by Danielle Nierenberg and Sarah Small
• A new study has claimed that children with strict parents are more likely to be overweight. This warning comes weeks after British parents were criticized for being too lenient, an indulgence that, according to Sarah Beeny, a UK television presenter and mother of four, was fuelling Britain’s obesity crisis. And it’s not enough to get kids to eat their vegetables so what can parents do to encourage healthy eating in their children?
We need to help children learn where their food comes from, who grows it and why it’s important to share meals with friends and family. Here are 10 ways families can eat with greater awareness and engage young people in food and agriculture:
1. Read books about food. There are dozens of books that teach kids about where food comes from, who grows it and what sorts of foods are both healthy and delicious. For example, To Market, To Market by Nikki McClure is a story of a mother and son who visit the weekly farmers’ market where they learn how each food they come across was grown or produced. In The Good Garden by Katie Smith Milway, a teacher introduces student Maria to sustainable farming practices that she begins to implement in her family’s garden at home.
2. Play games. More and more computer and video games are incorporating food, like DooF (the word ‘food’ backwards), a combination of computer games, videos and a website where kids can read and learn about food-related topics. DooF takes a comprehensive approach to food, exploring not only the food itself, but also the culture, science and history behind it. Kids can play “Planet DooF,” geared toward teaching children the origin of healthy food, such as fruits and vegetables.
3. Encourage farm-to-school and environment-based curricula in schools. Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, for example, is a nonprofit organization that delivers food education to schools, youth groups, businesses and communities. JOFR teaches children about fruits and vegetables, facts on obesity and diabetes and how to campaign for better school food. “Learn Your Fruits and Vegetables” teaches children about foods they are unfamiliar with, where they come from and how they affect the body. And in Europe and the US, the organization Growing Food Connections prepares the next generation of leaders in food systems planning by developing curricula on food and agriculture.
4. Engage kids in community gardens and farms. Green Youth Farm is a Chicago-based farm that hires high school students and encourages sustainable practices in farming, cooking and selling food. And in Todmorden, England, Incredible Edible plants gardens around town and every school is now involved in the growing process as a form of food-based learning.
5. Understand the importance of biodiversity. SeedMap.org is a website dedicated to seeds, biodiversity and food with an interactive map showing seed diversity around the world and a map of the origins of food.
6. Start a school campaign dedicated to food security issues. The UN’s World Food Programme is partnering with eBay’s Giving Works project to raise money to provide healthy school meals to kids in need. And Tesco’s Eat Happy Project in the UK tackles children’s diet-related health problems and helps the next generation have a healthier and happier relationship with food through farm to fork trails, teaching toolkits and virtual field trips.
7. Start a family garden. Families can begin gardening on a small scale with herbs that can grow on the windowsill. When kids are involved in the process of planting, watering, harvesting and preparing food with the herbs they grow, they feel more connected to food.
8. Watch educational programs. Catherine Gund’s What’s on Your Plate Project follows multiple kids and their families in their journey to learn more about the food system. Along the way, they discover the importance of being aware of what goes into food, where it comes from and who creates it.
9. Include kids in meal planning. Family trips to the grocery store and farmers’ market will provide a learning experience outside of the home and the classroom. Creating shopping lists together will help children read and develop organizational skills. They can also learn how to categorize food and at the grocery store they’ll be able to interact with fruits and vegetables, work out how many are necessary for a meal, identify colours and touch and feel the food.
10. Establish family meal times. Sharing meals as a family fosters better communication skills and a stronger sense of belonging, according to a study by North Dakota State University. A University of Florida study found that eating together at mealtimes builds stronger family bonds, reduces the likelihood of obesity and increases the likelihood that each family member is getting a nutritious, balanced diet.
Danielle Nierenberg is President of Food Tank (www.FoodTank.com) and an expert on sustainable agriculture and food issues. She has written extensively on gender and population, the spread of factory farming in the developing world and innovations in sustainable agriculture. Sarah Small is a research assistant at Food Tank.
photo © Danil Chepko