(Note: The following post is featured in the May 2015 edition of OurPlanet, the magazine of the UN Environment Program.)
When Cui Fengqing was 16, she was sent from Shanghai to a rural village to plant vegetables in a commune. Every year, the local government sent her household a block of frozen raw eggs so they could celebrate the New Year with egg dumplings. For seven years, she had no meat in her meals. Until she was in her 50s, she didn’t go grocery shopping and didn’t cook.
Since then, China has lifted 200 million out of food poverty. Every rural school lunch is subsidized by 4RMB (US $0.68). In the 30 years to 2009 , the disposable income of China's urbanizing middle class has increased nine times over, while the proportion of all its people in poverty slumped from 63 per cent in 1981 to just 10 per cent in 2004.
That is an amazing achievement, but there is a big downside. A whole generation of parents have neglected to teach their kids to cook, making them dependent on convenience foods or restaurants. Starbucks has turned China from a tea-drinking nation to one infatuated with sweet coffee, and KFC is the number one fast food franchise.
Now, Lawrence Chang’s parents treat him regularly to McDonalds. His mother believes that a multinational corporation will have stricter regulations on food safety, so the hamburgers and fried chicken must be healthy. As a chubby Little Emperor (precious only son), he dictates what he wants for meals, and makes his mom give his friends expensive toys to win them over at playdates. He prefers to spend his time indoors studying, and on video games, than on running around outside playing sports.
Although one in five people in the world live in China, one in three of those with diabetes are Chinese. In 1980, less than 1 percent of Chinese adults had the disease: now it’s more than 10 percent. By 2011, up to 20 percent of 7-18 year olds were overweight and obese and 15 percent were pre-diabetic.
The deputy secretary of the China Diabetes Society, Xu Zhangrong, said “The sudden rise of diabetes in China is not only a health threat, but an economic one. It could bankrupt the country’s healthcare system. China needs to shift its focus from treating diabetes to preventing it.”
Yet China has no formal food education program. And its National Institute of Nutrition and Food Hygiene says; “China has just over 10,000 qualified nutritionists nationwide, but needs at least four million, based on international standards of one nutritionist for every 300 people.”
China’s dietary and health crises are also a planetary one. The country is like a sumo wrestler eating dinner at a banquet full of ballerinas. Its huge appetite for imported foods impacts the agriculture resources of countries around the world. New Zealand is turning pastures into dairy farms to produce milk and infant formula for it.
Our food system is to blame for up to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. With 800 million people in the process of entering the Chinese middle class by 2025, they are replacing shared stir fries containing tiny slivers of meat with huge individual Western style steaks. That’s bad news for methane emissions, deforestation, China’s already dwindling sources of water, and land that could be used to produce tons and tons of vegetables instead of one slab of meat.
The time to make a massive change starts in first grade, in the school curriculum. A survey by the China Center for Disease Control showed that primary school kids' diets are controlled by school lunches and cooks at home. Middle school children’s diets, by contrast, are largely influenced by their peers and, by the time they reach high school, their food habits are largely set. If we want to make a dramatic change, we must start with the 94 million children in primary school.
“A New Way to Eat” - an initiative by my non-profit JUCCCE - is doing just that, setting out to meet the lack of nutritional education. The challenge is how to keep children - with their short attention spans - interested, and how to explain to them complex sustainable diet concepts of which most adults are not yet aware.
Our initiative uses “playducation” to turn such terms as “biodiversity”, “micronutrients”, “high blood sugar” into fun themes like “Eat a Rainbow Every Day”, “Where Our Food Comes From”, and “Icky Sticky Sugar”. Children can jump around, play speed games, get blindfolded. And, of course, there are lots and lots of stickers.
The curriculum is based on three simple Food Hero Rules:
1. Food fuels your mind and body
2. Quality foods & exercise give you extra fuel
3. You can save the planet by eating healthier
Complex food pyramids and calorie concepts are turned into a simpler “Eat This First” table that blends healthy eating for both kids and the planet. Requests to pilot initiative activities - even as it is being developed- are proving to be overwhelming. It has received enthusiastic feedback from kids, parents and teachers in school classrooms, extracurricular academies, subscription educational magazines, mother and child groups, restaurants, and corporate employee activation programs.
Of course – though China has 15 per cent of the world's primary school children - it is hardly alone in facing dietary and planetary challenges. So we are partnering with the EAT Forum with the aim of eventually taking the program global, with regional partners adapting it to local language and tastes.
Today's children are the first generation not expected to live longer than their parents. They are also the first to be imperiled by dangerous climate change. By learning to eat differently, they can tackle both threats at the same time – and have fun doing so.