How now brown cow?

Though much has been said about the ignorance of Americans, it is a little hard to accept that 48 percent don’t know how chocolate milk is made — though the ingredients are right there on the label — and 7 percent actually believe it comes from brown cows.

Glass of chocolate milk with red straw on a wooden tableBrown_Cow

That revelation — in a survey commissioned by the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy— prompted the Washington Post and Consumerist to dig up some other distressing info gaps. According to various studies, 20 percent believe hamburger is made from the meat of pigs, and many school children do not know that onions and lettuce are plants, or that cheese is made from milk.

The answer, of course, is more education, especially for children. But just who is providing that education, and what are they teaching? In Hawaii, as we’ve seen with school garden-promoting groups like Malama Kauai, the Kohala Center and the Kokua Hawaii Foundation, it’s all about organics.

Food Corps, which is quoted in the Washington Post article, also lists a preponderance of organic and “natural” foods partners, such as UNFI (United Natural Foods Inc.), Bob’s Red Mill, Newman’s Own, Honest Tea and Annie’s, along with Whole Kids (which is supported heavily by Whole Foods), C&S Wholesale Grocers, Rock the Lunch Box and others promoting and selling organic foods. It’s co-founder, Cecily Upton, was previously youth programs manager for Slow Food USA, which also has a school garden program.

Yes, there are other groups, like National Agriculture in the Classroom Organization and the American Farm Bureau Foundation, that are providing schools with curriculum about nutrition, farm technology and agricultural economics.

NYC-School-Gardens-Program-1

But what is the dominant message that is being conveyed in this new battle for the hearts and minds of a new generation of eaters? In Hawaii, and I daresay elsewhere, it’s that organic is great and anything else isn’t.

The Post quotes Upton as saying:

Knowledge is power. Without it, we can’t make informed decisions.

Indeed. But are school kids being given a very narrow knowledge base, one that favors organic methods? Are they being left with the false impression that growing a school garden is on par with producing food for the 98 percent of the population that does not engage in farming? Or that the same principles and practices that apply to 500 square feet can be successfully employed on 5,000 acres? Are they being brainwashed to believe that big farms and biotechnology are bad “industrial” practices that should be feared and shunned?

Yes, kids need to learn more about where food comes from. It’s essential to teach them about the importance of fresh fruits and veggies in a healthy diet. School gardens are a wonderful way to get kids outside, and engaged. And no, you can’t have little kids applying pesticides, running machinery or doing some of the things that are part and parcel of a commercial agricultural operation.

But if our primary way of teaching kids about food and agriculture is a school garden — especially an organic garden — then we’re training yet another generation of poorly educated adults. Except many of them will believe they actually do know something about farming because they once helped in a school garden.

And as we’re increasingly seeing, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, especially when it’s gleaned in the echo chamber of social media. That’s why we have so many people who are either poorly educated about agriculture and/or prone to romantic, idealized ideas about food production weighing in heavily on policies that have tremendous implications for farmers, food processors, hunger and nutrition.

It’s time to get real with kids. So while they’re out there digging in the school garden, share a few facts about how the modern food system is providing more people with more safe food than ever before. Help them understand concepts like economy of scale, the value of technology in agriculture, the tremendous challenge of meeting food safety standards. Clue them in on the complexities and costs of food storage, production and transport, the damage inflicted by weather, pests and diseases. Throw in a few tidbits about price supports, commodity trading, international competition, supply and demand.

Most importantly, teach them some appreciation for the people who devote their lives to agriculture, and deserve to profit from their labors, just like everyone else.

Then maybe we’ll have consumers who truly understand that milk begins as grass and/or feed consumed by cows in a commercial dairy and goes through a process of homogenization, processing, bottling, shipment and storage that allows it to eventually show up in a supermarket in a dazzling array of forms: chocolate, strawberry, whole, skim, 2%, 1%, organic, pasture-raised, omega-rich.

Perhaps then they’ll be grateful that they have so much abundance, and so many choices, at such a relatively low cost.

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