Changing how a billion people eat, through games

Educating young children on diet can preserve both their health and the planet

Food Heroes is one of the first food education programs in China. Children learn to “eat a rainbow everyday”.

Before every meal, the Maori people of New Zealand say a simple thanks for their food. A child might recite:

Welcome the gifts of food from the guardian of the forest, the God of peace and agriculture, the guardian of wild and uncultivated food, the guardian of the sea, the God of rivers and streams. Ranginui Sky Father and Papatūānuku Earth Mother, bless our food as wellbeing for our body. Feed our spirit with the food of wellness. Share food for me, food for you, food for us all. The breath of life.”

In most of the industrialised world, the knowledge embedded in this blessing of how food is integral to everything – and gratitude for the community that brought it to our plates – has been lost. Our bodily wellbeing, our Earth, our economies, our society, our spirit have all wasted away with it. We ignore the disastrous consequences of our choices; of the sugary garbage we have become addicted to and the toxins we feed our food and soils. 

Some 3 billion people, around 40% of the world’s population, face some form of malnutrition. Stunting from hunger is decreasing, but obesity has nearly tripledworldwide in four decades since 1975: by 2015, about 12% of all adults and 5% of all children were obese. In most places, more people die from being overweight than underweight. Diabetes will be the world’s seventh largest killer by 2030.

China first introduced ultraprocessed foods – combining processed ingredients – in supermarkets in 1990. Since then, in one generation, the proportion of children who are overweight soared from 5% to 20%. With one fifth of the world’s population, China now has one third of its diabetics. Indeed, Dr Xu Zhangrong, deputy secretary of the China Diabetes Society says that the disease could singlehandedly bankrupt the Chinese healthcare system.

The food system also has a major effect on the global commons. Professor Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre reports that it is responsible for approximately 30% of greenhouse gases: 15% come from beef alone. Some 70% of fresh water supplies are used by, and polluted by, agriculture.

No wonder David Nabarro, special adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Climate Change, has said that changing diet is the single intervention that runs across all 17 global goals. Indeed, Project Drawdown, which lists the top 80 solutions for tackling carbon dioxide emissions in our atmosphere, ranks reducing food waste and eating a plant-rich diet third and fourth. Combining these food solutions could be the biggest lever for combatting climate change.

Truths about food need to be incorporated into early education, before kids become addicted to ultraprocessed sugary foods. As the food journalist Mark Bittman puts it: “We can’t have a generation of healthy adults until we raise a generation of healthy children.” It’s easier to influence children under nine years of age, before their dietary habits have been set. And it’s easier to influence adults once they become concerned parents.

Food education in schools has proved effective. Only around 5% of adults are obese in Japan and Korea, both of which have mandatory food education starting in primary school, compared to (pdf) 38% in the US.

JUCCCE, the environmental organisation I chair, is setting out to change the way young families eat. We have launched Food Heroes, one of the first food education programs in China that integrates nutrition and sustainability into recommendations on diet. Fortunately, what is good for personal health is often good for the environment too.

Our Food Heroes learn to “eat a rainbow everyday” which encourages them to consume micronutrients and promotes biodiversity where the food is produced. Teaching kids “the true costs of their meals” on air, water, soil, and landfills naturally turns them away from emission-heavy meats such as beef, which take their toll on heart health. Learning how much “sneaky sugar” is in popular drinks also reduces purchases of plastic bottles.

In constructing our Food Heroes education program, we’ve learned two important lessons on behaviour change.

First, food education is only useful if it turns expert knowledge into an emotional relationship with healthy foods. Nutritionists and doctors shouldn’t be the only ones helping kids to choose to eat better foods. Master storytellers must be involved too.

With Food Heroes, we capture children’s imaginations with a storybook world of rainbow foods, inspired by playologists such as amusement park ride designer Denise Chapman. Kids can bond with Food Hero characters that model their struggles and delights in eating meals. Character designers, TV scriptwriters, voice performers, and even spiritual practitioners help speak to kids’ hearts, not just their heads. We keep kids motivated as they master the Food Heroes games over time, using gamification techniques from the Octalysis Group. The result is a curriculum in kindergarten based on play, and educational toys to turn the dining room into a Food Heroes adventure land.

Second, creating the desire to change is not enough. Kids need tools to help differentiate good from bad at every bite. This year, JUCCCE launched the Food Heroes Eco-Eaters Table, designating individual dishes as “superboost”, “sidekick”, “caution” or “runaway” foods. Walter Willet – former dean of nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan Public School of Health, and co-commissioner of a forthcoming Lancet Commission study on a healthy and sustainable diet – calls this dish-based approach “brilliant” because it is more actionable than counting grams of ingredients or calories.

Providing children with the desire and tools to be Food Heroes is a cost-effective way to help all countries easily reach their global goal targets by 2030. Ministers of health and education should work together to incorporate food education into core curricula. By starting with saying thanks together before eating at the school cafeteria, we can all become Food Heroes who know how to grow, prepare and share food with love for ourselves and the Earth.