By Vassiliki Chrysostomidou
“Today we went to the market – it was great! The children bombarded the grocers with questions: ‘Does the fruit have pesticides?’ ‘Where do bananas come from?’ ‘Do you have any other tomatoes? These are from a greenhouse.’ They even measured the fish to make sure that they were not too young,” says Niki, a kindergarten teacher, describing the experience of her class, which took part in World Wildlife Fund Hellas’ educational program “Healthy Kids, Healthy Planet” earlier this year. The scheme is a collaboration with the Harokopio University of Athens and targets educators so that children can learn about healthy and sustainable eating habits.
“My book, ‘Don’t Eat Whatever You’re Served,’ was released with the same purpose in mind and is also supplemented by theatrical performances,” explains writer Eleni Svoronou, who is in charge of educational programs at WWF Hellas.
As an increasing number of households abandon the Mediterranean diet and teenagers indulge in unhealthy fast-food and alcohol consumption, official figures by agencies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (Health at a Glance – Europe 2016), serve as a warning.
Yiannis Chrysos, a clinical dietitian and nutritionist with extensive experience in the treatment of childhood obesity and in educational programs on nutrition, sees cause for serious concern in the data.
“The study for the Harokopio University’s ‘Children and Health’ program (2009, 2014, 2015), found that children eat breakfast less frequently and spend an increasing amount of time in front of a television, computer or video game – 29 to 39 percent of the day during the week and 44 to 59 percent of the day on weekends,” he says.
“The results are made worse by the fact that such pastimes are accompanied by unhealthy snacks. The same survey showed that Greek children are world leaders in obesity – 33.4 percent are classed as obese,” adds Chrysos.
The European Union’s study HELENA – Healthy Lifestyle in Europe by Nutrition in Adolescence, moreover, found that 31 percent of teenagers in Southern Europe do not eat breakfast, while those that do only do so because of parental persuasion, or because they eat meals as a family.
“The importance of breakfast is made clear by the fact that the teenagers who do have breakfast eat regular meals throughout the day, have a lower body mass index and a lower percentage of body fat – a healthier diet and life in general.”
How do children get the message about a healthy and eco-friendly diet?
“After the pilot program in three schools, we found that children particularly enjoyed games such as blind tasting. The hardest part is changing habits,” says Svoronou. “The messages are conveyed into their homes with printed cards.”
Experts agree that educating the entire family is key.
“The problem lies primarily in the diet of households, and this requires a comprehensive response,” says Chrysos. “Parents’ eating habits should be improved to begin with and, when the child realizes that they are in a supportive environment, they respond quickly and impressively. Conversely, when a child is trying to eat more healthily but their parents have cupboards full of snacks which they eat with friends in front of the the TV, children feel that they are being left out of something enjoyable, not that that they are making an effort to live better.”
Regarding the content of the WWF’s program, Svoronou notes: “Besides the acknowledged benefits of the Mediterranean diet, the program highlights the link between healthy eating and a diet that protects our planet. Children and parents need to understand that our dinner plate has an ecological footprint. We get to eat any food throughout the year. But that carries a cost for nature – in the way of pesticides, fertilizers and climate change due to increased levels of carbon dioxide from the transport of food. This is an environmental, economic and ethical issue.”
Eating seasonal and locally sourced fruits and vegetables, and avoiding eating endangered species are some of the program’s messages. The educational program also comprises 11 activities, including a trip to a farmers’ market, group snacks and assessing one’s environmental footprint. From next year, the activities will be available for free on line and WWF Hellas will launch a mobile campaign in 20 cities.