Educating children on matters of food

As evidenced by recent declarations by the Children’s Secretary (see here and here),
the British government is determined to fight childhood obesity and to initiate
nothing less than a “lifestyle revolution”, resulting in more children leading
a healthy and active life. With this aim in view, a free cookbook was recently distributed to 11
year-olds by the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
In
addition to that, from 2011
cookery lessons will be compulsory in England's secondary schools for children
aged 11 to 14, and
£3.3 million will be invested in order to
recruit and train people capable of teaching cooking skills to children.
Parents are also urged to teach their children how to prepare meals from
scratch.

These are certainly sensible steps to take. With nine out of 10 British adults
and two-thirds of children expected to be overweight or obese by the year 2050
unless action is taken (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2008/jul/30/obesity),
we are clearly dealing with an important public health issue. And given the
significance of the link between excess weight and an unhealthy diet (lack of
exercise being another major contributing factor), it seems clear that we should
teach children what a healthy diet consists in and equip them not to be dependent on
the local fast-food chain when the time of the next meal comes. We can hope
that the government’s scheme will help to achieve this, and that parents will
follow the lead – though it is also necessary that the meals provided in school
canteens be in keeping with those aims. However, I would like to suggest that
these steps should form part of a wider project meant to educate children on
matters of food. We want our children to be healthy, but we should also want
them to become autonomous and ethically responsible eaters (and, more
generally, consumers).

Here again,
parents have a crucial role to play in helping to achieve that aim, but schools
can also make an invaluable contribution by introducing classes into the
compulsory curriculum explaining to children how exactly the food that is
served around them is produced. Admittedly, some steps have been made in that
direction within the last few years: one example is the “Food – a Fact of Life”
website (http://www.foodafactoflife.org.uk/),
launched by the British Nutrition Foundation in 2005 and containing a number of
resources about food and how it is produced, which teachers can download for
use in the classroom. Nevertheless, it remains first that the use of such a
resource is left to the initiative of individual schools and teachers; and more
importantly, the website in question, though meant to provide information for
young people up to 16 years of age, fails to tell them everything they ought to
know about the meat, egg and dairy industries. For instance, a video on the
website entitled “Where does it come from?” and answering that question with
regard to the ingredients used to make a pizza, laconically states that “All
these foods come from farms in the UK and around the world”. It does not
mention the fact that the ham on top of this pizza might very well have come
from animals raised abroad in extremely poor conditions; or that the chickens
that ended up into the sandwiches the children in the video might have for
lunch are highly likely to have been reared in factory farms, i.e. little more
than concentration camps for animals. And the occasional visits to farms
organized by schools, though a welcome idea, focus on businesses with higher welfare standards and are
thus not intended to acquaint children with the darker side of the food
industry.

To be
properly informed as to the food they consume, children must be given details
(not necessarily graphic material, although the truth should not be watered
down) both about the conditions experienced by intensively farmed animals and
about alternative methods of production more respectful of animal welfare, as
well as an understanding of the significance of labels (e.g. organic, free
range, etc). The environmental impact of meat production (such as emission of greenhouse
gases or contribution to deforestation) might also be a topic of relevance, as
well as the benefits for health, to come back to our initial topic of
discussion, of a reduced consumption of meat.

Some might
object that implementing such a proposal would mean promoting a vegetarian
agenda, and illegitimately trying to force a particular ethical outlook on
children. But this objection would be a very weak one, for all that is being
proposed here is to present children – at least when they are about to enter
their teenage years, an age at which we can expect them to show an ability for
critical reflection – with important facts about their food, and let them draw
their own conclusions. It might of course be the case that once they had been
made aware of those facts, more children would choose to reduce their
consumption of meat (or renounce meat altogether) later in life. But for one
thing, this choice would in no way have been imposed on them, as long as all
they had been taught were facts, and not any specific moral doctrine. On the
contrary, such an education would increase young people’s autonomy, just as
being aware of the dangers smoking presents both for oneself and for others
allows one to make an autonomous decision to smoke (or to refrain), whereas the
lack of such awareness makes autonomous choice impossible. And for another
thing, it is difficult to see what would be undesirable about a future in which
people consumed less meat and were more careful about its origin and the
welfare standards involved in its production. This would seem to be exactly the kind of “lifestyle revolution” we need today, for the environment, for public
health, and for the welfare of animals.

All
children in this country should receive a proper education about the food they
eat, not only those who happen to watch Jamie Oliver on TV.

— 

Useful sources (used for this entry):

About the
conditions experienced by chickens in factory farms:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-406977/RSPCA-exposes-horror-intensive-chicken-farming.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/jan/02/ethicalliving.animalwelfare

 

About
factory farmed pork imported and sold in the UK:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1120286/The-truth-British-pork–comes-way-Polish-factory-farm.html

http://www.waitrose.presscentre.com/Content/Detail.asp?ReleaseID=899&NewsAreaID=2

 

About the
causes of obesity in children:

http://www.esrc.ac.uk/ESRCInfoCentre/facts/index55.aspx?ComponentId=12741&SourcePageId=15277#footnote

http://hcd2.bupa.co.uk/fact_sheets/html/child_obesity.html

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