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North American kids are not the only ones that live on junk food

Canadian Jeannie Marshall wrote a book on her experience of bringing up her son in Rome and her fight against junk food.
By Jeannie Marshall
Slate
Despite having a stronger culinary culture, Italian children are obsessed with the same industrial foods that fill supermarket shelves the other side of the pond

US soft drinks have been available in Italy for a long time. There are some Italian versions too, but Italians didn’t drink them with meals until recently. A variety of nonalcoholic aperitivi such as Gingerino, Sanbitter Rosso, and Crodino come in small bottles that hold about half a glass of liquid, and you can order them at a bar in the afternoon instead of having a glass of prosecco or franciacorta (although it’s beyond me why you would ever want to have something instead of prosecco or franciacorta). They are bitter and slightly sweet, and they are meant for adults, not children.

But in the summer of 2011 at one of our favourite pizzerias in Rome, I was surprised when the waiter asked my six-year-old son, Nico, if he wanted a Coca-Cola with his pizza. Nico said yes, and I said no. (I said it much louder, so I won.) It never would have occurred to him to order a soft drink; he’s used to drinking water with meals, as other Italian children did until very recently. Until the waiter offered the possibility of something sweet, he had been content with water. But now I had an angry child on my hands, and the only way to win back his attention over dinner was to promise that he could have sugar and lemon on the bowl of fresh strawberries that he intended to order for dessert. Later, I asked the waiter why he offered a soft drink to a child. I wondered if it was some kind of promotion, but he said no, that he’d noticed that more children were asking for Coke with their pizza and that they seemed to like it. Italians really like to see children enjoy their meals.

Coca-Cola actually had a campaign in the summer of 2011 to encourage Italians drink Coke with their meals. This might not seem radical to North American people, but this is the land where people drink water or wine at mealtime. In the coffee bars, there were special menu deals offering a sandwich with a Coke, or a salad with a Coke, or a slice of pizza with a Coke, or a bowl of prepackaged, microwaved spaghetti with a Coke. In Rome some ads were designed to look as though they were from the 1950s and showed people sitting at a table drinking Coke with their food, a view of the Colosseum behind them.

In North America everyone is talking about the link between soft drinks and obesity, but you don’t hear as much about it in Europe. Europeans have developed food cultures that include the good with the bad and so they are less fearful of foods we might deem dangerous. The pleasure of food has always been part of its nurturing quality. This has left them vulnerable to advertising that portrays junk food as wholesome family food, and sweet drinks as something to make the little ones happy. There’s an innocence here when it comes to these sugary drinks that reminds me of North America in the 1970s. Families arrive at the beach lugging giant bottles of cola and orange and lemon soda. I saw a woman at the beach pouring Coca-Cola into her baby’s bottle — the baby wasn’t even walking yet.

As childhood obesity has risen all over the world in the last few years, and as Italy’s rate of childhood obesity has now reached one in three, I can see that what has changed is the introduction of processed and fast foods.

McDonald’s launched a version of local food with the controversial McItaly burger in 2010. The company promises that the ingredients are all Italian, including the beef. Somehow it managed to get the Ministry of Agriculture to endorse its US-style, fast-food hamburger dressed with an all-Italian artichoke spread and Asiago cheese, and present it as part of Italy’s great food traditions. The Agriculture minister posed for photographs wearing a McDonald’s apron and holding up a beef patty. The ministry backed the McDonald’s venture, he said, because it wanted to defend the “Made in Italy” trademark and promote the taste of Italy, particularly to young people. “We want to give an imprint of Italian flavours to our youngsters,” the minister said at a press conference.

In European countries with a history of amazingly diverse food cultures, children are eating the same industrial foods and suffering the same problems. For Italians, as for other cultures, the solution is all around them in the fresh fruit and vegetables that are so abundantly grown here.

For a while, one news item had Italians thinking a little more about their eating habits, and I hoped it would encourage a return to traditional eating. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations published an analysis of the diet in the Mediterranean region from 1962 to 2002 finding that it had “decayed into a moribund state.” Mediterranean countries were eating about 30 percent more calories by 2002 than they had been 40 years earlier.

After the study was published, there was a flurry of news items about overweight children and their clueless parents who innocently fed them fast food. People began to talk about choosing healthy snacks for their children, but more often than not, those snacks came wrapped in packaging bearing claims of being natural, wholesome, and even traditional. Though Nico had a wonderful, home-cooked, two-course lunch prepared for him at school, he had to take his own food for the merenda, which is what Italians call the morning or afternoon snack. I was looking forward to finding out what wonderful foods Italian parents prepare for their school-age children. I was really disappointed to learn that for the most part they send their kids to school with processed snack cakes and special children’s yogurts. When I complained about it to a Canadian friend in Paris, she sent me the menu from her daughter’s nursery school where they gave the children cornflakes with chocolate milk for a snack.

I started asking people what children used to have for the merenda before processed foods came along, and I inadvertently stirred up wistful memories among adults of the snacks they ate as children, things like rustic bread drizzled in olive oil and sprinkled with a little salt and eaten along with a piece of fruit, of garlic- and oil-infused vegetables left over from the previous night’s dinner and mashed between two chunks of bread. In the past, a jam tart or a piece of cake was a special and infrequent treat. Now children eat factory-made cake every day. Italian parents and grandparents have nostalgic feelings for their wonderful homemade snacks.

Having a child here completely changed my perspective on Italian culture. I started to see that the markets were pretty much only being used by me and the little old ladies. There is an entire generation of adults who don’t really cook much any more.

I wanted to believe that Italy was more sophisticated than North America, and that Italians were more discerning about the food they ate. I didn’t want to believe that they were so rapidly descending into the food mess that I thought I left behind in Canada.

Food traditions evolve over time. They are the collective ways that a culture has learned to feed itself with what’s available. The problem is that what’s available in Europe now includes huge amounts of junk food and soft drinks. This is how a child ends up drinking Coke with his pizza in a pizzeria in Rome.

Adapted from The Lost Art of Feeding Kids: What Italy Taught Me About Why Children Need Real Food, by Jeannie Marshall. Marshall has written for Canadian national newspapers and magazines such as The Globe, Mail and The Walrus.

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