Food is essential to our survival. It impacts our health and wellbeing. It has the power to bring people together.
Food can be manipulated in many ways, from cooking to processing to using it as fuel. It provides tremendous opportunities to create value, and, as such, food is big business.
Much of the food we eat starts as a simple seed, or one that has been genetically manipulated to achieve some desired objective. From there, food can be growing in any number of ways, from conventional to organic and beyond, before it finds its way to our plates.
Food touches nearly every aspect of live, so it is essential that we understand it in the fullest context possible to ensure we, as consumers, make well-informed, everyday decisions. Unfortunately, for many of us our days of being educated and/or changing our ways are mostly behind us.
That is why we must focus on our children by finding creative ways to reintroduce food in its broadest sense into their everyday activities, starting with school, in order to close the knowledge gap between farm and plate.
Here are the 10 things I would integrate into our children’s educational curriculum to give them a fighting chance at making the joys of sustainable food central in their lives.
- The Food We Eat – Since most kids have little knowledge of where the food they eat comes from, we start with an understanding of what we eat as a society. Showing them a simple breakdown of consumer food expenditures, e.g., 25% on fast food, will give them a sense of our food priorities. As kids mature, discussions about how our food choices impact other thing would evolve into a new Sustainable Economics (SE) track in middle and high schools. Sustainable Economics, in my mind, is the replacement for the traditional Home Economics, which carries too much baggage. As you will read below, SE shows up in a number of places.
- Farming in America & Abroad – If you are active in discussions regarding sustainable food, you have repeatedly heard about the knowledge gap that has grown over the years between consumers and where their food comes from. Ideally, kids at a young age should take field trips to diverse, working farms to see first-hand what goes on day after day on a farm. From there the discussion should turn to the history of farming in America, current trends, how farms are financed, what they grow/raise and so on. Along the way, kids should also be introduced to the idea of farming as a career, something that I can never recall hearing during my childhood.
- Plant Biology – Since kids love getting dirty, this might be one of the more popular topics during the elementary school years – playing in the dirt (soil). In addition to studying soil and its different compositions, every kid should witness firsthand the magic contained within a simple seed. Watching seeds germinate and grow into plants, bear fruit, die and return to the soil will help them understand one of the more important circles of life. With more basic science under their belts, attention can be turned to heirloom, hybrid and genetically modified seeds to expand their understanding of ways man manipulates seeds and why, as well as fertilizers and pesticides and their impacts on the water we drink, air we breathe and food we eat.
- Gardening – While understanding larger-scale farming operations is important, kids should also be taught the possibilities of human-scale gardening, something they can practice throughout their lives. This topic represents a cornerstone of my proposed Sustainable Economics curriculum since it gives kids the power to control where some of their food comes from, whether that food is used at school or taken home.
- Cooking – Another cornerstone of Sustainable Economics would be instruction on cooking, something that should be required just like physical education given the importance it plays in our health and wellbeing. Topics that can be superficially explored at the younger ages before more in-depth dives in middle and high schools might include techniques, tools, recipes, flavors, sensory experiences, chemistry, seasonal menus and more.
- Composting – Food waste is created throughout the food cycle, so teaching kids about the importance of composting is a final cornerstone of Sustainable Economics. Using Will Allen of Growing Power as an example, kids should be encouraged to embrace composting soil, dig their hands in it and get to know worms and other creatures working hard to break down our food waste. They should also learn the proper ways to use compost to help nourish the soil and help certain plants grow stronger and produce more tasty food.
- Industrial Food System – Moving into middle school, the emphasis on getting their hands dirty and familiarizing themselves with kitchens and cooking should be gradually replaced with expanding their understanding of food systems, i.e., how food is grown, processed and delivered to consumers. America’s industrialized food system could be nicely integrated into macro and micro economic studies, covering such topics as economies of scale, regional to global economies, industry consolidation, monopolies, process uniformity, etc. Kids should also be taught to contrast this dominate food system with historic systems, as well as (re)emerging regional food economies.
- Food Advertising – The food industry spends tens of billions of dollars every year promoting its food products. The level of sophistication used in food advertisements and marketing methodologies cannot be understated. Nor can its effectiveness at influencing choices people make about what, when and where they eat. Developing classroom exercises to help kids understand advertising techniques would go a long way toward ensuring that this highly targeted demographic learns to read between the lines.
- Government Programs – While it may seem a little dry on the surface, studying the changing role of our government in the food system could be turned into some pretty entertaining and impactful materials. Just look at some of the more popular food documentaries that have come out in the last couple of years, especially ones like King Corn. It may be difficult for kids to think about ways to influence government programs, but without a base of knowledge they won’t even bother trying.
- Food Entrepreneurship – When it comes to innovations in food, especially with regard to sustainable food, I have a strong bias toward teaching kids about the Pro Food framework I developed. Pro Food focuses primarily on regional food economies, so kids should also be exposed to entrepreneurs that are working to change the larger industrial food system mentioned above, since it will likely continue to be the primary source of food during their lifetimes. Like farming, there are many career opportunities in and around the food we eat, so it is important that we encourage young people to consider careers in sustainable food.
