Kids as Food Heroes: Piloting A New Way to Eat in China

06/03/2015 12:30 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2016

Chinese kids are in a health crisis. Both the chubby little Emperor in a city and the malnourished Chinese kid in a rural village suffer from the downward spiral of changing diets -- from fresh-cooked meals to processed convenience foods loaded with sugars and salts.

In one generation, the percentage of Chinese children who are overweight skyrocketed from 5% to 20%. Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at UNC at Chapel Hill, calls "the rate of change of Chinese overweight status one of the most rapid in the world."

China accounts for one-fifth of the world's population, but also a disproportionately high one-third of diabetes patients. The deputy secretary of the China Diabetes Society, Xu Zhangrong, said "The sudden rise of diabetes in China is not only a health threat, but an economic one. It could bankrupt the country's healthcare system. China needs to shift its focus from treating diabetes to preventing it."

Yet China has no formal food-education program.

"A New Way to Eat," an initiative launched by my non-profit organization JUCCCE in 2013, is teaching Chinese kids to eat in a way that is good for them and good for the planet, through China's first food-education program built to integrate nutrition and sustainability.

Brett Rierson, China representative of the World Food Programme, says that "This food-education program could be the single most impactful intervention on children's health."

The "A New Way to Eat" program has three components: (1) A new "Food Hero Eating Framework" designed for kids, (2) innovative play-based primary-school curriculum across multiple subjects, and (3) healthy, tasty and affordable school-lunch recipes.

The goal is to see a significant shift in food preferences, as compared to the earlier generation. To do this, the curriculum teaches kids to enjoy real food and be smarter food consumers. The full set of activities is still being developed and field-tested with real kids, but the pilot has rapidly expanded with the help of channel partners. To change social norms of dietary behavior, food education must reach into every corner of a child's universe.

Although China is only 15% of the global population of primary-school children, it is hardly alone in this perfect storm of dietary and planetary challenges. We'd like to share some principles we've learnt so far on how to engage children on sustainable diets:

1. Turn jargon into "kidspeak."

To design the new Food Hero Eating Framework, expert opinion was solicited from around the world. The complex jargon of nutrition, exercise, and sustainable-food systems was then translated into kidspeak and made actionable.

"Biodiversity" and "micronutrients" are tucked into a memorable meme of "Eat a Rainbow Every Day." Planet-friendly adjectives such as "abundant" are added to seafood and "seasonal" to fruits and vegetables. "Don't be Gross" covers food etiquette and hygiene.

2. Turn lectures into "playducation."

All our activities are field-tested for fun to engage children's short-attention spans. Children may jump around, compete in games, sing a song, or get blindfolded. A successful activity is one that kids want to play over and over and over. Of course, there are certificates and lots and lots of stickers.

3. Turn concepts into actionable gems.

Be clear about the behavior changes kids should make. Don't be shy in scaring kids with slaughterhouse images or rotten teeth, making them feel tricked by advertising or disgusting them with burp sounds. Link these changes to actionable steps kids can apply to everyday eating decisions.

4. Turn low-priority barriers into high-priority backdoors.

In China, where half the country is still worried about getting food on the table, quality food is low priority. But every parent wants their kid to learn English because it could triple their salary potential. We use bilingual flashcards as a backdoor to teach food literacy. Food safety is the number one concern in families, and a backdoor to teaching about sustainable food-supply chains.

China's health crisis is also a planetary one. Food is the single biggest source (30 percent) of greenhouse-gas emissions responsible for climate change. China's rising middle class is straining China's food system with overconsumption, waste, and an increasing demand for meat and dairy.

The good news is that, if children simply eat healthier, they can reduce their personal emissions significantly. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine looked into UK diets and found that healthier diets of fewer animal products and processed snacks, and more fruit and vegetables, can help reduce an astounding 40 percent of personal emissions.

Dr. Walter Willett, Chair of Nutrition at Harvard Chan School of Public Health, says that "A New Way to Eat" "is quite unique. No one else is linking food choices to sustainability at the elementary level."

Chinese adults today were born into a vacuum of food knowledge and lack of food variety and then swamped with Western-style processed convenience foods. This generation of children has a choice to improve personal health and planetary wealth with smarter food choices. By eating better, kids around the world can be food heroes. They can tackle both health threats and climate change with their stomachs -- and have fun doing so.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the EAT Initiative, in conjunction with the latter's 2nd annual EAT Stockholm Food Forum (Stockholm, June 1-2, 2015). The EAT Stockholm Food Forum aims to convene thought leaders at the intersection of science, business and politics, to develop integrated strategies and synergic solutions toward a healthier and more sustainable global food system. For more information about EAT Stockholm Food Forum, read here.