Will your child still be eating chicken nuggets, pizza and bagels by the time she gets to college? Are you concerned about your child’s diet now and are looking to do something about it?
Childhood obesity is a serious problem in our country. Whether or not your child is currently obese, most parents would like to give their children the best and set them on the road to a healthy lifestyle. Parents can shape their children’s palates for the rest of their lives. The reason so many don’t is simple — it seems so inconvenient and more expensive. And, if you are anything like me, you might think, “Why bother?” That was my attitude; I was a “Doubting Thomas.” When Melissa, my then pre-teen daughter, asked me to buy organic foods, I thought it was a waste of money, but I indulged her. To my surprise, the apples were meatier, the carrots tasted better, and so did the milk.
When I was growing up, I thought vegetables grew in the freezer, but I also knew that an assortment of fruit and vegetables came in cans. They were mostly tasteless, or in the case of fruit, covered in sweet, sugary syrup. We did have Red Delicious apples, carrots, melon, bananas and occasionally some other fresh vegetables or berries in the summer, but I was just not interested.
Kids growing up today in New York City have a disconnect as to where the food on their plates originates, according to Michael Hurwitz, Director of the Greenmarket Program at GrowNYC. GrowNYC offers programs to educate children with respect to nutrition, as well as growing practices, through interactive experiences. Even adults are often unaware of the incredible diversity of products and the hundreds of varieties available at farmer’s markets. Your child can taste many varieties of a fruit or a vegetable and will either find a new favorite, or learn to eat something that she did not think she’d ever like, as different varieties of the same item tend to have differing flavors. Given more choices, children can select the variety that most appeals to their palate.
When children visit a farmer’s market for the first time, the rich colors and flavors of such a vast array of incredibly fresh produce astonish most kids and they really have fun. A knowledgeable staff teaches the children how the food is raised and how to make the best use of it.
These days we are all in a hurry and have gotten used to the convenience of pre-packaged and fast food that is so readily available. But these foods are laden with hidden calories and invariably higher in sugar, salt and fat, explains Ellen Walk, a registered dietician at Jacobi Medical Center. Even when we are trying “to be good” and eat healthy, we buy 100-calorie packages of snack food, pre-cut fruit in containers and pre-cut salad in bags. Of course, these are not the worst choices we can make, and yet, surprisinlgy, they are also not the healthiest. The pre-cut salad greens may have been washed with chemicals to keep them looking fresh. Even the fruit that may have been cut at your local market cannot be as fresh without its natural covering or rind, and often sits in the store for days. According to Walk, this is not the freshest or healthiest way to eat.
However, food purchased at the farmer’s market is “nutritionally mature, sold within 18 to 20 hours of being harvested,” explains Hurwitz. It’s also better for you. Hurwitz says “there is no better value,” referring not only to the reasonable prices, but to the longer shelf life associated with the produce from the farmer’s market.
As consumers, we now have more information than ever before on food labels and even calorie and ingredient composition at some restaurants and fast food establishments. And yet, we gravitate to whatever seems quick and easy.
Walk reminds us that fast foods are fast in more than one way — they are readily available and they are eaten fast. Fast food requires very little chewing, unlike, for example, an apple. So, not only are fast foods unhealthy because of their content, but we are often guilty of mindlessly consuming them. Consequently, we eat more than we should.
Walk says that when children, like Melissa, ask to eat healthy, they are exhibiting a respect for food and pride in what they put in their body, and parents should be responsive.
Still, there is more to eating healthy than eating organic produce. According to Hurwitz, by purchasing produce at a farmer’s market we are addressing three separate health concerns — personal, community and environmental. Personal health involves eating the freshest fruits and vegetables, as part of a balanced diet. Farmlands are often replaced by housing developments, and not vice versa, and by community health, we are demonstrating the virtue of building a local economy. For him, environmental health includes not only the smaller carbon footprint to which “locavores” (people who eat locally raised food and produce) aspire, but biodiversity in growing, to keep the land healthy and fertile. Produce from foreign markets is often treated with chemical preservatives, and, as Walk indicated, may come from countries which do not have the same standards and regulations with respect to pesticides. GrowNYC farmers work to preserve the water shed, evidencing a true sense of responsibility with the ecological community and protecting NYC water, explains Hurwitz. He says that their farmers limit chemical use and do not “blanket spray” their fields. Part of the mission of GrowNYC is to educate “the next generation of stewards [environmental leaders].”
This month, check out the wide selection of apples, tomatoes, Kirby cucumbers, zucchini blossoms, squash, cherries, scallions, spinach, kale, lettuce, peaches, sweet peppers, raspberries, blueberries, melons, cabbage and cauliflower.
Walk was eager to note that the healthier, local, organic foods taste better and can be prepared simply. It can be easier and healthier to cook with just a touch of seasoning to bring out the the fresh flavor, without adding heavy sauces or using complicated recipes. She recommends roasting vegetables in the oven with a little bit of salt and olive oil. Finger foods can include fresh carrots, green beans, celery and sliced apple.
Today “going green” is more accessible than you think. To find a farmer’s market near you in the five boroughs, or on Long Island, go to www.agmkt.state.ny.us/AP/CommunityFarmersMarkets.asp. to learn about Greenmarkets, their locations, and even request one in your neighborhood.
In addition, more and more people are becoming more participatory in the going green movement and are joining “CSAs” (Community Supported Agriculture groups). There is The Garden of Eve in Carroll Gardens, the Chelsea CSA, Biophilia Organic Farm in Jamestown, NY, and the Long Island City CSA. Check out www.localharvest.org. for a more complete listing and information. When you buy shares for a season in a CSA, you have an opportunity to visit the farm it is affiliated with and can agree to work for a set number of hours on the farm. When kids go to the farm and put their hands in the dirt, they create a personal relationship with the earth. It becomes more than just a fun outing and they may have a more positive relationship with food as they grow up.
You may instead opt to join a food co-op, like the Park Slope Food Coop, which boasts 14,000 members. Queens will get its first food co-op in the Fall of 2011. Go to www.queensharvetscoop.com or visit them on Facebook. Core group members at food co-ops and CSAs often get discounts.
You can also check out the Greenfest in Mattituck, Long Island, on July 24 and 25 by going to www.eastendgreenfest.com or calling (631) 734-5894.
Don’t do it just because it is politically correct right now. Your job as a parent is to open doors for your child. If you don’t want to commit to a CSA or food co-op, start by just eating some organic, locally grown produce and make a few healthier meals each week. See how your family reacts. Fresh does taste better and you may be surprised when your children’s palates become accustomed to fresher, healthier food, and they scoff at frozen and canned produce.
Risa C. Doherty is an attorney and freelance writer.
Copyright 2011 by Risa C. Doherty