and our environment. What bothers me is the way the messages are fed to our children, and to us. Food is not our enemy. What might be the enemy is the system in which our food is embedded, a trickier lesson to teach, and yet it is in front of kids' eyes in the neighborhoods of our cities.

Teaching the systems and politics of food is not too complicated. In a freshman class in a private progressive high school not far from Boston, the students learned that it takes many acres of land to feed a steer and that acreage could grow enough grain and other plants to feed many more people than that steer could feed, and healthier calories at that. The very next week, the whole class went vegetarian, spontaneously. The teacher's intent was to illustrate a problem in food provision, not to proselytize for a life choice. The teacher used a prominent popular book, "Diet for a Small Planet" by Frances Moore Lappe, which many of the children's parents would have read. The teacher was not saying anything very revolutionary to this audience. They in fact did not need the lesson as much as others might.

Unfortunately, the children who need it are less likely to get it and even less likely to be able to use it. Their schools may have soda vending machines in the hallways and cafeterias where a corporate sponsor sells sugar-laden drinks in exchange for contributions to the school's programs. Their schools may be in neighborhoods where families without cars or good transport are forced to buy food in relatively expensive convenience type stores (or even gas station coolers) with little fresh food and lots of high calorie, sweet, fatty and salty junk food. Being told to eat five portions of fresh vegetables and fruit per day may only frustrate these children who say "in your dreams" to the textbook and who fall asleep at school after the morning sugar shock has worn off.

The fault then is not in the children's education per se, but in the impossibility of enacting what they learn. Obesity and food-related diseases are highest in the poorest classes of the American population - it used to be that poverty meant a thin body, now it tends to mean a fat one. Children are good at guiding adults (think about the anti-smoking campaigns that enlisted kids in reminding smoking adults that it was bad for their health) and might be persuasive when a parent or guardian has the resources to engage the food curriculum they are taught. If a child learns the daily requirements of certain nutrients and how they might be present in the daily diet, and if the adult is able, then family health will be improved by the dissemination effect of a food curriculum in schools. It is not only a negative or admonitory lesson however, and here is where I think the message should abide: there is great pleasure in eating - in fact, it may be the greatest of ordinary pleasures.

All children (and adults too) respond with pleasure to sugar, salt and fat: the taste buds are attuned to these in our food. We might take the pleasure component and place it in front, instead of the fear, suspicion and disgust inspired by many food lessons. Why not incite, as Alice Waters does in her Edible Schoolyard program, or as Jamie Oliver in the UK does in his similar work with children, "A Delicious Revolution?" as Waters calls it. Children can so easily learn through pleasure, and pass it on to the rest of us. Why does "eat your vegetables" sound so punitive? What about taking those abhorred Brussels sprouts, shred them, sauté in butter and olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and sugar and transform them into caramelized delights? What about making salad a focus instead of an afterthought, with chunks of orange, toasted walnuts and bites of cheese amid the greens? Turning against certain cooking methods has in the recent past created a virtual taboo against deep frying for example but a platter of tempura-fried vegetables and fish is both delicious and healthy.

Small amounts of excellent foods are a great diet, said my former mentor, Julia Child, a great champion of pleasure in food. Americans need this lesson as portions are supersized and children the targets for much of the fast food industry whose coffers are filled by overfilling our bellies. Providing access to good food is the first agenda of a community as it teaches its children what good food is. The route to that lesson is through the tastebuds. Food that tastes good, does good, in my book: we do not need a wholesale conversion to any one way of food, unless that way is a way of delight and pleasure, of deliciousness. If I sound counter-revolutionary, it is not because my heart and politics are in the wrong place. It is because I am tired of the language of pain and guilt and fear in food education curricula. I treat my food, and children, with greater love and respect.

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