'Mr. Zee's Apple Factory' Teaches Kids About Processed Food

'Mr. Zee's Apple Factory' Teaches Kids About Processed Food

Fri 31 May 2013

Story by Bettina Elias Siegel

As someone who blogs almost daily about children and food (The Lunch Tray), I’ve written literally thousands of words about childhood obesity and poor nutrition. There are so many promising initiatives out there, from increasing green spaces to improving school food to teaching children how to garden and cook. But one powerful factor working against all of these efforts is the intense allure and ready availability of highly processed, unhealthful food.

As Pulitzer-Prize winning author Michael Moss describes in his current bestseller, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, the processed food and beverage industries are masterful at calibrating their products to have maximum appeal to our taste buds, making it difficult for even the most disciplined among us to resist. And when it comes to kids, these industries are well aware that introducing their products to young children can lead to lifelong – and profitable – brand loyalties.

It’s no surprise, then, that the food and beverage industries currently spend almost $2 billion each year to market mostly unhealthful products to children. These marketing messages reach kids not just through standard channels, such as print and television, but also through in-school promotions, cafeteria signage, vending machines, and, increasingly, through free social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter and online games. The problem, though, is that young children lack the critical faculties to evaluate these advertising messages with the appropriate skepticism.

I’ve long felt that one promising public health measure would be to “inoculate” children against these messages by showing them how, in a very real way, Big Food is putting profits ahead of their health. But when I looked around for an illustrated storybook to teach young kids this message, I was surprised to find that none seemed to exist.

So a few weeks ago I decided to try to create my own such story. Starting with a fun, bouncy rhyme about a factory owner who gets a town hooked on his processed food, I created illustrations on my iPad, imported them into iMovie, and then rounded up my friends and family members to play the various characters. Rachel Buchman, a talented professional singer, voiceover artist and Grammy semi-finalist, agreed to narrate the story for free because she was so supportive of its message.

The end result was "Mr. Zee's Apple Factory," a 12-minute video that I launched on YouTube. The story seems to be the first of its kind and I'm so happy with the enthusiastic reception it's received so far. The video is closing in on 8,000 views in less than two weeks and has been widely shared and tweeted by food policy leaders and has been written up on a variety of blogs, including Marion Nestle’s influential Food Politics. And, most gratifyingly, many people have told me that teachers are already showing the video in their classrooms.

One homemade video is no match for $2 billion in industry advertising expenditures, of course, but with the power of the Internet and the accessibility of tools like iMovie, it’s my hope that more people will create health-promoting, ‘inoculation’ messages like mine. In the meantime, I hope you’ll take a few minutes to watch “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory” with your kids, and that you find it a useful springboard for important conversations about marketing, processed food and healthful eating.

About the author: Bettina Elias Siegel is a former lawyer, freelance writer and food activist. She blogs (almost) daily about children and food at The Lunch Tray.


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