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The Universe of Junk Food: Sensitizing Children
12 Nov 2011

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

 Junk food is made up of non junk food things. In attempting to reach the child, around this issue, there are so many factors to consider, that it would be difficult for a concerned individual to say, I have succeeded. Junk food is like an elephant, and most strategies are like blind men. One may say that the impacts are also as limited. How does a school evolve a policy to counter a market that speaks to the child’s unconscious? And 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, but all true changes are impersonal. 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, the uniqueness of the teacher’s role is this - the challenge of the teacher is the mastery of the shadow zone, that space between the individual and the ground he walks on. A teacher is a value-interface. He or she is one, regardless of whether they think of school as a place of learning, or they don’t. Children spend a lot of time trying to listen to teachers. It is possible for a teacher to talk to a child’s unconscious. 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.

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? Yes. I can. People can. The story of Gandhi’s stopping sugar in his life before he preached it to a younger person comes to mind. The whole world of initiatives in this area are relative, and need to be anchored therefore in a context of enquiry. As one virtuously addresses one issue, one grows uncomfortably aware of just how superficial it is, given the universe of connected issues. Would it be possible to address children about something that touches not just health, media manipulation, patterns of eating, or individual choices, but bores into the very root of their survival, and deeply and insidiously affects the quality of their lives?

In the context of food. children are minors. They are targets of ads and dependant on their parents. What does awareness do for a child, when he cannot change what’s cooked or not cooked at home? In this regard, it does not seem to matter that a child is rich or poor. The helplessness is the same. Just where does junk food stop, and good food begin? Perhaps one may begin by talking about things that have been tried.
 
In the school, we have taken small and long journeys into the universe of junk food. Perhaps the first inspiration came in 1992 with a workshop on sustainable agriculture, that Auroville conducted. There were fascinating dimensions for school learning in what was shared. The first thing we did in school was to start taking children to Auroville to interact with some of the inspiring people we had met there – Tency, Joss, Claud, Bhavna, Bernard, and the earth-related work they were doing . Bernard made an indelible impact on me. You could say that it was the beginning of many things for the school and for me, in this area. He was working at Annapoorna at that time and the land and the person were unforgettable.
 
In 1993-1994, I started the Environmental Studies course for class 7. I would like to say that I evolved it with fullness of heart. But the truth is, that with a young child of 3 who was just about to begin school, I started asking myself what kind of world I was leaving behind for her. In 1994-1995, after evolving it through a range of materials and activities, I put down the objectives, collated and adapted from various things I had read – to help children grow aware of their environment, to create a perspective of information and insights, based on global relationships and trends, to use their lifestyles, and beliefs, and aspirations, to provide an immediate and enduring relationship between perspectives and reality, to encourage in them both directly and through aids of different kinds, an attitude of reflective enquiry regarding the dynamics of society, and the natural resources that make it possible for them to live the way they do, to create a sound information system from which it will be possible for them to move in whichever way they feel inclined, regarding career speculations, and hobbies and interests, to help them see the multiplicity and unity of all life forms through environmental perceptions, and to emphasize above all, that environmental study is a study into the role they play in , and the attitude they have towards the protection of the earth so that life can continue.


There were many different dimensions to this curriculum, which helped us grow in many different ways. Children visited places where their garbage and sewage went. They did a study of the birds of the Adyar estuary. Professors talked to them about additives and preservatives in food. 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. MCRC helped us set up a small space where children studied mixed cropping through actually growing the crops. Children adopted various trees, and took care of them. Children did a water audit, and energy audit of the school. We dug 19 percolation pits across the campus. Chandramouli, a dye expert, came and did a workshop with the children on natural dyes. Bhanu, who was then in WWF, came and worked with the children on food webs and other interesting activities. Children walked in the Theosophical Society, observing spiders with Spider Viji, and snakes, and crabs in the estuary. This was the year that the children on their own, started beach cleaning at Elliots Beach. They went from door to door talking about contaminants in food. Nobody asked them to. They produced little booklets for the school on issues that concerned them.

The extraordinary energy of enquiry is at the core of anything that we have done in the area of junk food. Children have visited DDS, traveled with the CSA and the Centre for Science in Villages, into villages that they collaborate in, explored the rejuvenation of water with Rajendar Singh, borne witness to the gargantuan struggle for the Narmada, looked at the issues of Ration shops with Arvind Kejriwal and Parivarthan, participated in the dynamics of the Bal Panchayat in Rajasthan, stayed in a Gurudwara in Bhatinda and received the hospitality and the wisdom of Umendra Dutt and the Kheti Virasat Mission, been to pockets in Tamilnadu that have been devastated by the failure of agriculture, along with the impact of the caste system. 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 exponential learning – primarily because of inspiring people, actions of daring and courage, the extraordinary power of visions of well being for all. It wasn’t just Medha Patkar or Aruna Roy. It was Gangwar Anjamma, Naurati Ben, Lal Singhji, Kheema Bhai, the women film makers of DDS. The vital learnings from these trips have been shared by the teachers who accompanied them. We have learnt one vital thing - it is impossible to commodify junk food without commodifying oneself.  As such, therefore, all strategies are possible and limited. One only requires the willingness to start from where one is, and move where one can, praying that it is not too late.

