Walk into any preschool or elementary school in this country and chances are there is an art project on the wall using food as one of its media. It is common for teachers of young children to take familiar foods and turn them into art materials. I have done it and it has its uses. For children under the age of two this makes sense, as children that age explore they will bring much of their world to their mouths. Safety requires that the material be non-toxic and food products will do that. However after that age I have a real moral question about it.
You see this came into my mind over a discussion of a game for Purim where you roll a raw egg over a rough surface; the winner is the one whose egg doesn’t break. I wondered if at a festival celebration in a synagogue that we should be so comfortable using food as a toy. You see a lot of people see an egg as a good source of nutrition for the day. If you went through only two dozen eggs it might be the equivalent of almost two weeks of breakfast for a child who has little or nothing. To us it might seem cheap, around $4-5. But to a child in poverty eggs can be treasures. I learned this from one such child.
More years ago than I choose to acknowledge I was running an after-school program in inner-city Syracuse. The goal was to enhance language skills in early elementary school kids, many of whom English was not the home vernacular. I had the brilliant idea of using alphabet noodles to make placards for each with a slogan. I found one child filling her pocket with the noodles, when I looked at her she simply said, “This is food.” I was struck. Here I was a taking what she saw as sustenance and rendering it inedible for a lesson. On that day I modified how I used food in the classroom.
It is always odd when confronted with a situation such as this. I was a college student who saw an endless supply of food as part of my college experience. While I even grew up at times in poverty, there was always food on the table. My mother made sure that we had the ability to get three square meals a day. I even had the luxury of not eating when it was something I didn’t like because I knew the morning would bring something else. I wanted for things, especially after my dad died, but food was never really one of them. So here I was a kid who thought he knew what it was like to be poor watching an 8 year old girl taking uncooked pasta in the pocket of her jeans home for to add to her families supply. How could I ever look at food the same way?
Hunger is a world problem, but we have the resources to feed people if we applied them. I have seen real hunger, in big cities in our country, in rural villages in Kenya and among populations like the elderly too proud to ask for help. As someone who works for a synagogue and has close ties with organizations dedicated to ending hunger I see alarming statistics from my own country and worldwide. I also see statistics that in the US we throw out about 40% of our food, due to rot, disinterest and just to clean up. Imagine how much more food is produced that winds up glued to construction paper that is now under the back seat of a thousand minivans all over the country. Where you see colourful counting tools I can’t but help to see calories that could help a child sleep better, do better at school or maybe even live another day.
Yes I know that it is dramatic. But in the end the message we send when we turn food into a plaything is powerful. As a culture we have become so far removed from the production of our food there are children’s books that say chickens come from megamarts and juice from a bottle. We hate when someone tears down the curtain on what we actually are eating, be it genetically enhanced tomatoes or the use of what is referred to as meat glue in many products. Recently a beef supplier was caught using horse meat in their raw product even selling to Burger King in England. The irony is that horse, while horrific to some, is a delicacy in France and claims a big price. But it was so easy for these things to quietly flow through our culture because most people do not connect to the production of their food.
Food is abundant, easy to obtain, and plentiful if you have a middle class income. Farmers are a quaint archetype that lends itself to a Superbowl commercial but in fact most food comes from factory farms owned by a few companies. We don’t have to chase, raise, slaughter, and in some cases even prepare our food. It is as ubiquitous for many as dust and though it has lost the reverence we once had for it. One of the ways I battle against my own failings in this is by keeping Kosher. For me Kashrut isn’t about a biblical imperative, but it makes every act of eating something I have to think about, something that I have to actually focus a thought on. Even if I chose to eat something that is non-kosher I will have spent the time making that choice. This is true for anyone on a diet counting points, carbs, calories, or sugar. Even more so for those who see the alphabet noodles not as a toy but as a meal.
So here is my thought. The next time you are using marshmallows to make a snow picture with texture, Cheerios to count the number of days you have been in school, or eggs to roll for kicks think about the last time you had a food drive and why. Think about the message it is sending kids, and maybe wonder if one of the children in your class has wanted a marshmallow just once in the last few months but it is a luxury their parent can’t afford. I can honestly tell you, you will see food differently.