The World of Junk Food

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Educating children about junk food is all about making the journey of discovery personal to them

Junk food is like an elephant, and most strategies are like blind men. In attempting to connect with a child on an issue like this there are many factors to consider; so many that the average adult can be quite confused and unsure. So how then does a school evolve a policy to counter a market that speaks to the child’s unconscious? Who is to talk to whom?

As a teacher, I do a lot of talking and listening. My learning has been that, ultimately, all journeys are personal - the things that make a difference to the world are the things that make a difference to an individual. What does the teacher do that is different? Perhaps, a teacher is a value-interface. “Out beyond rightdoing and wrongdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Jalal ud-Din Muhammad Rumi

Children spend a lot of time trying to listen to teachers. A teacher does talk to a child’s unconscious as well as his conscious self. What else can one call ‘facilitation of learning’? How does one facilitate any learning without having experienced, without having reflected? This is the challenge that is ever present in a Krishnamurti school. When does a personal journey become a pressure on a group of people? When does a community cease to be a community, and become a herd? These questions are at the heart of issues related to junk food.

Learning as we Teach…

We realized that the teacher needs to work with her own feelings, attitudes, opinions and addictions while she works with issues like junk food with children.

Can I speak about something that I don’t practice? Can I drink tea and talk afforestation? Can I eat pizza and guzzle a soft drink at home, and invite Kavitha Kuruganti to talk about GM food? The story of Gandhi’s giving up eating of sugar before he preached it to a younger person comes to mind. As one virtuously addresses one issue, one grows uncomfortably aware of just how superficial it is, given the universe of connected issues.

As teachers, we also need a willingness to look hard at a complex world and learn from it. Would it be possible otherwise, to address children about something that touches not just health, media manipulation, patterns of eating, or individual choices, and deeply and insidiously affects the quality of their lives as they perceive it?

Children are minors. They are targets of advertisements and are dependent on their parents. What can awareness do for a child when she cannot change what’s cooked or not cooked at home? What can she do with her desires evoked by the media? In this regard, it does not seem to matter that a child is rich or poor. The helplessness is the same.

We need to empathise with the child’s helplessness as much as we need to understand our own helplessness with respect to food.

It goes without saying that we need to be convinced about the direction we take in our learning-teaching process about Junk Food as with anything else.

Field Visits, Sharing and Activities

We have taken small and long journeys at school to understand Junk Food. Perhaps the first inspiration came in 1992 with a workshop on sustainable agriculture that was conducted at Auroville. There were fascinating dimensions for school learning in what was shared. Children were able to interact with some of the inspiring people we had met there – Tensi, Joss, Claud, Bhavna, Bernard, and see the earth-related work they were doing. Interactions with adults who are committed to such meaningful work, works wonders with children.

In 1993-1994, I started the Environmental Studies course for class seven which evolved into a programme organically but with three main aspects: Experience through field trips of places for study and exposure, experience of people who talked of their life, work and perspectives on life, and activities that helped them consolidate their learning or simply be in touch with earth. On the whole experiential learning was the key.

The flower is made up of non flower things. – Thich Nat Hanh

Education as it is generally accepted today is of things. We see only the flower and study it. What about everything that goes into it and is related to it? The soil, the seed, the water that was a cloud long ago?

Doing things beyond the classroom is essential.

So children visited places where their garbage and sewage went. They did a study of the birds of the Adyar estuary, travelled to DDS and villages, where activists and others worked for rejuvenation of water, or struggled for the Narmada or for fishermen in Kerala. They have met and interacted with the families of farmers who have committed suicide, and shared the intrepid stories of farmers who have made good with organic agriculture. Not one trip was just ‘environmental’ or ‘food’ or ‘grain’; it was integrated learning.

We invited professors, who talked to them about additives and preservatives in food. There were also workshops on understanding the food web.

As they learnt, they created a collage called ‘Me and the Universe’. We started work with the earth through the study of herbs and other things that grew on the campus. Children studied mixed cropping through actually growing the crops. They adopted various trees and took care of them. There were water audits and energy audits of the school. We dug 19 percolation pits across the campus.

The extraordinary energy of enquiry is at the core of anything that we have done in the area of junk food. All strategies are possible and limited – I share some, which we have used for our programme to understand the universe of junk food.

Strategy 1: Talk about the poisons that go into junk food:

Evoke the part of a child, that is active and restless, curious and thinking, but doesn’t impact what he or she buys. Children need information about the range of items that line up departmental stores and the additives, preservatives and carbon footprints that go with them. They also need to know about pesticides, fertilizers, genetic modification, the cheap colouring, harmful chemicals and the lack of overall nutrition.

Strategy 2: Demystify the Media

Today advertising reaches everywhere. Thanks to the ever omniscient media and gives us an illusion, of not just choice but plenty of it.

We need to talk about the enormous amount of research that goes behind things, like what colour a wrapper must be, or the enormous amount of money that goes into packaging – all to entice more people into buying the product.

What we have tried: Children worked on a Newspaper project to understand the dynamics of the media. We also earlier worked on a Media project for Class VIII for several years, which gave children scope for questioning and becoming aware of the media’s strategies.

Strategy 3: Talk about the bane of traditions

For people of India, food is symbol of caring and sharing. People go broke feeding people at weddings. Food is linked to all festivals. Today, there are familial variations. There are bonding rituals around a table on which people are eating instant noodles. The meaning of food for a child is garnered from all this. Then there is the taste that goes with love, the food that society approves, the food that the neighbours will envy, and the food that’s not necessarily healthy, organic or non-junk.

What we have tried: Films and trips that question destructive conditioning at various levels. Helping children ask ‘Why?’ Everyone is conditioned, and the young are no exception.

Strategy 4: The Carrot of Health

We need non-junk foods to be healthy- Junk food can make you malnourished. Why be cool and malnourished when you can be popular and fit? If you find information about the healthy foods that popular stars eat, share it with the childen and draw attention to the irony of stars advertising junk foods. Juvenile diabetes, cancer, hypertension, thyroid problems and toxins in the system may be countered with lime juice and honey, yoga and a jog down a crowded street.

Strategy 5: The power of individual choice

You can choose. It is in your hands to decide what you eat. Given the reality of the world we live in, you still have the power of choice. We are in the second stage of demographic transition. Our birth rates are far in excess of our death rates. It is inevitable that as a developing nation we have become rabid consumers. But it is in our hands to shift the equation, to make the choice that will bring the balance back. Choose organic. Support the farmer. Eat healthy. Eat well-being.
We realized that the teacher needs to work with her own feelings, attitudes, opinions and addictions, while she works with issues like junk food with children. Can I speak about something that I don’t practice? Can I drink tea and talk afforestation?

What we have tried: In programs that we do, children look at microcredit, inclusive-financing, mainstreaming, drop-out children, public health and sanitation, the issue of waste-segregation, and what ICT can do for rural India. What they study and present, shows them the power of individual choice at every level.

Strategy 6: The School’s stand on Junk Foods

The school canteen can say no to junk food. We will not sell soft drinks, or hamburgers, local or international. Our policy will ensure that we keep packaged items to a bare minimum. But how do we say no to sponsorships? How do we hold our culturals? What would we do if the multinational next door gave us a lab? And what of chances to win prizes and promote the school in the newspapers?

What we have tried: We have said no to all these things. We serve simple vegetarian food, eat organic rice, make traditional items and have fruit for a snack. This is only part luxury. It really is economical enough for everyone.

In all our activities at school, one can see the power of influence, and also the struggle of commitment. We need to talk connections and involve children in every step of the way. The lessons all point to the fact that there is no one strategy. There is no one way. There are many ways - as many as us.