Our children are growing up in a world very different from the world that most adults experienced in their youth. In terms of food and nutrition, these differences are profound and have had and are continuing to have a major impact on our health and the health of the planet. It is important to recognize the implications of these changes from a public health, environmental, and educational perspective.
One hundred years ago, most people were involved in some direct way with their food by growing, cooking, or learning about it. People ate more local seasonal foods and anticipated and looked forward to the recurring cycle when asparagus or tomatoes were available. The processed food industry was in its infancy. Today the average grocery store has up to 50,000 items, most of them processed so they have a long shelf life, but contain fewer nutrients and more chemicals than whole foods. We are consuming items that are concocted in a chemistry lab rather than from the natural world of sun, soil, water, and air. And in this process of messing with nature we are experiencing climate change and other ecological disturbances. Compared to other animals, humans are the only species that can exist without spending a significant amount of their day in the quest for food unless they are involved in farming. And when our farming practices do not respect the natural world there are always consequences.
We used to have a connection to our food because we needed to cultivate, prepare, and store it for our survival. This connection was instinctual: we needed to learn these processes to
ensure the continued existence of ourselves and our species. While today we don’t have to spend as much time and energy ensuring a consistent food supply for our family, we have lost that precious connection to our food. With the widespread availability of inexpensive processed foods, we are eating fewer whole foods with direct consequences to our health. In many homes, even cooking a meal from scratch is a special occasion versus an everyday routine. Children aren’t learning about nutrition or food preparation in most homes, or even what choices they should make when on their own.
The instinct we once had about food has eroded because the knowledge, technical skills, and social norms that preserve food literacy have been lost. Schools have increasingly had to address societal problems that are not being taught in the home such as sex abuse and bullying but are eliminating home economics which has been in need of a nutritional makeover to reflect contemporary knowledge about nutrition and health and honor the early founders of home economics such as Ellen Richards who transformed our home environment by applying scientific principles to air, water, and food. There is a large body of evidence about foods that promote health and diet-related diseases but this information is not being taught in most schools.
Food education must be taught if children are to have an appreciation of how nutrients, starting with nutrients in the soil, are vital for their development. Sadly, most schools do not have food literacy education as part of their curricular agenda. Never before in our history have children been expected to have a lower lifespan than that of their parents due primarily from a poor diet. This can and should be prevented through positive educational strategies that are hands-on about food and how nutrients affect the mind and body.
Children are naturally curious and it is through the sensory exploration of seeing, tasting, touching, smelling, and hearing that they first learn about the world. Thus, early childhood is an ideal time to engage the senses in positive experiences with health-promoting foods. This does more than just expand the palate; by exposing children to a wide variety of foods, flavors and food traditions, we can foster not just acceptance of healthy foods, but also of the diverse people and plants of the world.
Wholesome food also connects us to nature on a fundamental level, and this connection with the natural world is vital to sustaining our future and the future of the planet. Because health care and education are two of the most pressing issues in the United States, we must educate young children about healthy eating to ensure them the intellectual and practical skills necessary to prevent costly diet-related diseases and to expose them to the joy and wonder that growing and cooking healthful foods provides. Food literacy education done in a positive, non-judgmental and sensory way has the potential to address these concerns, and reverse the alarming projections for the future. Our children deserve access to food literacy education to prevent them from acquiring the diet-related diseases and to protect our precious home – the earth.
Originally published in Perspectives Essay Series for World Food Day-October 16, 2013