Rebellious Teens Should Have Rebellious Diets

A recent New York Times Sunday Style section article reports on the increasingly prevalent cultural trend of cross-dressing amongst teenagers. While this isn't new in major metropolitan cities hugging the coasts, the article cited examples of the tensions that have arisen between students and school districts in what are typically more conservative bastions of our country, such as Mississippi and Texas. Whether they're emos, hippies, neo-1980s punks or straight edge kids, teens are craving for self-expression and identity, often through their appearance. Although there have been some legal hurdles, students are increasingly able to dress as they choose at school. What they're not choosing to use for self-exploration and definition is their food.

Whether they're cross-dressing, going punk or opting for LL Bean, kids are united in their food choices. They're filling their ravished, growing, pubescent stomachs with the same, uniform diet. It's like a buffet created by the Gap, offering corduroy or denim in a few cuts and colors. No wild Van Gogh splashes of colors or Pucci prints; just timeless, well-worn styles that fit multiple generations at once. Why are kids consuming the industrial monoculture foods?

An article in The Washington Post cites a recent study that demonstrates the impact of behavioral economics (aka freakanomics) on what kids are opting for in the lunch room. First, they don't like to be coerced into doing something. I don't know how much money was spent to figure out this rather logical conclusion about kids' eating behaviors, but at least there's now some data to back up this intuitive concept. Second, people prefer to feel a sense of empowerment in making their own choices. Applied to eating habits, this translates as the following: "when students think they are choosing to eat carrots, they like them better and are more likely to choose them outside the lunchroom as well."

Back over at The New York Times, editorial writer Verlyn Klinkenborg recently wrote about the plethora of apples at the turn of the 20th century (about 6,500 types) but most have disappeared from our kitchens. In our industrial food system, it's the equivalent today of visiting a Jelly Belly factory with exorbitant amount of colors and flavors, ranging from grass to dirt to boring cinnamon, that are carefully crafted by Jelly Belly food engineers.

However, like the rest of our food system, we're opting for monoculture. We have limited food choices, and they tend to be dull cogs of our industrialized food system that are serving us increasingly unhealthy, corn-laden, processed, uniform foods that are making us fatter. This is especially true in schools where cafeterias are serving up the same pre-cooked, uniform, un-nutritious foods nationwide. It's ironic that teens today are correctly pushing the social agenda in their schools to allow a diversity of identities to be expressed but are consuming foods that have little nutritional value and are uniform.

Food author and activist Michael Pollan wrote about the origins of apples in his book, The Botany of Desire, diversity has dwindled to just a few hundred spoke recently about food sustainability. He noted that, "the science of ecology is that the best way to achieve resilience, in any system, is by diversity: biodiversity and intellectual diversity." This applies to the food we eat, the way we dress, our ideas and beliefs. Diversity makes things sustainable. He continued, "a sustainable system is one that can go on indefinitely, without destroying the conditions on which it depends -- or without depending on conditions it can't depend on."

Diversity creates sustainable societies and helps them to survive. Teens, through their efforts to protect their self-identity at school, are helping to enabling sustainable, diverse cultures. We need to translate this same approach to our food systems by helping to foster a kitchen counter culture that celebrates and encourages diversity, sustainability and health in our foods. Teens, as cultural trailblazers, can help to lead this movement. There are thousands of apple varieties which should make any punk, prep, jock or transvestite a creative, healthy, educated eater.

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