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Getting a taste for it

In the Netherlands, one organisation is making a breakthrough in encouraging a better relationship between people and food. The secret – start young. An interview with Esther Boukema by Erica Meijers, Green European Journal Board member.

IMG_8462kruiden couscous muffinsbsobso kinderen op tuin

Around nine years ago, the Amsterdam graphic designer Esther Boukema developed a mobile culinary laboratory where children could learn, hands-on, everything about food – flavours, colours, where it comes from and when it’s in season. She erected her round tent-kitchen on public squares and empty plots, mainly in deprived urban areas. The tent would usually soon be swarming with curious children, who would emerge shortly afterwards bearing various tidbits and morsels to surprise their proud parents with their culinary efforts and new-found knowledge. She later added a more serious teaching programme for primary schoolchildren, to be carried out with her team in school gardens. This initiative, titled De Smaak te Pakken (“Getting a Taste for It”), enjoyed growing recognition, and now forms part of a collaboration called Mijn eten (“My Food”). The latter integrated educational project aims to make nutrition a systematic part of the primary curriculum.

Meijers: Who, in your view, is responsible for what people eat?

IMG_8462kruiden couscous muffinsbsobso kinderen op tuinBoukema: I’m always strongly in favour of a right to self-determination, and I think we should respect parents’ own preferences even if we don’t share them. But the individual doesn’t live in isolation from the community. Without a good breakfast, a child can’t do well at school.

Nutrition is a particular area where individual choices are strongly bound up with social phenomena like speed, convenience, individualism, instant foods and tiny kitchens. Concern for nutrition inevitably declines when fast food is available wherever people go. This tends to discourage cooking at home. Knowledge about healthy eating is often couched in terms like calcium and omega-3, instead of appealing to common sense. In other words, the knowledge that a varied diet full of fresh, recognisable natural foods, together with moderation and plenty of exercise, is often enough to fight diet-related problems like obesity, heart disease and clogged arteries. Food is an industry dominated by powerful business interests which are often at odds with this mentality. It says a lot that the Chinese CEO of a soft-drinks corporation tops the world income list.

People’s taste and dietary preferences are largely determined before they are old enough to choose for themselves. There is a huge worldwide diversity in family standards and values regarding food. Nutrition is therefore an accessible topic (everyone eats food) but a complicated one, lacking ready-made answers on the responsibilities of the individual and of society as a whole.”

Meijers: It sounds as though our choices are limited.

Boukema: You may indeed wonder how far we really have free choice about what we eat. The borderline of self-determination lies, in my view, with those parents who bring up children eating too much, too little or unsuitable food; and when the child becomes ill as a result, they expect the public sector to foot the bill. By that time, it is often too late to prevent permanent health damage anyway. Curing obesity is much more complex than preventing it. That especially is why I try to inspire children and parents to work together in the kitchen and to rediscover food. It’s a perfect tactic because parents nowadays tend to know as little about nutrition as their children.

Still, I think, and hope, that in these times of crisis, people will again start recognising the value of putting effort into nutrition, as well as the value of eating together and the importance of a good breakfast.

There already seems to be a tendency for schools to be stricter about what children bring along to school. A national campaign called Gezonde School (“Healthy School”) aims among other things to rid schools of confectionary and soft drink vending machines. The attitude of unlimited tolerance seems to be waning. Some schools are already setting standards for self-brought lunches and treats. In that respect, the government is already exerting an influence on what people do at home.

Meijers: Is it, as with so many other issues, the schools that hold the key?

Boukema: Not only the schools, for sure, although they naturally have an important part to play. You learn to eat what you eat at an early age. I try to plant a seed of awareness in children’s minds, one that is consistent with their teaching, and which isn’t pedantic or censorial, but all the same isn’t noncommittal.

I’m hoping that schools will really turn into “healthy schools” and that nutritional education will become a regular part of the primary school curriculum. I hope too that student primary-school teachers will get some healthy nutrition training. And I also hope that parents will look at themselves in the mirror more often. To sum up, improvement must come from all directions. Otherwise nothing will change.

Look, I started from the bottom, entirely on my own initiative. But I am all in favour of cooperation because it combines the individual qualities special to different people. De Smaak te Pakken has recently joined up with Mijn eten, together with the Municipal Health Department, the Hortus botanical garden, Amsterdam educational farms, and school gardens. Mijn eten is in turn part of the Amsterdam Core Group for Nutritional Education. This consists further of the Amsterdam Environment and Education Centre, the city Spatial Planning Department, Louise Fresco, Jaap Seidell (Vrije Universiteit), the Primary Education Council, Rabobank and political organisations including Partij voor de Dieren and GroenLinks. Mijn eten is recognised in this context as an exemplary project for the future, because it is integral and treats nutrition as a wide-ranging, cohesive issue. This group, guided by the Food Cabinet, completed its “vision on nutrition” paper in late December. It will soon be presented to the city and then become part of the Amsterdam’s voedselvisienota (“Nutrition Vision Report”) in June 2013.

Principles of De Smaak te Pakken in primary education

  • Establishing a link between Nature and the human body.
  • Attentively preparing food together, because food can be a way of expressing care and affection towards others.
  • Making acquaintance with fresh, recognisably local ingredients, with supplementary products from non-local sources.
  • Learning language, concepts and words by experiencing them in practice.
  • Cooking and philosophising on themes such as hunger, obesity, impermanence, sustainability and fair trade.
  • Reduce stress by learning focus, patience and precision.
  • Boosting children’s personal creativity by playing with shape, colour and flavour.

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