In the end, knowledge is power, and giving successive generations the power to demand fresh, environmentally sustainable and tasty food offers a glimmer of hope for the many advocates in the trenches today working to revolutionize our food systems.
Of course, like so many other things, getting sustainable food into school curriculums may be very difficult given many entrenched and powerful interests. The good news is that everything on this list can be adapted to our home lives. It will take a commitment of time, energy and probably a little money, but the results will be priceless.
Every Kitchen Table is a proud supporter of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday and The Kathleen Show’s Prevention not Prescription initiatives.
We study food in a similar framework, but across the curriculum. So when reading a book (watching a movie, etc.) that contains a food we talk about it: where it comes from (geography), how it grows (biology), its traditional uses (history), etc. Most often, we’ll include it in our menus for the week as well, especially if it can be obtained locally. Because food is all around us every day, I feel it’s important to not segregate food learning from the everyday family experience. “Kids in the kitchen, garden and store” is vital to our curriculum.
Exactly! As something so central to our lives, food can be part of nearly every subject and in many conversations. Thanks for adding your thoughts.
Nice thinking, Rob! Outside of funding challenges (which can be addressed when the will is there), do you think schools could offer a genuinely balanced view? I think to the things my kids were taught in ElHi and shiver, it’s amazing how political bias is built right into the text book. Nothing new there but I didn’t realize it when I was that age.
Rob, great read. I believe you missed one or two important aspect of food that all children should be taught and the first is; sharing the bounty with those less fortunate then ourselves. In order to cherish food they should be taught not to take a “full belly” for granted and understand the role hunger plays in many people’s lives. Secondly, I believe cuisine is an important part of education. Food as part of culture will help children understand more about where food comes from, why food is prepared the way it is and how diversity occurs and why it should be celebrated and propagated over distance and time.
I have an 8 year old daughter and you are correct. Growing, talking about and cooking food is the best way to learn about it.
Excellent – I believe these 10 things are very important. …and those that get the importance of food lessons for children are growing, thankfully.
This is really great.
I’d like to repost this on CityMommy Seattle, a website I moderate, tomorrow. Do I have your permission?
the URL is linked to my name.
Absolutely Kerri! As a former Seattle resident (UW MBA ’90), I’m always happy to help the Emerald City. Let me know if there is anything else I can do. Cheers, Rob Smart
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Thanks, this post is a full meal of great information. Too often the importance of teaching children critical thinking is overlooking. I’ve linked to this on my brand-spanking new site, appreciatively.
I made this comment at Common Dreams, followed your link to this website, and will paste my comment here as well.
I have read the article several times and it seems to me that there is one aspect of food that is missing from Rob’s list. I’ve tried to come up with a heading for the topic, and the best I can do is “The History of Food”, but that’s not quite right. What I want to get at is the fact that through the ages food has been more than just fuel for our bodies. Until recently a tribe gathered to share food, and often there was a sense of gratitude to “God” that they had food to eat. We still experience this at Thanksgiving to some extent, but there is almost nothing left of this feeling of gratefulness for our sustenance.
When I was young the family meal was still the norm and I’d bet that most people my age (68) remember sitting at the table eating with their family. Back then many people said a form of “Grace”, as we did: “Bless us O’ Lord and these Thy gifts which we are about to receive from they bounty…”.
These days family life is so hectic that most meals are eaten catch as catch can, rather than at a seating with the family.
Years ago I went into the woods with a Native American woman to collect plants, and after taking from a plant she would put a little tobacco in the soil at its base. I asked her why she did that, and she said, “Oh we just do that”, but the symbolism is obvious. This notion of giving something back to the earth when you take something is long gone today.
I can think of no better discussion topic than to have kids watch the film “Babette’s Feast”. Everyone comes away from that film with a slightly different take, but for me it was the spiritual aspect of food.
Always when any discussion remotely related to food comes up the vegetarians are sure to have several posts suggesting that it is the meat-eaters that are sending our planet to hell in a hand basket. I feel that these people are missing the fact that ALL life is sacred. As Joseph Campbell has pointed out, people that have lived close to the earth are aware of that fact. Animals were not slaughtered in a slaughter house after being penned with thousands of their own kind in hellish conditions. People that killed their own meat saw that animal blood looked just like their own. They saw that the inner parts of animals looked just like their own. They could not help but be fully aware that they were killing their “brother”, and they acted accordingly. When Chief Black Elk was “seeing things in a sacred way” and he spoke of the horses, he called them “the four leggeds”.
Rob, good luck with your plan. I have little hope for it, sad to say.
Good list. I would make one modification and that is on composting. Before choosing the compost pile consider if the food can be fed to the chickens, pigs, ducks, etc. This keeps it higher on the chaos slope so less energy is lost.
Cooking is such an important topic ofr the future of everyones health and survival!, it must be taught in schools as well as the other suggestions – a great list.