As an Associate Editor at Annick Press, Paula Ayer knows a good book when she reads one. And she sure knows how to write one too. She recently penned an outstanding title for teens called Foodprints, and it is one of the best written and most important nonfiction titles for kids I’ve ever read. Paula takes teens on a journey of discovering the history of our food, what we eat, how the bulk of it is grown on megafarms, how it is marketed, consumed, wasted and so much more. I was so impressed with Foodprints, its usefulness and the important messages it conveys, I wanted to learn more about what went into the making of this comprehensive book and ask Paula what mealtime is like in her home, since she and her young daughter are vegetarians and her husband is a meat eater.
“I didn’t know any other vegetarians, but on a shallow level, I thought it was a cool thing to be, and on a deeper level, I didn’t like the idea that animals had to suffer for my food.”
Growing up in a family that made sausages, can you tell us what inspired you to become a vegetarian?
I became very interested in food as a teenager and started doing a lot of reading about diet and health, and about how animals are treated in the factory-farm system. This was pre-internet, so I was discovering things through books and magazines. John Robbins’s book Diet for a New America was a big influence. I didn’t know any other vegetarians, but on a shallow level, I thought it was a cool thing to be, and on a deeper level, I didn’t like the idea that animals had to suffer for my food. I don’t know if I made a conscious decision to stop eating meat altogether, but I started eating less and less, and by the time I was 15 I was completely vegetarian. My mom had no idea what to make for me so I started doing some cooking at home, and after a couple of years my parents and brother went vegetarian too! Everyone probably thought we were crazy. It wasn’t so mainstream at the time.
That’s fantastic that you started cooking your own healthy meals as a teen.
I should mention I wasn’t always a healthy vegetarian. For a while I was very concerned about eating only “correct” things, and in the way of many teenagers, I went totally overboard. It took a while to find the right balance.
From what I read it, your husband was raised in a vegetarian family, but now eats meat. So how do you cook at home to please everyone?
Yes, it’s funny how our diets have followed contrary paths. He was born in India and his family’s background is Hindu and Jain, so he grew up vegetarian. He started eating meat in his teens, right around the age I stopped. There was probably an element of teenage rebellion in both decisions, or at least wanting to step outside of our cultural comfort zones! We cook vegetarian at home and he eats meat mostly when he’s out, and he does make an effort to find organic or free-range meat. Our daughter, who’s five, has so far chosen to be vegetarian, so he’s outnumbered.
© Image of Paula and her five-year-old daughter
What inspired you to write Foodprints for kids?
The preteen and teen years are when many people start to make their own decisions about food. It’s also a time when kids are bombarded with information; so much fast-food and snack-food marketing is targeted at kids and teens, and then they’re seeing stuff on the internet, and hearing scary things about obesity and what they should and shouldn’t eat, and so on. It’s overwhelming, even for adults, and so much of the information out there is misleading or has an agenda (like getting you to buy something). I wanted to help kids make some sense of it, and equip them with the skills to think about information critically, whether it’s a fast-food ad or GMOs or a new diet they hear about. I also wanted to write the kind of book that I would have found useful when I was a kid curious about these things.
The book is so comprehensive and informative. How did you decide what to put in the book?
I had a very clear idea right from the start about what information I wanted to include. Food is a huge topic, and there’s an almost unlimited amount of information you could use, but I was trying to hit on the basics, to give kids a grounding in the big issues around food production, how it’s sold, how it affects our bodies and the planet. I also wanted to include stories that were positive and empowering, and then there are things I threw in just because I thought they were interesting or funny!
© Copyright – Image courtesy of Annick Press
Was it difficult for you to organize all that information into cohesive chapters that flow?
In addition to having a clear understanding of what information I wanted to cover from the start, I also had a vision of how I was going to structure it. I think I sat down to write a chapter outline and did it all in one go in a couple of hours. It probably helps that I’ve worked with kids’ books for years, as an editor and behind-the-scenes person, so I had a pretty good sense of how a book like this needed to be organized. Of course there was some fine-tuning along the way; I think we switched the order of two chapters at one point in editing, and there were things that were added or taken out to make it flow better.
Can you share with us how you went about conducting research for this book?
There were a few books I relied on for information about particular aspects, like the history of food, or factory farming, or food marketing. For specific examples, I found news articles and scholarly journals online. Wikipedia articles, if they’re well sourced, can be great for getting the basics on a subject, and then I’d follow the article links to primary sources. There’s a huge amount of information out there, so I felt my purpose was to bring it together and present it in a teen-friendly way.
You did an amazing job with that! The “Infobites” in the book, with their statistics, are truly staggering. While compiling information for these were you often surprised by the numbers yourself, and which ones did you find most astonishing?
Oh, absolutely. I had an idea, but some of the actual numbers were shocking. The amount of food wasted is one that’s unbelievable to me—about a third of all food worldwide goes to waste. I also found the numbers on food insecurity incredibly depressing: 1 in 4 kids in the US don’t have regular access to enough food, and in Canada it’s only slightly better. There’s no way those kids can have equal chances in life if they’re in school hungry, or worrying about not having enough to eat.
© Copyright – Image courtesy of Annick Press
It’s really shocking and sad that so many kids don’t have enough food, and yet we waste so much of it. Did you find it challenging to write about food science for a younger audience?
