As urban Indians, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to the variety of food available to us in our neighbourhood supermarkets – be it fresh, processed, or packaged. The growing tendency to consume convenience foods or hire full-time cooks in our urban households is estranging us from our food.
Most of us do not consider the larger impact of our food choices, and urban food trends are such that the transport, processing, packaging and distribution of the food we eat consumes enormous amounts of energy and resources.
Children growing up in such an environment begin to assimilate these food choices from a young age without understanding their implications; and it made me wonder, what would their food consumption patterns in the future be?
To deeply understand something, one needs to be actively involved with it. To truly appreciate food, we need to know where it comes from, how it is cooked, what it tastes like, and what it does to our bodies when we eat it. If we take ownership of what we eat, we are more likely to become responsible about eating, and realize the importance of making healthier and more sustainable food choices.
The question is how?
How can we sensitize ourselves to make small changes in our consumption patterns so that the food we eat improves our well-being while simultaneously reducing our carbon footprint?
How can we make children get involved with their food so that they appreciate its value beyond satisfying hunger and taste?
These were the main questions I chose to address through my graduation project while at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore. I wanted to introduce children to the concept of food sustainability through an interactive book, and really take the engagement further through inclusive methods like workshops, story telling, or simply reading in groups.
With that in mind, I worked on a storybook character – 6-year old Cheeku – the ‘Garrulous Gastronaut’ and main protagonist. ‘The Garrulous Gastronaut would encourage children, and in turn their parents, to get involved with their food, question its source and understand its impact beyond their bodies to lead healthier and more sustainable lifestyles.
So what is a Gastronaut?
Gastronaut / gass-tro-not / •noun.
ORIGIN Greek gaster ‘stomach’ + nautes ‘sailor’.
The young gastronaut Cheeku re-introduces food to children between the ages of 4-8 years, as an aspect of life that is exciting to explore. He does this through various food-centric activities that involve making choices about how you get food onto your plate.
Through Cheeku’s adventurous, funny, and relatable journey, different facets of food like growing a herb garden, shopping for food, sorting fruits and vegetables, cooking, and of course sharing a meal with people we care for could be explored in an interactive - non-textbookish manner. An illustrated book is a fantastic medium to communicate ideas and engage people, as it leaves plenty of room for the reader’s or viewer’s imagination!
I drew inspiration from Jamie Oliver’s ‘Food Revolution’, the ‘Slow Food Movement’ and ‘Locavores’ – these helped build the groundwork for the different facets of food I would choose to highlight in my book. I spent hours in childrens’ libraries reading children’s books and speaking to kindergarten and junior-school teachers.
The audience I chose to write my book for were children between the ages of 4-8 years. One motivation was that at this age they are very inquisitive, receptive and open to learning about new ideas. Another was that these are their formative years, and what a child learns and discovers at this age can make a significant impact and stay with her for life. As one of my neighbors and mother to five-year old son Anisha Kashwani corroborated, “Even if children have a better understanding at an older age, they also know that they can choose to ignore things that they are being told. They can choose to not care about things.”
After completing the book, I did several book readings in schools, and even hosted a workshop for children at iLeap Academy called ‘Planting an Edible Garden’. I’ve had very enthusiastic responses so far, from both boys and girls. During my workshop, my participants recreated parts of Cheeku’s adventure. They planted a small herb garden that they could take home and make “Edible Garden Guide Books” that had tips and tricks on how to take care of their garden that they could share with their friends and families as well. We also made a fruit salad with seasonal produce. Doing these activities after a book reading made my audience like the book more, and the message in the book had a greater impact because we were following up on what we had shared and read.
My experience has been that children love being outdoors and interacting with people. Many children asked me where the closest farmer’s market was. Some liked the idea of forming a Gastronaut’s Club, mentioned at the end of the book. They also asked me how I learned to cook and whether I was writing
I had decided to do book readings to see the response to my book, rather than ask children for individual reviews because I felt interactive sessions in groups help children open up and they don’t feel obligated to be polite! Since the book is about getting children to explore and interact with people, I felt doing group readings would help children encourage each other, with enthusiasm rubbing off on each other…
Initially, I was a little nervous about children accepting the characters in the book, since pet names had been used for all of them. Though this was done to make the characters more fun, and endearing, I felt children might find it strange. However, the children I read to, just found it funny! They asked me if the characters were real, and when I shared that they were inspired by people I knew, they immediately wanted to know who those people were and gave me ideas for what the characters could do next! Most of them loved Cheeku and felt encouraged to do the things he did.
Despite these fun interactive sessions, there remains a broken link in the chain. Creating awareness about sustainability and well-being can only go so far. Meaningful changes can only take place when we consider the effect of our choices on our future, and start altering our everyday lifestyles.
“Teach kids how to cook! Teach them where food comes from and what it tastes like. Encourage them to explore the food world. And while we are at it, how about doing some things to change the food environment to make it easier for parents to make healthier choices for their kids?”
- Marion Nestle