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Boy meets Big Food: book review and giveaway

I started Spoonfed because I want people to rethink their assumptions about kids and food. I want kids to get credit for having brains and tastebuds. Amid rampant food-industry manipulation and misinformation, our best hope for raising healthy children is to raise food-literate children — kids who think critically, challenge the status quo and make smart choices even when we can’t choose for them.

Birke Baehr is proof that kids not only can learn this stuff — they can own it. Birke is a 13-year-old from Tennessee who, at age 8, began researching the industrial food system. At age 11, he gave a five-minute TEDx talk that went viral, wowing the internet with his succinct yet provocative assessment of how we got ourselves into this mess. (I’ve posted the TEDx video before, but will re-post it below.)

Birke’s talk prompted the predictable backlash and accusations that his parents were using him as a mouthpiece for their crazy liberal views. But it was Birke who influenced his parents, not the other way around. See? Kids really are smart.

And now Birke has written and self-published a children’s picture book about his journey. “Birke on the Farm: The Story of a Boy’s Search for Real Food” follows Birke from curious third-grader to full-blown activist. Whimsically illustrated by Wynnie Gea, the book has plenty of visual interest for pre-readers and a simple yet powerful message for older kids. This is a story not only about the importance of eating real food, but also about the value of kids speaking out and making a difference.

I read the book with my daughter, who’s 8, the same age Birke was when he had his epiphany. Tess is pretty food-savvy, so she already knew about high-fructose corn syrup, genetically modified organisms, marketing tricks and unpronounceable ingredients (all things he covers in the book). But Birke tells his story from a child’s point of view, using simple text and explanations, so even kids new to these topics will find the book accessible.

One item in the book — about mercury in high-fructose corn syrup — isn’t as clear-cut as it appears. There’s controversy over the accuracy of that research and its meaning (an issue reignited this spring). But Birke presents it primarily as the catalyst that got him interested in the food system in the first place. So I’m OK with that.

There are plenty who will call this book propaganda, and I suppose in a way it is. But Big Food propaganda hits kids hard from every angle, so I’m all for a counterattack. Especially one as common sense as this. As Birke writes in the book (and also said in his TEDx talk), in response to claims that organic food is too expensive: “We can either pay the farmer, or we can pay the hospital.”

This 13-year-old once dreamed of being an NFL football player. Now he plans to become an organic farmer. I told you he was a smart kid.

Now for the giveaway part. Leave a comment answering this question: Why is it important to teach kids to think critically about food?

I’ll take comments through midnight EST Wednesday, August 29. After that, I’ll use a random-number generator to select a winner. Apologies to my overseas readers, but the book can be shipped to continental U.S. and Canadian addresses only.

One final note: If you enjoy Spoonfed but aren’t yet a subscriber, I’d love it if you’d click up in the right-hand corner and start getting posts by e-mail or RSS feed. That won’t give you an edge for the giveaway, but you’ll get karmic bonus points for making me smile. Even better: Come join us at the Spoonfed Facebook page.

And now, here’s Birke’s inspiring 2010 TEDx talk:

Spoonfed is on Facebook. You’ll find links to blog posts, news and commentary on raising food-literate kids, questions and comments from readers, voices, viewpoints, the works. Stop by, like the page, chime in, spread the word. (Thanks.)

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{ 29 comments… add one }

  • Andrea August 26, 2012, 11:33 pm

    I think it’s important for everyone to know where their food comes from, what it is they are putting in their mouth when they eat, and what choices they have about it. Starting young will only help in the long run to create healthy and conscientious adults. With kids it is even more important because they are exposed to so much cultural pressure through advertising and friends, etc. and they’re so impressionable that they’ll believe it, until taught to be critical and examine things carefully. I think our society as a whole needs more critical thinkers, and fewer sheep, so this is just one way to promote that.

  • Robin (noteverstill) August 27, 2012, 12:01 am

    What a cool kid!
    Our children need to be savvy because marketing speaks to them more directly than ever before. When I have to explain to them why I won’t buy the junk they see in their friends’ lunches, I want them to understand it’s for their health, not for their punishment.

  • Jamie August 27, 2012, 7:16 am

    I think it is important for kids to start learning about food when they are young. It is much easier to start eating the right way when we are young than to try and change our ways later. I want eating healthy to come natural to my children. I have had to work at eating healthy and most days it is still a chanllenge for me.

