By Grayson Shelor, Phase II Fellow
A few weeks ago I was in Target when I heard the commotion of a small child running in the aisles. Some distance behind him, his frustrated mother called for him to stop, before informing him in no uncertain term that he had just “lost his squirt gun privileges.” The little man broke down in tears, but mom stayed strong. I was drawn in despite myself, and stared at a jar of pecans with one ear toward the action as the reckoning took place the next shelf over:
“What did you promise to do to take home the squirt gun?”
“To make good choices.”
“That’s right. And I asked you to stop running, but you kept going.”
He wailed. “But I want to make good choices!”
I walked away then, but a few minutes later I found myself in the checkout line behind them. The little boy, who was probably around four years old, was still sniffling off and on from his seat in the cart, in that way that small children have when they fear you might forget that you’ve trampled on their sensitive feelings.
“Mama?” He asked in a shaking voice.
“I think I could calm down if I had…that.”
We both followed his fingertip to find the ‘miracle cure’: a bag of Cheetos. His mother sighed, and looked as if she were considering pulling her hair out. I barely lasted until they had paid and rolled away before I lost my composure and started laughing.
I work with a lot of people in our community who want to make good choices. But all too often, Chester of Cheetos fame, or Tony the Tiger, or Colonel Sanders make their own arguments. When they catch you in the right frame of mind, those persuasions start to sound GrrRRReat! After all, the corporations behind those brands (Cheetos and KFC are both owned by PepsiCo; Frosted Flakes by Kellogg’s) have a team of marketers and psychologists at their fingertips. They know all the tricks to inspire brand loyalty in us. And disproportionately, their marketing targets children and young teens. The next time you are in the cereal aisle, try crouching down to view the scene as a five-year-old would. You’ll find that bunnies, Leprechauns, Pirates, Parrots, and characters from popular animated films are suddenly making eye contact with you. So if you sometimes feel like all of the forces are arrayed against your healthy eating intentions—in a way, you’re right.
Corporate food has got the budget and the know-how to make us think we want it. On our side? We’ve got farmers. And from where I stand, as part of the AMI Farm at Augusta Health, we farmers are doing pretty well for ourselves. The things we grow and harvest are beautiful and tasty. Last week, I stood in a hallway with an array of tiny cups filled with Massaged Collard Greens Salad and stopped every person who passed my way to sample. I heard many stories from these strangers about the horrors of canned Collard Greens they had eaten as children. But each one reacted to our farm-fresh greens positively, saying they might as well be a different plant for all the taste difference compared to canned.
Real food simply tastes different. But people have to be in the right place to give it a fair shot. In fact, another educator recently shared a fascinating fact with me: that people, both adults and children, who are told that a food is good for them are both less likely to try the food, and less likely to enjoy it once they do. But if we change the script, and instead highlight the experience of tasting as a sensory experiment—Is it spicy or sweet? Crispy or soft?—then our tasters seem to associate the food with a sense of pride and independence, and to remember the flavor in a more positive light. If they learn that eggplant has a fuzzy stem at the same time as they learn that it is purple and grows in hot weather, the benefits only increase.
As farmers and food educators, we don’t really have an image problem, and we are excellent about keeping people engaged once we get them to try making a change. But to meet new eaters where they are and set up that first positive experience, perhaps we need to quit telling people what is good for them, and simply saying that local, farm-fresh, organically produce food is good. If they ask, we’ll tell them why. That it is good for the planet, for our communities, our wallets, waistlines, hearts, and brains. Just good, all around. And we all want to be good.