One nice thing about writing for younger readers is it forces you to really take apart things you think you know and say, “Okay, in the most basic terms, what is happening here? How does it work?” You can’t rely on the shorthand you might use with adults, where you just assume your readers understand something. I found I had a much clearer comprehension of things after trying to explain them to kids, whether it was biodiversity or the difference between simple and complex carbs.
“If we have kids graduating high school who don’t know how to cook something from scratch, and don’t know how to shop for groceries or prepare food, that’s a major failure.”
The statistics on the volume of sugar we eat on a daily basis are staggering. Do you think nutrition and healthy eating should be part of the curriculum in schools?
Image of sugar in the Public Domain
I do think we need a big cultural shift when it comes to sugar. We evolved eating very tiny amounts of it, and up until very recently it was an expensive luxury. All the research is telling us it’s an addictive substance and it’s a big reason for kids and teens becoming pre-diabetic and developing other health problems. And yet we practically mainline it in sodas and Frappucinos, and we push so much of it on kids. It’s a hard thing to talk about without sounding like you’re head of the Temperance Union and you want to ban all fun. And I’m a hypocrite on the subject because I can barely go a day without chocolate! But we’d be better off treating sugar as more of an occasional, special thing, not an ingredient in every food we eat.
If we have kids graduating high school who don’t know how to cook something from scratch, and don’t know how to shop for groceries or prepare food, that’s a major failure. It’s one of the most important life skills you can have! I think there’s more of an awareness of that now, and some schools are teaching cooking and food literacy, starting garden projects, and such. But of course there needs to be much more.
“Don’t talk about how eating something will make you fat, or teach them to associate food with guilt and shame. Show them that eating well makes you feel good.”
What else can we do as parents to encourage healthy eating habits?
As for what we can do as parents, one big thing is to set good examples by showing kids we enjoy healthy food, and that cooking and eating is a pleasure, not a chore. Involve them in shopping for and preparing food—even young kids can help wash veggies or get out ingredients from the fridge or whatever. Talk to them about where their food comes from. I think it’s also important to model healthy attitudes about food and body image. Don’t talk about how eating something will make you fat, or teach them to associate food with guilt and shame. Show them that eating well makes you feel good. And try to sit down and have meals together, even if you can only manage once or twice a week.
© Copyright – Image courtesy of Annick Press
Excellent advice! Do you think it’s possible for teens who grew up eating fast food, drinking soda and eating sweets to successfully change their eating habits? And what would it take to do that?
I think anyone can change his or her eating habits. And teens can change their entire fashion styles, musical tastes, and personas pretty much overnight, so they are probably the most adaptable to change!
Most people find if they get in the habit of eating healthier food, as long as it’s tasty and nutritious and they’re eating enough of it, then they enjoy eating that way and they don’t crave greasy or sugary things all the time. So it’s a matter of building those habits. Of course it helps if they have support from families, and if there’s a culture of healthy eating around them. Fast-food places need to have some truly healthier options, beyond boring salads—it’s getting better, but there’s still a long way to go. And schools and communities need to help too. It’s very hard if you’re on a school trip or at a sports meet or whatever, and there’s nothing to eat but hot dogs and donuts.
“…livestock production actually contributes more CO2 to the atmosphere than transportation!”
I so often think about that fact that the volume of unhealthy foods readily available to kids and the lack of healthy choices, are the biggest parts of the problem. What concerns you most about the future of our food supply in North America?
Climate change is a big worry. The way we produce food is a huge contributor to climate change—livestock production actually contributes more CO2 to the atmosphere than transportation! And we’ve already seen how a changing climate affects our food supply—look at the droughts in California, which supplies about half of all our produce in North America.
Image of farm in California in the Public Domain
All those facts are certainly eye-opening. What do you hope readers learn most from the book?
What inspired me most while writing was how many stories there are about young people who have made a difference. Like the two Girl Guides who said, “No, we don’t think it’s right that orangutan habitats are being destroyed so we can get palm oil to make cookies,” and they actually got major companies to change their policies. Kids who stand up and say, “I don’t want animals to be treated that way to get my fast food,” or “There’s nowhere to buy fresh food in my community, and I’m going to do something about it,” are inspiring others. So I hope readers take to heart that there are things they can do, that there’s more awareness than ever before about many of these issues and they can find networks and organizations to help.
It’s amazing what kids with a passion can accomplish! Do you have any advise for someone who might want to write a sophisticated nonfiction book for older children like you did?
Kids and teens are smart, and they can handle more complex issues and ideas than we adults sometimes give them credit for. You don’t have to talk down to them or try too hard to sound like their buddy, because they can sense that phoniness a mile away. And nobody wants to be told what to think—your readers are the ones who get to decide how to think and what to do with the information you’ve given them.
Image of the cow in the Public Domain
No one else could have said that any better!
Of course, you do have to keep in mind how much information kids can take in without becoming overwhelmed, and you want to create something that’s appealing and fun to read. I was lucky to have great editors and readers who helped me find that balance. Presentation helps, too—Foodprints really benefits from having lots of colorful illustrations, photos, and graphics, which can help draw kids in to more complex or serious subjects.
Image of produce in the Public Domain
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Paula, I am so thrilled you wrote this outstanding, comprehensive book for teens. We’ve got to do a better job as a society educating our children about not only what they are eating but also where their food is coming from, and your book is an excellent resource for them. If only every middle and high school had a course utilizing this book, the world would be a much better, healthier place!
Buy Foodprints: The Story of What We Eat here