By Rima Kohli
Can we train our children to relish healthy wholesome foods by weaving an experience around them?
My acceptance into a volunteer programme with an international grassroots non-profit in the deep, deep, south, in the middle of the state of Georgia , heart of the Bible belt, is what took me to America for 18 months in 1998.
Living in this part of rural Georgia was the biggest culture shock of my life. Two grocery stores, 10,000 people, and downtown, spanned a one-mile radius that could be covered in a ten-minute walk.
We “volunteered” 40 hours a week of our time in return for free housing, free house supplies, health insurance, and a $75 food coupon that we got in the form of a “pig check” which could be redeemed for cash only we purchased groceries at the local southern food chain store called Piggly Wiggly.
Our lives revolved around the community. Our friends, housemates, and colleagues were our biggest strength, sources of entertainment and comfort. We cooked together, hosted cooking competitions, BBQs, dinner parties and bake sales. We cooked food from around the world to educate each other of the countries we came from. It was all about fellowship, community living, good wholesome food and socialisation in a group.
The work I did with the non-profit organisation involved building houses for low-income people. My 40 hours per work specifically involved inspiring, educating and enabling young kids and young adults to fundraise, educate their communities about housing needs and volunteer to build houses with us for the families in need.
The work I did as well as my life experiences in Georgia made me feel highly enriched, fulfilled and happy. These experiences gave me redemption through a deep appreciation for the real, the authentic, and the lasting – for the things that money can’t buy; the very things that matter most of all. It’s a lesson that would work for me in the later years of my life, and my mission.
Five years later graduate school brought me back to the United States of America and this time round I was in Washington, DC and then New York City. What a striking contrast to my days spent in Georgia.
I find that life here is analogous to the NYC subway departure announcement at every station: “Stand clear of the closing doors, please”. NYC, the mecca of opportunity, is fast-paced; the land where everyone chases his or her dream, everyone on the move, coffee to go, and hamburger to go. If you stop and smell the coffee, the doors (like the doors of the NYC subway) will close on you, in seconds!
I was distressed, yet strangely fascinated with this way of life and started paying more attention to people, to children, trying to understand what it took to sustain this intense hyper energy. I was particularly interested in what they ate and their relationship to food. I talked to children in many private schools in New York City between the ages of three to seven years and asked them why they like, McDonald’s or KFC, and what was so special about the burrito to go? I was surprised to learn that not one child talked about the food, the nuggets, the hamburger, the fries, the meat, or the bread. It was all about the experience around it, the McDonald’s toys, the three-hour outing that it evolves into when parents take them to a fast food restaurant. It was a brilliant marketing strategy on the part of these big food chain giants. These mega giants had cracked it early that children develop an experience around food.
I decided I didn’t have the money or the inclination to fight these institutions. Instead, I began to study them closely and wondered if I could design an experience around healthy, slow, deliberate eating habits, providing a child and parents yet another option on the table, and in turn enabling them to make conscious choices.
Hence Organic Quotient was born. My commitment is to stretch a child’s palate, and help develop a healthy relationship with food.
I took this challenge on by demonstrating through cooking with children on how food can be used as a powerful educational medium that naturally complements the school curriculum.
Food stimulates all five senses, enhancing a child’s ability to learn. I recall one time when we baked cookies with four-year-olds from a private school in Brooklyn. One child was enraptured by the visual beauty of the bright orange Clementine zests, and decided they would make the prettiest sprinkles for her cookies. Then the olfactory senses jumped in and she changed to the sunny lemon zests because they smelled even better. But the epiphany occurred when she realised that crystallised coconut zests tasted the best. To make the perfect cookie, she concluded, she’d simply have to use all three.
I have just returned from a trip to a farm with some kids and their mothers. We sorted out chikoos, then transplanted tomato seedlings and even smeared cowdung on the floor of the cottages we stayed in. We jumped into the adjoining river and played games. That evening we used farm-grown tomatoes to make a sauce for the hamburgers made of soya kheema. The next day we made pancakes made of rice flour and besan, instead of flour and sugar. Even picky eaters walloped the food. The mothers could not believe they would eat this food or last so long without toys or TV.
Children can develop a relationship with food that goes beyond its consumption. The idea is to make it experiential, and to foster a deep appreciation for the real, the authentic, and the lasting.
Rima Kohli is founder of Organic Quotient and a development practitioner with a Masters in Public Policy from Johns Hopkins University.
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