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Ending Food Ignorance: Education Is Too Important to Leave to Big Food

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Would you be surprised to know that there is a highly-sophisticated, multi-billion-dollar campaign underway designed to teach your children about food? There is. In fact, experts agree that this campaign is wildly successful. Unfortunately, the massive instructional campaign to which I refer is the $2 billion effort by the food industry to teach children and teens to want candy, sugar drinks, sugary cereals, and other highly-processed junk foods. Mostly, these lessons are delivered through your television set. Increasingly though, these messages reach kids through mobile devices, so-called "advergames" on the web, and shockingly, even junk-food marketing within the four walls of their classrooms.

When one-third of American kids are overweight or obese, and are on track to have shorter lives than their parents, it's clear that food education is too important to leave to Big Food. That's why Jamie Oliver's Food Foundation and the organizers behind Food Day (Oct. 24) are collaborating on a new national initiative to put food education in every school.

Parents would be outraged if their children in elementary school didn't learn that two plus two is four, or couldn't identify the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Yet, as Oliver demonstrated in 2010, some American school kids cannot identify tomatoes, beets, or cauliflower, or might mistake an eggplant for a pear! Yet thanks to Big Food's marketing muscle, junk food brands like McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and Chuck E. Cheese's are as firmly implanted in kids' developing brains as the names of the three ships that sailed the ocean blue in 1492.

The anti-hunger group Feeding America estimates that elementary school students receive just 3.4 hours of nutrition education -- actual education and not marketing -- each year. Fewer than 25 percent of high school students take any family and consumer science classes, formerly known as home economics, and those classes are often the first to go when school budgets are trimmed. And parents have to shoulder some of the blame, when, in all too many harried households, "cooking" actually means "microwaving" or otherwise heating some well-preserved, factory-extruded, combination of flour, fat, salt, sugar, dyes, and other chemicals.

But just as we expect our schools to do the heavy lifting when it comes to teaching geography, algebra, physical education, and history, we should expect schools to teach children about food -- where it comes from and how it affects our bodies and our health. Where it's been done well, we know it works. First of all, most kids find that cooking is fun. The more children cook and prepare fresh recipes from scratch, the more likely they are to appreciate healthier and varied ingredients and develop a skill that will serve them well throughout their lives. The more children learn about food and nutrition, the more likely they are to eat fruits, vegetables, and other healthful foods. And the real-world experience of Alice Waters' edible schoolyards show that the more that children plant and harvest fresh fruits and vegetables, they more motivated they'll be to eat them.

We call on policymakers at all levels of government, starting with local school boards, mayors, and governors and then on up to members of Congress and to the famous nutrition advocates living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, to put food education back in every school. We can't raise another generation of kids that can't tell tomatoes from potatoes, or for whom cooking means pressing the "start" button on the microwave. Let's make sure every kid advances to the next grade with a handful of age-appropriate recipes under their belt, with some healthful sandwiches and salads learned in elementary school, more advanced soups and pastas in middle school, and healthy and wholesome entrees in high school. Let's envision the financial windfall taxpayers should reap when we begin to make a serious dent in rates of childhood overweight and obesity. And let's put food education back in schools because we value our children and their prospects for long, healthy, and happy lives.

It will be many years, if ever, before America's real food educators have the same financial resources as America's junk-food manufacturers. But we shouldn't leave the critical task of teaching nutrition to the food industry any more than we'd leave teaching science to the Flat Earth Society.

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