Changing food culture one kid at a time

This is the last part in a week-long conversation with Jeannie Marshall, author of the new book Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products.

For those of you who missed the last three parts in this series, please have a look at posts earlier in the week. Many thanks to Jeannie, who took the time to answer my questions so carefully and thoughtfully.

Today, Jeannie talks about how food culture is different in Canada and Italy and why you can’t buy community in the grocery store.

Q. Outside the Box is very much about the importance of food culture—something you’ve witnessed firsthand moving between Italy and Canada. You were recently in Canada— did you see any new evidence that Canadians are reclaiming or establishing a food culture here?

Jeannie Marshall: I was in Canada for part of April and I did see so many encouraging signs that communities are trying to build their own food cultures. The growth of farmers’ markets is a big example. People, like never before, want to know where there food comes from and they want to buy it from the producer. Industrial food production has distanced us from food for a long time, and things like farmers markets and community gardens are ways to reacquaint ourselves with the plants and animals that make up our diet. Also, farmers’ markets are sociable places. I managed to visit two while I was in Toronto and I loved them both. Of course, I had just left Rome where our farmers’ markets are full of lush green vegetables and in Toronto there were mainly root vegetables, but that reflects the reality of the growing season. I really enjoyed talking with people who were buying the ingredients for dinner and who readily explained to me how they had canned and frozen their own vegetables from the summer and fall to supplement what they could buy over the winter. Everyone was discussing with great longing and anticipation the spring peas and asparagus and what they will be doing with those later in the season. It also seemed that every restaurant I went to had a long story on the menu about the farms where their food was grown or raised. All of this is good – though, it does sometimes border on precious and I can see how that could be irritating to some.

I saw some children at the farmers’ markets, which is great, but many of them were wandering around eating the cookies and other home baked sweets, which is probably less great. There’s nothing wrong with those things, but maybe we could encourage the children to choose something for after lunch or dinner rather than letting them eat constantly.

Restaurants, though, continue to be a problem because they and the other diners are so unwelcoming to children. I went to The Ruby Watch Co. for a wonderful communal meal, and there were no children in the room. In Italy, a restaurant like that would be full of children. In Canada, and in many other countries, we’ve gotten into the habit of thinking that children do not belong in adult places. This forces families to go to child-friendly restaurants which are usually places with fried food and washable vinyl booths. I think it’s better for all of us to relax a little and allow children to eat with the community, especially when the food is so good. Even in France and Germany, children are expected to behave and there’s an air of oppression when you want to dine out with your child. Italians, perhaps, just have a higher tolerance for chaos. But, even before I had a child, I found that I loved the richness of eating out in Italy among children, teenagers, parents, elderly people and obvious singles. It is fun for the children and helps them to broaden the range of foods exposed to them by their culture. It also feels like a community experience.

Ultimately, the most important things I learned from living in Italy is that food tastes better when you make it yourself, and this is as true for the breakfast muffins I have learned to bake to satisfy my North American cravings, as it is for the pizza dough that I’ve also learned requires time but very little effort. And I’ve learned to see that community and culture are crucial elements to raising healthy and happy children, and that these are things we build ourselves – we can’t buy them in the supermarket.


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