By Signe Langford
A 2007 report from the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health, “Healthy Weight for Healthy Kids,” suggests that this generation of children will be the first in history to die before their parents, due to the obesity “epidemic” and all its inherent diseases: arthritis, type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease. And the committee found that “Canada has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the developed world.” That’s a sobering thought, but help is on the way. We asked some busy parents and food professionals to weigh in on how to feed the kids without killing them.
Take a walk through the aisles of any grocery store today and it’s easy to see just how huge the organic food industry has become. According to Canadian Organic Growers, “Organics is the fastest growing sector in agriculture, with sales increasing at 20 per cent per year.” To be called “organic,” foods must have undergone no genetic modification, plants must be grown without the use of chemical pesticides or artificial fertilizers, and animals must be raised without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones. The $412-million industry’s approach is no longer a fringe way of eating for a handful of holdovers from the ’60s. Organics have gone mainstream, and kid-friendly too, and now comprise much more than just produce or whole foods. Convenience and processed foods — cereals, snacks,
candies and drinks — are au naturel these days. Some moms are going green from the get-go. Carol Toller, an editor at Report on Business magazine and expectant mom, had this to say: “It’s true that I’m thinking more about what I eat. I’m going out of my way to buy organic milk, and I’ve stopped buying pre-washed, bagged spinach — as much as I adored it — because I’ve discovered that they soak the stuff in chlorine, which I’m fairly certain my poor, little unborn child doesn’t need. I also avoid aspartame and sucralose like the plague.” And Toller’s instincts are confirmed in an American report from the Children’s Environmental Health Network. “What a child eats and drinks should be as pure as possible,” the report says, because “infants and children are at a high risk for future cancers because of their exposure to certain pesticide residues found in food.”
Processed cheese, French fries, fish sticks and chicken fingers. These were the foods Lulu Cohen-Farnell, co-founder with her husband, sommelier David Farnell, of Real Food for Real Kids, was told her toddler would be eating at daycare. Horrified and determined to ensure her child would be eating right, she set out to create menus of homemade, all-natural, locally sourced and organic foods. That was in 2004. Now, the energetic vegan mother of two ships out hot lunches and two snacks to 3,000 kids a day — in bio-diesel trucks, of course. Cohen-Farnell refers to the company as an “edu-caterer.” Her mission is not just to feed kids great, healthy foods during the time they are away from home, but to teach parents about a better way of eating. And the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Astounded parents call asking for recipes, because the kids are begging for healthy food at home.
Proper nutrition is vital for learning. A 2001 study published in Nutrition Reviews found that deficiency in intake of nutrients such as iron, zinc and long-chain fatty acids have been associated with lower performance in cognitive tasks. As for older kids at school, the war is still being waged against junk food and vending machines. But there have been some advances: Quebec premier Jean Charest wants to stop food with little nutritional value from being offered in his province’s schools by January 2008, and some municipalities are starting to offer up healthy alternatives, through programs like FoodShare Toronto’s Salad Bars in Schools. Community involvement makes all the difference when it comes to what kids eat at school.
Here’s what it means: to eat only foods that were raised, grown, fished, foraged or produced within a 100-mile radius of where you live — in any season. According to Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, co-authors of The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating (Random House), “When the average North American sits down to eat, each ingredient has typically travelled at least 1,500 miles.” That’s not something most consumers stop to consider. But the carbon footprint left behind when out-of-season veggies are flown in from, say, South America, is huge. But is a local diet tough to adhere to? Mark Cutrara, chef and co-owner of Cowbell, a successful 100-mile style bistro in Toronto, and father of two, acknowledges that it is a challenge in Canada. “You can’t live on carrots and rutabagas all winter,” he says, but he feels it’s important to “buy local whenever you can.” For his kids, some convenience foods are allowed — what’s a Canadian kitchen without a couple of boxes of KD? — but it’s organic all the way when it comes to the milk they drink.
In response to the 1986 opening of a McDonald’s in Rome, Slow Food was founded in 1989 to preserve traditional ways of raising, preparing and enjoying food. The movement spread throughout the world, now with 33 groups in Canada leading eating back to the old ways — albeit slowly.
Paul DeCampo, leader of Slow Food Toronto, would love to see a day when parents are more mindful about the food they are feeding their kids, when they engage them in kitchen activities and make food prep a priority again. He says, “Kids need to learn how to do more in the kitchen than just hit the defrost button.” And this is a philosophy he’s put into practice with his own daughter, Siena. Because he offered her a wide range of seasonal, whole foods right from the very beginning, she developed a taste for healthy eating. DeCampo believes it’s all about instilling respect in your kids for cooking and eating and an awareness of where their food comes from. It’s also about taking the time to share a meal and connect with the food community through visits to local farmers’ markets.
These two words are cropping up all over the grocery shelves, but what do they mean? Simply put, prebiotics are “food” — mostly a form of carbohydrate — that probiotics like to “eat.” And probiotics are the good bacteria, or gut flora, that help with everything from proper digestion and nutrient absorption to boosting the immune system. They’ve always been there in naturally fermented foods such as yogurt, cheese, some teas and miso, but now, some manufacturers are adding them to foods that would not naturally contain them, such as bread, milk and processed dairy products. We need the good flora and fauna in our digestive tracts to keep everything in balance, especially with antibiotics being prescribed as often as they are. For Mia Andrews, president of the Canadian Personal Chef Association and mother of two girls, choosing functional foods such as yogurts with pro/prebiotics is very important, especially for kids, whose growing bodies are greatly impacted by what they ingest. Omega fatty acids, good for brain development, are also on her shopping list. Salmon, high in Omega 3s — wild-caught or organic-farmed — has been a regular and much-loved part of their diet since they were first eating solids. Andrews is teaching her kids to love, appreciate and respect good, local food and the people who grow and raise it. Still, there’s room for kids to be kids with a trip to Mickey-D’s, but only about once a month and as an “act of total desperation.”
Signe Langford is a Toronto-based food writer, stylist and chef, who believes passionately that real food can be a joy for the whole family.