 

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

Define it to defy it. Evoke the part of a child that is active and restless, curious, and thinking, but doesn’t impact what he or she buys. You become uneasily aware that a large number of children don’t have a choice, but are affected nevertheless. The poor child may not have access to MacDonald’s, or Pizza Corner, or the rich range of pastries in Coffee Day, or Barrista. The poor child may not have the range of items that line up the Departmental stores and the additives and preservatives and carbon footprints that go with them. The poor child is affected by the step that goes before. The pesticides, the fertilizers, the genetic modification, the cheap colouring and the lack of overall nutrition. Today advertising reaches every corner of the globe thanks to the TV. I may not have the money to buy a pizza, but I would surely save up to by a Coke, or Mirinda, or Sprite. The stupidity of our lives touches us all without exception. It is a blanket, not an item of food.

What we have tried: A Concerned Children of Chennai Programme which paired schools in various areas, and they interacted around issues that concerned them as children. The attempt was also to knit this to action of some kind, in the common area of their schools. The programme died in two years, largely because children refused to be equal, and adults didn’t or wouldn’t facilitate it.

 

Strategy 2: Garbage the Media

Talk about how we are all guinea pigs, or worse still, puppets on a string. Talk about the enormous amount of research that goes behind just what colour a wrapper must be, or the kind of woman who must go with a bar of chocolate. Talk about how desires are the villain. Privilege austerity, till the ones that don’t drink Coke walk around with halos, and the ones that drink Coke slouch around with a sneer on their faces. Talk about the enormous amount of money that goes into packaging, and the economics of keeping people tied to brands.

What we have tried: A Media Course for Class VIII which ran for a number of years. It is now a newspaper project.

 

Strategy 3: Talk of 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, but while festivals don’t change, one can adjust with the kind of food one arranges. There is a history of family obesity, based on the principle that hot rotis must be eaten hot. There are familial variations today. There are bonding rituals around a table on which people are eating Top Ramen. The meaning of food for a child is garnered from all this. The taste that goes with love – that taste I paid for with my first bonus, the food that society approves, the food that the neighbours will envy, the food that’s not necessarily healthy, organic, or non-junk.

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

 

Strategies 4: The Carrot of Health

Non junk food is healthy – exercise, and go to the gym. Do you want to die of Bulimia? Anorexia Nervosa? What price do you pay to be cool? Should food be an expression of neurosis? Why be cool and malnourished? You can be popular and fit. Juvenile diabetes, cancer, hypertension, thyroid problems, toxins in the system, may be countered with lime juice and honey, yoga, and a jog down a crowded street. Here again, a small discomfort – nagging, persistent.

The discomfort of pictures that don’t fit, of farmer suicides, of rural urban migration, of dwindling land for agriculture, the monster of real estate, the battle that a burgeoning population wages with real costs, and the survival of the fittest. Where does one take one’s stress? Does buying chamomile tea from the local organic food store help at all?

What we have tried: A range of small and large initiatives through The School Outreach. We have initiated Experiencing Nature Programmes, Teachers’ Forum, Supplement in 6 rural schools, a small bio register and seed bank, a weekly integrated clinic. We are trying to interest local people in millet growing activities We have a range of programmes. We are about to visit Sukkankollai, run by the CIKS, where a large group of teachers will listen to Balu and his team talking about Agrobiodiversity.

 

Strategy 5: The power of individual choice:

You can choose. It is in your hands to decide what you eat. You can resist and desist. The world is as it is. 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. This too will pass. It is in your 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. And here too, a niggling little voice that looks at numbers and wave after wave of people moving like lemmings towards the sea - corruption that influences national policy, power hungry corporations, and an apathetic self absorbed middle class, and wonders aloud if this one starfish thrown back into the water is too little too late.

What we have tried: In programs that we do with Hand In Hand, children look at microcredit, inclusive financing, mainstreaming drop out children, public health and sanitation, the vexed 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 stands on the burning deck:

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; a few chocolates, some icecream, that’s all. 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? Would we say no to corporate social responsibility? And what of chances to win prizes and promote the school in the newspapers? Quiz programs? Environmental programs? Science programmes? Techonology, design programmes? Can a school say no to all this just to keep out of a little advertising? Just where does junk food end? It lies around like plastic in front of our eyes, and beyond them. The lady in Econut apologises when she gives me a thick plastic bag. In our lives and in the lives to come. Perhaps the juggernaut cannot be stopped. The jackal is beyond recall. ITC smiles at me with recycled paper.

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

There is no one strategy. In all our activities at school, you would see the power of influence, and also the power of our own commitment. We need to talk connections, and step out of them, even if we are a minority of one. We need to connect and find a way to articulate beyond our own fears and desires. Children are involved in every step of these activities. There is no one way. There are many ways - as many as us.