Friday, December 14, 2012

French Lessons: How America's Food Culture is the Base of its Obesity Crisis

by Jill Ricotta

photo courtesy of

A few days ago I came across a fascinating article in the New York Times that bore some good news about the obesity front in America. Every American is well aware of the obesity epidemic and that it is one of the biggest crises facing this nation. The article discussed new data showing that the rates of childhood obesity have actually dropped in several major cities, important news considering the extreme health risks brought about by this phenomenon. Philadelphia emerged as the overall winner here, with an impressive drop of 5 percent.
I was particularly interested in why Philly was so successful. The author lists many programs and policies that the school district put in place to ensure that children would be exposed to a healthy lifestyle, if only at school, which included taking vending machines off school grounds, school-wide focus on fruits and vegetables, whole grains etc. This begins at the elementary school level, which helps students become better prepared to eat healthy in middle and high school. “Here at William H. Ziegler Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia, where most students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the day begins with a nutrition tip over the loudspeaker. Teachers give out colorful erasers and stickers instead of Tootsie Rolls. Fund-raising events feature fruit smoothies instead of chocolate.”
One quote really stuck out to me, because I think it illustrates one of the biggest problems in American food culture that is contributing to our obesity crisis.“Some students had never seen broccoli or cauliflower, so Jill Dogmanits, a sixth-grade teacher, started taste tests to acquaint students with those vegetables and healthy snacks like hummus, fresh pineapple and whole-wheat bagels.”
This is incredibly sad but all too common in the States. There are children that have never been exposed to vegetables and fruits at home and thus have to be taught what broccoli tastes like by a concerned teacher. I have met many Americans of my generation or younger that make statements like “I don’t really like vegetables, except for potatoes,” or “I’m not really into fruit.” Salads are considered a “diet food,” (why else would you eat it?), and diets that emphasize fruits and vegetables and cutting back on meat, dairy, and processed foods are often labeled “extreme.” The only foods ever advertised are processed foods that, perhaps if you’re lucky, have fruit flavors but never actually fruit. Furthermore, most efforts to introduce more fruits and vegetables into American culture are met with pushback, particularly when it comes to children (ex. conservative reaction to Michelle Obama’s campaign). “Personal choice” is emphasized strongly. Even Jon Stewart constantly criticizes Mayor Bloomberg for his attempt at reducing soft drink sizes in New York City. Meanwhile, the country seems perfectly content to let our children subsist on processed junk and eating massive quantities of meat. In fact. we make entire TV shows and competitions out of it. Americans are truly living in an “anti-fruit, anti-vegetable” culture.

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I feel I have gained new perspective on how unique American food culture is (although it’s starting to spread), by living in various parts of the word. Currently, I am located right outside of Paris, teaching English at three different primary schools. Much ink has been spilled over why Europeans (and particularly the French and Italians) are so much thinner, and often healthier than Americans. Teaching French children everyday has given me a lot of insight into the base of the French attitude towards food, which is quite different from the American version.
Let me begin with the fact that I have yet to meet a French kid that did not like vegetables. When I ask them what their favorite foods are, they always start with fruits and vegetables, and list at least five or six. This is just normal. I can’t even imagine a French child being as negative about fruits and vegetables as the vast majority of American children; It’s just not as acceptable. I also have yet to see a teacher pack a lunch without multiple vegetables on the plate, and usually fruit for dessert (and there is always dessert).  To be sure. there is a lot of processed food in France, mostly in the form of cookies, candies, and madeleines that line multiple aisles of any grocery store. There are also vending machines, with Snickers, M&Ms and the like, but they are frequented a lot less than their counterparts in America. Children are raised with the attitude that they can eat these foods but not all the time. They are not everyday, every meal type foods.
Typical children's recipe in France
Photo courtesy of
            Another thing worth noting here is that children are exposed to cooking as a normal concept. Americans, despite the popularity of Rachel Ray and the Food channel, seem a lot less interested in the kitchen than they used to be. Cooking is not overwhelmingly common; certainly not for the majority of meals. Many people eat out at restaurants or buy ready-to-eat microwace meals. When I was teaching my 7-8 year olds that we eat pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, my teacher asked me if I had any recipes to give them. It would have never crossed my mind to give a seven year old a recipe but it is a rather common occurrence. Short, simple recipes that the kids are expected to make and understand, and time is devoted in class to studying cooking. Children are expected to learn to feed themselves, and to not rely on restaurants and fast food to supply them with the nutrition their bodies need.
            Now, this is not to say that the French are fantastic at everything (far from it!). They do, however, have a better attitude about food than we do; one that is more based in tradition and nutrition than advertising and convenience. If the USA is ever going to work on fixing the issue of obesity and overweight children and adults, there needs to be a fundamental change in the way we approach food. Of course, some families do a superb job teaching their children how to eat well in the USA, but that doesn't change the fact that they are constantly surrounded by a negative food culture. Personal responsibility can only go so far. Parents are obviously the most important teachers of healthy habits but society should not be working against them. Philadelphia, and select other cities, have been working to create their own food cultures but it really must be a nationwide change to work on reversing the damage already done. As long as our society pushes back on basic healthy food like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in favor of processed food, excess meat consumption and fad diet crazes, the worst the obesity crisis will become, putting stress on everything from our healthcare system to our infrastructure. Perhaps we should let Michelle Obama show kids how to grow that vegetable garden and embrace a better food culture; at least for children that don’t yet know any better. 

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