Read this book!

Last year at this time, my family and I visited Rome. We ate and walked and bumped into major historical sites at every turn and then ate some more. (See my post on school lunch in Italy here.)

While there, a mutual friend introduced us to Jeannie Marshall, a Canadian writer and journalist who’s lived in Italy for many years with her husband, James, and their young son, Nico. We met up at a wonderful pizza place in Trastevere (where one of my sons promptly feel asleep with his head on the table!), and I learned that Jeannie was also working on a book about kids and food.

Well, that book, Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products is out, and it is a game-changer. Part manifesto, part family story, it’s about the disappearance of “real food,” as the title suggests, but more than anything, it’s about the value of  “food culture” in ensuring a healthy and sustainable food system for kids and adults alike. Anyone with an interest in children and food (parents, teachers, activists, educators of all kinds), or the politics of the food system should run out and get it now. Jeannie’s easy-to-read style and chilling, clear-eyed marshalling of the facts makes it a standout among food books.

Jeannie graciously agreed to answer some questions for all of us here at What’s for Lunch? and I’ll be running her answers all week. Please come back the rest of the week for more!

Today, why kids in the Hebrides used to love to eat cod heads stuffed with liver and why kids in Toronto wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.

Q: I was fascinated and a bit depressed by your early chapter on how children’s taste for healthy, whole food is perverted, even destroyed, by industrial food. What can we do to support kids to establish a taste for healthier, more sustainable food?

Jeannie Marshall: The first thing we can do is avoid the industrial food in our own homes. That means pretty much everything that comes in a package, whether it’s sliced, whole wheat bread we buy in the supermarkets or frozen fish sticks. We have to resist the urge to buy “products” that we think are healthy and remember that real food is always healthier.

But, another important thing is to recognize that what we do in our homes is not enough. As children grow up they naturally try to understand and fit into their communities, particularly with their peer group. Whether we recognize it or not, we live in a culture – it’s like a fine net that holds us together and is all but invisible to those of us who live within it. Yet it exerts an incredible power over our preferences in everything from food to fashion. It even forms a fundamental part of our identity. What we eat tells us something about who we are. For centuries in many parts of the world this sense of shared identity that comes through eating and enjoying the same foods as our neighbours has kept us alive.

Food systems or “food cultures,” if you like, developed within small geographic areas and contained the knowledge of countless generations. Here’s my favourite example: children in the Hebrides in Western Scotland used to learn to eat cod heads stuffed with liver from the time they were weaned from their mothers. It was a traditional recipe that everyone loved and the children were taught to love it, too. They ate it because they loved it, but the generations before them likely learned to love it because it prevented the children in this gloomy climate from getting rickets (it stimulates the body to produce vitamin D). But, try getting your children in Toronto to eat a cod head stuffed with the fish’s liver and see how well that goes over. In the Hebrides, the children ate it because the other children ate it.

My son Nico has a passion for anchovies because we live in Rome where children eat anchovies. They eat them melted into pasta sauces, or with fried zucchini flowers, or grilled whole and served with a squeeze of lemon, or mashed onto a piece of toasted crusty bread that has been first rubbed with the cut side of a garlic clove and then smeared with olive oil. Nico will choose the latter as his afternoon snack over just about anything. In North America, we have to realize that we live within a food culture, but ours has been defined by the food industry and not by ourselves or our ancestors.

To get back to your question, what can we do? The first step is to recognize that the problem is not simply a “parenting” issue, it’s a cultural issue. We need to step back and look at all the cultural messages our children are bombarded with every day through advertising, children’s entertainment, supermarkets with their aisles of “children’s foods” and restaurants. I think studying other cultures (though you have to look to the past because pretty much every culture in the world is suffering from the same kind of industrial takeover of our food systems) can offer perspective. But, ultimately, in Canada we need to develop our own regional food cultures, we don’t need to adopt French or Italian food culture because that would never work. They developed their food cultures as they did for reasons of geography, climate, religion and likely many other factors that are now unknown. Before we go into the details of how to fix or create local food cultures in Canada, we need to step back and see the big picture.

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