What reading materials are on my bedside table? I am honored you asked. Right now, I have the catalog for the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies and The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle–the story of one caterpillar’s journey to butterflyhood. Though they both relate to personal development, their shared placement is causing me a moral dilemma. You see, I am rereading the Very Hungry Caterpillar because 17,000 copies have been distributed to pediatricians across the country. This is a joint campaign of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Penguin Young Readers Group and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.
The cynic in me is ready to rant on this initiative, but with a photo of Thich Nhat Hanh looking at me from the back cover of the catalog, and Omega’s plethora of courses with titles like Embodying Conscious Femininity, Gravity, and Grace and Freeing Ourselves from Negative Patterns oozing out from the inside pages, I am trying to temper my response.
My higher self is saying if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all, offer only constructive criticism, and asking, are you a compassionate, empowering new-tritionist or just a curmudgeonly old one? Well, I will try to open myself up and see what emerges.
Positively, let me say I love children’s literature and its illustration. Not too long ago I spent a wonderful day at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts. To see the originals of Mr. Carle’s tissue paper art was wonderful. The colors and intricacies of his pictures are even more amazing than they appear in his books. I am grateful that he has created a space to exhibit the collections of the many incredible artists in this genre.
Also, I respect the myriad efforts of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. A collaboration between the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation, its mission is to reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity and to empower kids to make healthy lifestyle choices. Their projects, which include the Healthy Schools Program, are far-reaching, community-based, and creative and colorful in their own way. I use their great materials in my work.
So, what’s my issue with this sweet little book-sharing promotion which is intended to encourage pediatricians to talk with their patients to help families learn about healthy eating habits? To be frank, I am on my thirty-fourth reading of this fourteen-page cardboard book and I am still not sure about its efficacy for teaching healthy eating.
For those of you who may not know the story, briefly, a caterpillar hatches out of an egg. It is hungry, and through its first five days of life, it eats increasing amounts of different fruits, one on each day. On its sixth day, it eats a hole through a piece of watermelon (another fruit) and eight human-produced high fat, high sodium, and high sugar foodstuffs and gets a stomach ache. On the seventh day, a Sunday, he eats through one nice green leaf and feels better. On my most recent reading, I suddenly realize this is really a religious allegory about sin, redemption, and resurrection, because right after that, all fattened up, he builds a cocoon, stays there for two weeks and emerges as a beautiful butterfly.
Regarding caterpillar growth and nutrition, here is what I know. The caterpillar increases its body mass several thousand times in a matter of weeks and each species has mainly one and on occasion a few, host plants from which it must eat to survive. Predominantly, they eat only leaves–like from the milkweed family, but a few species can eat flowers and aphids. Analyzing the very hungry caterpillar’s eating behaviors, he has responded to his hunger and high growth needs in a manner similar to that of teenage boys; problematically, he has partaken in eating foods not specific to its own species and a lot of them. The messaging here between fruits and junk food is a bit confusing.
The promotional materials for this campaign instruct the parent to teach your child that the fruits are fruits; talk about how fruits are good for the body; discuss how overeating causes stomach aches; expound upon the concept of “sometimes” foods; instruct how green leaves are good for the body, and reinforce that it is important to eat healthy foods so that one can grow up healthy and active like a butterfly.
Maybe I have forgotten a bit about early childhood development, but I think I read this book to my kids when they were about eighteen months old. Certainly, prior to the stage where we were discussing abstract concepts like hunger and health. Even prior to the stage where they might imaginatively embrace the idea that they would grow up and turn into a butterfly. There are many wonderful age-appropriate stories about food, gardening, nature, eating, etc. for young children, and though I am fine with metaphor, I don’t think this is what Mr. Carle had in mind. Now I must worry about children going out and plucking hemlock leaves for a little nibble.
I am glad to report that kids seem to know about and do eat their fruits, though vegetable education still needs a little more work–even for adults. I hope that we do not need to be spoon-feeding parents on such basic concepts; and, additionally, that pediatricians are opening to engaging parents on more specialized and sophisticated aspects of feeding our young than these simplistic measures. They are in a strong position to influence policy, to really support breastfeeding measures, to evaluate infant and early childhood feeding practices and to instruct on the principles of childhood nutrition and appropriate activity.
Might I respectfully suggest providing all parents with a copy of Ellyn Satter’s Parent and Child Division of Feeding Responsibilities—a clear and concise document that addresses the foundations of family eating. And, symbolically, a retreat at the Omega Institute. Their Omega Food Works Dining Hall consciously serves 300,000 vegetarian meals a year using local and organic ingredients. I can attest to the incredible nourishment of their food because I have eaten there. One delicious, proper meal like the ones offered there, can speak louder than a thousand words.
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In health, Elyn