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The best policy, The National, 25.05.2010

Parents ought not to be squeamish about telling children the truth about food, says Jo Wadham

With the School Health Strategy announced by Abu Dhabi’s Health Authority last week, the Government has pinpointed a problem that spans the developed world: the junk food addiction that is causing an epidemic of obesity among children and adults. But as the British television chef Jamie Oliver discovered while filming his Food Revolution series in the US, trying to educate people about healthy eating is an uphill battle.

For many city-born children, meat is what they see cling-wrapped on the supermarket shelves, then served euphemistically as “chops” or “steak”; potatoes come ready chipped and in bags, carrots washed. Farms are where they go to pet the sheep and ride a pony. Children seem to be losing touch with what their food is and where it comes from. But by reconnecting children with the origins of their food, we have the opportunity to inculcate lifelong healthy eating and cooking habits.

What Oliver was trying to do in Huntington, West Virginia, was to educate the local population, and particularly cooks in schools, about healthy eating using fresh ingredients. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, West Virginia is the second-most overweight state in the US, with more than a third of its inhabitants classified as obese. Oliver, attempting to replicate his 2005 UK success against Turkey Twizzlers (since the processed food’s replacement with healthy lunches, school results and attendance in the test area have improved significantly), initially met with resistance from the cooks, the parents and the children, but even when he had everyone on board at the end of the season, the cheapness of processed food provided by the US Department of Agriculture looked set to bring the project crashing down.

Oliver firmly believes that tackling obesity begins with educating children about food, and, as he says on his website, giving them “some kind of relevant hands-on life skills and cooking classes so when they do leave school they are armed and equipped to cook great food, within budgets and how to enjoy salads and greens”. And while the health authority’s intervention in this is welcome, it is parents who have an important role to play.

Explaining to children the origins of their food is just one of the ways to educate and reconnect them. When my son, then aged five, asked me what the chop he was avidly gnawing came from, I told it to him straight: “It’s from a lamb.” He blanched and said, in a shocked whisper: “You mean we eat baby animals?” Admittedly, it was a leap of faith to present him with such a revelation at half past five in the evening, having spent the previous half-hour carefully preparing a healthy and balanced meal. Prior to this I was one of the many parents who tread delicately round the issue and prefer to mumble something incoherent, fearing a late-evening tantrum.

Jean Hurstel, the chef de cuisine at the Bord Eau restaurant in the Shangri-la Hotel Qaryat al Beri, Abu Dhabi, considers his role as a father and a chef is to teach his three-year-old daughter, Lou-Anne, about food through taste. “Children understand taste,” he explains. “We have to train them. Like everybody, taste is learnt, so we should train them very, very young. It’s not like, ‘OK, she doesn’t understand, she’s five years old, we can give her whatever, and when she understands I will give her good food’. No, we should give them good food from the beginning.” As for Lou-Anne, he says: “I hope I can teach her how good food should taste.”

Hurstel suggests parents can easily encourage their children to be interested in food by cooking something simple, yet fun, with them, such as chocolate pizza. “You get the children touching the flour, touching the dough, something manual. Then they put the chocolate on, put it in the oven. It’s a fabulous job; you are doing something that is creative, artistic and something that is also very physical, and you are producing something. Then you cook it and it’s your creation, made with your own hands.”

This sense of achievement is something that Leah Allison knows well. After nine years of living in a flat in Abu Dhabi, Allison, who originally comes from Glasgow in Scotland, moved to a villa four years ago and has created a vegetable patch in the modest garden. “It’s a good feeling,” she says, eyeing her home-grown red peppers, “to know that you’ve done this, you’ve produced this from a seed.” Having brought in all the soil and mixed it with fertiliser, Allison is growing courgettes, lettuce, tomatoes, spring onions, beetroot, carrots, green beans, peppers and aubergines.

Growing your own vegetables is a great way to combine keeping in touch with nature and educating children about where food comes from. Allison’s 11-year-old daughter Hannah helps her in the garden, watering and planting out seedlings and watching the plants flower and bear fruit. “It’s part of life education, as opposed to just academic education and is equally important,” says Allison. A keen baker, Allison used to send Hannah into school with cakes for her teachers, but having the garden changed that. “One time, I had this beautiful lettuce and I said: ‘Instead of taking in a cake you can take in this lovely lettuce.’ It looked like something out of a picture book. She’s not embarrassed about it, fortunately. I think she’s proud.”

Growing her own vegetables has opened Allison’s eyes to what is on offer in the supermarkets. “I think the more things become packaged and wrapped, the more off-putting they actually become. This morning I pulled up a carrot for Hannah and washed it and put it in her lunch box, and it was all gnarled and I thought, I’d like to know how they grow the carrots we buy. My carrots are all twisted and, you know, natural.”

A strong supporter of the “grow your own” philosophy in the UK is the chef and writer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who, when he first opened his River Cottage restaurant, served up food grown and reared on his farm. He later used his experience to help his fellow television chef Gordon Ramsay. In his show, determined that his children should understand where their food came from, Ramsay reared turkeys, soon followed by lambs, in his garden and encouraged his children to feed and look after them. Ramsay even named the turkeys, rather disparagingly, after his fellow television chefs Nigella Lawson, Delia Smith and Antony Worrall Thompson. In one memorable scene, having cooked up one of the turkeys for Christmas dinner, Ramsay asked his daughters: “What do you think of Antony? Nice? Does he taste the way you thought he was going to taste?”

This may be a step too far even for parents who dare to admit to their children that the food on their plate was once roaming free in a field. Ramsay’s methods blurred the line between keeping pets and raising livestock. But reconnecting children with the origins of their food can begin by piquing their interest in what they put in their mouths, encouraging them, as Oliver and Hurstel suggest, to consider the taste of what they eat, to cook, or even, like the Allisons, to grow it themselves. And if your children ask you, “Mummy, where do burgers come from?”, just tell the truth.


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