The end of summer means saying good bye to lazy, carefree days, late sleepovers, and pool parties and replacing them instead with school supply shopping, homework planning, and a return to the monotony of “normal” life. Yet for at least 30 million American families who struggle just to feed their kids, the end of summer and start of school means something more. It means the end of “summer hunger” and the re-start of free breakfast and lunch every day.
While the school meals program has a huge impact on food insecurity, it is often not enough. Millions of American families will still be without regular access to high-quality, healthy, affordable food to feed their children at night and on weekends. While I can buy a head of greens or bag of sweet potatoes day or night at a nearby grocery store, my neighbors across the Anacostia River, in Washington, D.C., have only three grocery stores servicing 165,000 people. Buying fresh produce can mean a long walk, numerous bus rides, or a long drive to a distant store to do an occasional big shop. Meanwhile, I have four full service grocery stores in walking distance to my house.
It’s an injustice that should move many people to action.
As the Director of Healthy Eating at Martha’s Table, the question I get asked almost more than anything else is “how do I teach my kids to care about our hungry neighbors?” My answer is simple: don’t. Instead of teaching them about hunger, teach them about food justice.
Talk to them about how it is deeply unfair that for far too many, it’s easier (and cheaper) to buy a bag of chips than an apple, and that for far too many, access to fresh fruit and vegetables is a privilege, not a certainty. Tell them that the vegetables that we cajole them to eat over time will mean years added to their life expectancy but not everyone has that same opportunity. Teach them that we won’t be able to solve hunger until we have a just food system.
Unless we teach our children to identify this injustice and raise their voices, zip codes will continue to determine health outcomes.
Here are ten easy ways to teach your kids about food justice:
1. Visit your nearby convenience store (think 7-Eleven). Plan a healthy family dinner, with your kids, with just what is available at that store. Try doing that for five nights.
2. Ask your kids to think about where you shop for food. Have them write out all the places you visit (in the real or virtual world). Now ask them what would happen if you had to do all of your shopping at one place only every two weeks. Where would you go? What would you get and what couldn’t you get?
3. Just eat frozen or canned fruit and vegetables for a week. Imagine what it’s like to not easily be able to visit a store to get fresh produce.
4. Ask your kids what they want for dinner tonight. Give them each a turn to tell you. Then tell them you can only make dinner with what you have on hand. You can’t go to the store.
5. Price a bag of chips. Now look around the produce section and see what else you can buy for the same price. How does it compare? If you needed dinner, which would be a more filling choice?
6. Take your kids to the store and spend some time in the produce section. Really take notice of the quality of the fruit and veggies. See if you can find one item that looks old. Now imagine that is what is primarily stocked in the store. Ask your kids what they would do if they could just buy food that looked like that.
7. Have your kids count the number of commercials for fast food restaurants when they watch TV. Now have them count the number of commercials for fruit and vegetables. Ask them what they learned.
8. Instead of jumping into the car to get to the store, research bus options, grab your bags and go to a store far away from where you live. Figure out how much you can actually buy to carry home. Now figure out how you’d do that in the rain/cold/snow/heat.
9. Talk to your kids about the five most common items you get at the store. Price them out and add up the total. Visit a grocery store in a food desert – or neighborhood without a grocery store -- and price them out. Compare the two.
10. If you usually go to the store every week, skip a week and just eat what you have in your house. See if you can make it a full week.
If you just do a few of these things, your children will get a powerful example of what it’s like to grow up on the unjust side of our food system. And hopefully, they will then be spurred not just to make charitable food donations for those in need, but also to fight for needed changes in how we make healthy food available to everyone in our country.