My response to Jamie Oliver’s challenge to get kids into fresh food
As part of his 2010 TED Prize, Jamie Oliver launched a project to gather ideas from “everyone who hopes to get kids eating, cooking and thinking healthier” in a hope to answer the question “How can we get kids excited about eating fresh food?” The project was launched using OpenIDEO, a new platform for collaboration on social issues.
As a concerned parent, I am motivated to get involved. Disappointingly, OpenIDEO limits the ideas to 1024 characters, so I decided to post my ideas on this blog instead and direct other OpenIDEO contributors to continue reading here if my ideas trigger interest.
We have to acknowledge that the problem is almost impossibly hard to solve! Not trying to understand it first would be like trying to fix the symptoms of a sick patient without making a diagnosis first!
It’s been clearly established that evolution let some sort of an auto-pilot to emerge and control our food intake, which helped our species survive until recently, but lead us to stuff our faces when there’s extra food, in particular with high energetic value.
We also know that the packaging and food shape plays a big role in what the kids prefer to eat — they choose the packaging with their favorite cartoon characters and if the food comes into a geometrical shape or similar even better!
Unfortunately, though, little is known about the true power of food as a driver for defining who we are and how we identify with others! We find anecdotes about French dinners taking 3 hours or people in “high-class” only drinking the finest wine amusing, but there’s much more than historical accidents or financial affordability for such examples. The food and drinks serve a specific purpose, they help identify the individual consuming them with a certain group they believe they belong to — e.g. culture in the case of French dinners and aristocratic class or financial success in the case of fine wine.
To better illustrate, think of immigrants raising their kids in a country like US or UK. The kids are extremely interested in becoming more like their peers — their fast adoption of the language shared by the peers and the ability to speak with no accent from their home language is a testament to this.
I believe the food and many other family habits and behaviors suffer the same fate as the home language as bringing those into their peer group would make them stand out — which for the kid trying to be accepted by the peers is super important.
Another example is the idea that there are foods which are inherently more girlish and boyish — try to feed a pink cupcake to a 7-year or older boy to see what I mean! People even build businesses around “manly” cupcakes 😉
The food and advertising industries are really good at tapping into our evolved behaviors and offering us food that both triggers our auto-pilot causing all the cravings that give us trouble when choosing what to eat, as well as coming with delightful packaging that advertises everything from happy people, to super-heroes and similar characters they hope we’ll associate with their food. However, they’ve got it easy as they swim downstream and have evolution on their side so the only need to find the bad plumbing in the mind design and open few more valves to let the system leak.
To beat the industry, we need to swim upstream and overcome some of the challenges like the ill-famed sweet tooth or the “I want to eat what the cool kid X has” problem. Or better, spend some time to understand how we can piggy-back on the sweet-tooth and the cool-kid effects and deliver healthy choices through the same mechanisms with no upstream effort.
Few things I think are worth considering in this attempt are (in no particular order):
- Don’t standardize – pre-defined weekly menus or offering similar choice across all schools in a bigger area is probably a recipe for disaster as it fully takes the power of food to differentiate and identify away
- Offer as many choices as possible – make a bigger selection of healthy food available, including food that might be served by various ethnic and cultural groups at home or even in restaurants to avoid building walls around the school lunch from the experience outside it
- Abruptly take unhealthy food off of the menu – throw the existing habits off and force the kids to re-adjust; if possible, even ban the practice of brown bagging, except due to medical reasons like allergy. You may have few initial issues with kids going home hungry, but with parents’ involvement before the start of the program you can avoid the angry calls and the kids would very quickly get the message.
- Meal all day long – deliver morning snacks directly in the classroom, send the kids back to their classroom after lunch with school-prepared and packaged snack for the afternoon. Consider even sending items back home, like having special themes for each week and sending items from the theme once a week or similar
- Get a chance for kids to participate in the meal time organization – e.g. get volunteers to deliver snacks in the classroom and give them cool and symbolic T-shirts and similar to identify themselves. Don’t make the selection of kids static, though, give everyone a chance or openly advertise how can one participate
- Let kids prepare food sometimes – organize something like a once-a-month event to let groups of kids enter the kitchen and help preparing the food. You could even do special events where kids cook for their parents or the teachers once or twice a year
- Package all food items and use the packaging to deliver both symbolic and education value – you could put a lid even on a soup and put some drawings explaining in which way it is useful for the kids to eat it. If you could get celebs like the cartoon characters Backyardigans for younger kids or Hanna Montana for older ones on the packaging even better!
- Don’t replicate what the food industry is doing – if you want to succeed and add new identity to the food, you shouldn’t try to fool the kids by keeping the same packaging or food shape, but offer novel ones instead. The kids need to understand that the new food is a different food from anything they know so far before they can accept it is a better food too!
There are lots of things that can be tried, but the most important thing is to try with different approaches and take a close notice on any impact the change may have. The biggest mistake would be to lull ourselves into a false sense that one thing we did has promising results and stop trying there. Group identity can follow fashions and trends, and food can be changed by those fashions and trends.
Organizing healthy school lunches requires us acknowledging this and trying hard to catch up!