  • MyPeaceOfFood August 27, 2012, 8:22 am

    It’s important for so many reasons, number one for their own health and number two for the environment. We need to learn how to start caring again. To be good stewards of this incredible gift we’ve been given, of life on this planet. Our generation has grown up one way…it’s our responsibility to teach the next generation to help fix past mistakes.

  • Toni August 27, 2012, 9:04 am

    As someone who works with young children this is vitally important. Children love growing and making healthy food.

  • Heidi August 27, 2012, 9:20 am

    We need to let our children know they have a huge stake in the future of the earth, and in their own health. We are no longer obliged to just consume the information forced down our throats. We are no longer obliged to wait until we are sick to consider our health. We own our health (well, the majority of it, not the genetics of it), and we are now obliged to take care of it ourselves and not rely on somebody to repair it. We don’t wait to change the oil in our car until the engine blows. We don’t leave our toys or books out to be broken, and then put them on the shelves.

    This book looks great! Kudos to the boy, and to his parents for helping him be proactive instead of reactive!

  • Heather August 27, 2012, 9:33 am

    Thanks for sharing! Even if I don’t win, I will go purchase the book for my 3 children. When my youngest was 3 months, I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. Since then and after all of my reading and research, I have completely revamped our diets and I am doing my best to try to educate my children about food and what they put in their bodies. We actually use the term “fake food” ! I think it is so important to teach children how to eat to help save their lives.

  • Jodi August 27, 2012, 9:38 am

    It is important to teach children to think critically about everything, but what could be more basic than food? AND, food choices have such a huge impact on so many other things-environment, health, human rights and so much more…

  • Melody August 27, 2012, 10:54 am

    Food is essential for survival and our kids need to know what is really good for them and what will harm them. So much junk food is marketed for children and they need to know how and WHY to so no to it.

  • jenna @kidappeal August 27, 2012, 10:55 am

    because if we don’t, they will be the 1 in three who ends up with diabetes. worse still, there won’t be enough talent in our society to keep innovating, created and solving tough societal problems. everyone will be too distracted taking care of nagging or life-threatening health problems and/or using a damage brain to try to be productive. if we do, we grow bright kids, with marvelous brains who can keep the economy healthy while we retire. thanks for letting me know about birke’s book, i LOVE it!

  • Heather G August 27, 2012, 12:09 pm

    There are many reasons why it is important to teach children to think critically about food. The first one that comes to mind is so that they will not grow into adults who then have to learn a completely new way of looking at food and eating. Thanks for the giveaway!

  • Adrienne August 27, 2012, 1:01 pm

    Thanks for posting this! Kids need to learn about food so they can have the power to make their own choices. When they walk into a grocery store, they need to know that they don’t have to fall under the trappings of BigAg – they can do their own research, learn about how food is made (or grown, etc.) and decide for themselves. And then, they can teach their own parents and teachers! :)

  • Karla Emery August 27, 2012, 1:18 pm

    It is of the utmost importance children be taught critical thinking skills and the basics about food today. The vast majority of our society are completely removed from the knowledge of where food originates. And Children today are the ones who will most need this information as droughts, floods, increased pestilence and peak oil begin to drastically impact what’s on the shelves in their grocery stores.

    Without a direct connection and the knowledge to provide for ones self, many will find themselves directly dealing with food scarcity. There’s 2 proverbs out there that spring to mind:

    ‘There are but 7 meals between Civilization and Anarchy’ and
    ‘When you are starving is not the time to plant a garden’.

  • Alissa August 27, 2012, 2:02 pm

    Kids need to be able to make good decisions based on true info, not what food businesses want them to believe. Which is not an easy task!

  • Deanna August 27, 2012, 2:08 pm

    I have an over abundance of thoughts on this. I will share two:
    Connection to our literal sustenance is our primary and most basic instinct. To suppress that as our culture has done is damaging to the psyche and human spirit. When else in human history have we been so disengaged, apathetic, depressed and helpless. I think a return to food sourcing and self sufficiency is the first step in healing our next generation.

    Also, I am 31. I am learning self reliance on my own through research and trial and error. I wish these skills had been passed down to me from my family. This historic chain has been broken and it is sad. Thousands of years of skills and information, lost in just a couple of generations. It’s time for my generation to get it together and begin the chain again. I have a one year old daughter now. I’m learning these things for my own happiness and for my daughter, so she can learn and live a REAL life and pass her skills and experiences to her children.

  • Betty Brewer and friends August 27, 2012, 2:40 pm

    Children need to know what is in the food they eat so they can make a choice to be healthy. So many chemicals are used that are unhealthy and are not needed to produce our food. Obesity and childhood diseases, I believe are caused by what is feed to our animals and put into our soil.

