Grappling for ways to reduce soaring childhood obesity rates, many policymakers have settled on a kind of serfdom solution, reasoning that if kids spend part of the day with their fingers burrowed in fresh soil, they'll develop an unshakeable appreciation for fruits and vegetables. Not everyone is enamored of the tactic--Caitlin Flanagan famously attacked school gardens in a 2010 Atlantic Monthly essay that accused reformers of creating "intellectual sharecroppers"--but the concept is now so mainstream that it's a component of Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" initiative.
The problem is it's not entirely clear whether these gardens achieve the goal of advancing childhood wellness. A yearlong study of low-income grade schoolers in Brisbane, Australia produced the surprising finding that students who helped tend a garden emerged from the program with a "decreased interest in trying new fruits" and showed "less enthusiasm for activities centered around vegetables and fruits." The researchers theorized the children no longer considered the healthy foods novel.
Students who participated in the program did improve their vegetable identification skills, and other studies have uncovered similarly promising outcomes. But since school gardens clearly aren't a panacea, I wonder if an epicurean approach to altering eating habits would prove more successful. Perhaps it's time for children to stop aping farmers and to start imitating the gentry.
To be clear, I'm not an educator, unless a stint teaching windsurfing at Jewish summer camp counts. But I recently had the opportunity to teach food criticism to nine-year olds, and was struck by how many kids independently made very sensible nutrition decisions when they were tasked with paying attention to taste.
When I pitched a food writing workshop to 826 Seattle, a non-profit writing center for kids, I suggested high school students would be the appropriate demographic. But the organization typically targets a much younger audience with its classes, so I was asked to rewrite my curriculum for nine-year olds.
It wasn't until I started trawling for review examples to share that I realized what an adult world I inhabit as a critic. I'd never before noticed how frequently restaurant reviews mention liquor and sex. Even reviews printed in daily papers referenced cougars draped over Cosmos and louche sommeliers with wandering hands. The allusions to film noir, Norman Lear and R.E.M. didn't seem suitable for kids born in 2002 either.
I finally decided to focus on something I assumed would be familiar to kids: Pizza. We read pizzeria reviews from Alison Cook, John Kessler and Jonathan Gold. The kids scoured the reviews for different ways of saying "The pizzas are huge" and "The sausage is spicy." They found examples of similes, hyperbole, humor and sensory descriptions. And then we had lunch.
Armed with reporter's notebooks, the kids were seated in the restaurant we'd assembled in the back end of the writing center. Our pop-up restaurant--Ristorante 826--featured tablecloths, centerpieces and printed menus. Volunteers served the salad, pizza and cupcakes. It was all rather fancy.
Admittedly, the pizza was no longer hot by the time we got around to serving it. But I was under the impression that all kids love all pizza. Apparently not: After analyzing the pie in professional critic fashion, many of the kids decided they weren't that crazy about it.
While I'm not aware of any studies ascribing health benefits to youthful snobbery, there is plenty of scientific evidence that mindful eating can repair disordered relationships with food. "This is anti-diet," Jan Chozen Bays, author of Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food, recently told the New York Times. "I think the fundamental problem is that we go unconscious when we eat."
Eaters who focus fully on what's on their plates, who try to decipher ingredients and cooking techniques; absorb aromas and cast about for the right words to describe particular textures - in other words, eaters who behave like food critics --are less apt to overeat and more likely to enjoy their food. While it might seem dilettantish to a nation sold on the populism of everyman agrarianism, engaging children's minds might ultimately prove more successful than handing them shovels.