On the road this summer, I was struck, as I always am while traveling, by what other kids eat. For all the junk food in everyday life, there’s something astonishing about vacation. Maybe it’s the sheer volume of really bad food. Or the vacation-treat mentality. Or all those wiped-out parents desperate for something, anything, edible. All I know is that it gets to me.
I know better. I know about rampant bad options and insidious marketing. I know it takes time to educate ourselves and steely resolve to reject the status quo. And I personally know lots of people who just years — even months — ago had epiphanies about the state of our food supply and now wonder how they could have been so blind for so long. And I’m still learning, too. Every. Single. Day. So I know that many people are at their own points on their own journeys.
But as much as I believe in the importance of small steps, as much as I preach and practice tact and humor when dealing with tricky situations, as much as we’ve worked hard to raise Tess to be non-judgmental, I still sometimes have to fight the urge to walk up to complete strangers and roar about the Coke-Cheetos-McFried-bits they’re feeding their kids.
The longer I’m a parent, the more I have actual visceral reactions to seeing children eat this way. At a living-history museum last month, I was pleasantly surprised by the cafeteria’s a la carte salads, fruit-and-cheese plates and hummus packs. It was enough that we could cobble together a decent lunch when we decided to stay longer than planned. But still I heard nearly every other parent ask: “Where’s your kids’ menu?” Which of course had the usual substandard fare. Call me melodramatic, but I wanted to scream.
Instead, I did what I always do and mumbled to my husband. Other times it’s my friends who get an earful. And other times, if the opportunity comes up to weigh in, if another parent somehow invites my advice (like that mother at Starbucks who wanted me to tell her 5-year-old that he’d be more satisfied with a juice box and donut than with “just water”… um, no), I am diplomacy personified, because I really do believe that’s more effective. But does that stop me from having crazy thoughts? Hell no.
And let me tell you: I read a lot of food blogs. I track a lot of food news. I talk to a lot of people. And my surreptitious judging seems quaint by comparison. There’s a whole lot of judging when it comes to parenting in general, but food in particular. And the interwebs have made it far too easy for folks comfy in their convictions to sit back and let the snark flow.
So here’s what I propose: Can we all promise to do one thing (each month?) to help increase access to good food and educate others about our food supply? Send someone to a local farm or farmers’ market or natural-foods store. Invite a friend to dinner. Tell someone about your CSA. Volunteer to teach a cooking class at a food pantry, or your church or community center. Get into your kids’ school, plant a garden and come up with ideas for increasing food literacy. Do something, anything.* Less judging, more helping.
The start of a school year is in many ways like the start of a new year, filled with promise and renewal, beginnings and opportunities. So as the new school year approaches, let’s take the opportunity to make a difference. One way to start: Pass this on. Help other parents make good choices. Be their tipping point. Because we all were there once.
*A reader suggested volunteering to drive low-income folks to affordable grocery stores. That gave me a few more ideas (which I also shared in the comments): Research local CSAs that offer sliding scales or discounts, then pass that info on to food banks and social-service agencies. Donate excess garden produce through AmpleHarvest.org. Check with local food pantries to see if you can volunteer to glean (pick leftover crops) at a local farm.