  • carol judy August 27, 2012, 8:14 pm

    children need to be able to ask questions, about food, about raising food/flowers ect. if children ask questions young, they will keep asking all their lives. at 63 i acknowledge that my generation has done a lot of damage to the food system, but that is lived hindsight at this time. so the quicker children learn to ask questions, the more they will be able to do with the issues they inherent from my generations, extravagances.

  • Sandra August 27, 2012, 11:30 pm

    Because companies are banking on their ignorance and parents’ impatience.

    • Alli August 28, 2012, 9:46 am

      Love this. Thanks for summing it up so well!

  • Kira August 28, 2012, 12:18 am

    There is so much information and misinformation out there. If we do not choose to educate our children, others will step in and it will more than likely be a message we did not want our kids to receive, e.g. blatant marketing. Critical thinking is an important skill all across the board, but if kids don’t understand food and how it affects their bodies, they’ll be in for a whole host of problems.

  • Sherri August 28, 2012, 6:40 am

    It is important because outside of our home, everyone we know lives a different food lifestyle. I need them to understand why other kids eat differently then us, and for them not to feel left out or different. I want them to have confidence about these choices so that hopefully when I am not with them they can make them on their own.

  • Alli August 28, 2012, 9:45 am

    I didn’t think critically about food AT ALL. Until one fateful day in High School when I was reading the nutrition facts on a cinnamon sugar pop tart. I want my kids to get a head start.

  • Rae August 28, 2012, 11:04 am

    Because most sources of food and health information have several priorities – and our kids’ well-being isn’t always at the top of their list!

  • holly August 29, 2012, 8:39 pm

    Well, of course it is important for kids to eat healthy to keep their body strong and healthy…we need to teach them to think about food for 2 major reasons. 1) they are more likely to accept the foods if they know more about them and are more involved in the choosing and preparing (and even growing!) Of the foods and 2) they need to continue to make good choices and teach the next generation after them to make good choices. So, we can’t just tell them what to do but teach them how to use their own minds & make their own good choices about food.

  • Jamie August 29, 2012, 8:40 pm

    Because there is no reasonable explanation for anyone but us and our kids to only have their best interests in mind. They need to understand that their health is more important than any company’s bottom line.

  • Erica August 29, 2012, 9:20 pm

    Amazing kiddo! I wish my students were interested in food (rather than fame flavor) like him!

  • Paula August 29, 2012, 9:54 pm

    Children learning good things from other children…there is hope for positive change in the world if we just pass on the message.

    • Christina August 31, 2012, 10:17 am

      Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful comments, and for participating in the giveaway. I’ve notified Heather (commenter lucky #7!) that she’s the winner. Just awaiting her mailing address. I closed comments when the giveaway ended, but I’ll reopen them now in case anyone else wants to chime in.

  • Cady August 31, 2012, 2:01 pm

    Fascinating! It gives me faith in the next generation. My son is three and he honest-to-goodness prefers “real,” whole foods to junk most of the time. I recently brought him to a birthday party where there was a buffet of crudites and chips and dips and candy. He chose some tomatoes and peppers. I firmly believe that parents can make a large impact against “fake foods” by getting children to try real foods from an early age. We actually skipped baby food altogether at our house, in favor of the Baby-Led Weaning style of introducing solids. I think that helped considerably; my son has always been offered quality choices and been in control of what he eats.

    So, to your question. Why is it important to teach kids to think critically about food? This is important for so many reasons. It is important because although he is a great eater who makes wonderful choices most of the time right now while I am largely in control, my son will not always be three years old. He will be out in the world by himself, making his own choices. This will eventually include his own choices of what to buy, and “voting with dollars” can have an impact on what types of foods are available to choose in the future for all of us. He needs to think critically about food because it’s the basis of his good health. It’s the best chance he has of avoiding numerous diseases and health conditions that might shorten his life expectancy or quality of life. Less health care concerns means cheaper health care, which could free up monies (personal and federal/state) for other causes. He needs to think critically about food because the way food is farmed is impacting everyone’s survival with environmental concerns increasing at an alarming rate. The way we (as a country) feed ourselves currently is not sustainable. The only way to change that is if the next generation knows to do better. I think I heard it from Oprah, but “When you know better, you do better.” Teaching children to think critically about food will allow them to continue making improvements using their own creativity and brain power – perhaps in ways no one has thought of before – and will basically “pay it forward” for the betterment of everyone.

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