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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:


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