Grocery shopping with my five-year-old is an arduous adventure. Never mind trying to read a list, locate items, check prices, and examine ingredients while shepherding her into a five-foot radius of the cart. My greatest challenge is maneuvering through the supermarket aisles without reaching a ten-minute deadlock in front of every marketable cartoon character, captivating color, and recognizable brand name that zealously recruits my child at eye-level with commercialized promise of scrumptious and delightful eating.
"Mommy, looook!" my daughter Maya pleads, braking our cart and pointing wildly. I half-expect to see a gazelle grazing in produce. Instead, I'm gazing at ketchup bottles splashed with screeching colors.
"Green is my favorite color!"
"Yes, I know how much you love green." One loud wail from behind and I know that she has been captured by the condiments.
"Maya, we have ketchup at home."
"But Mommy, this one is better!"
I put a bottle of ketchup in each hand. "Look, if you take away the pizzazz, all the colors and the words, what would you have? Ketchup. It's all just ketchup."
I press on. Skipping cart side, Maya adds, "My friend's mommy has this ketchup that you like squeeze and it draws!" I nod, displaying interest minus the enthusiasm.
"This is the juice we get, remember?"
Determined to come away with a spoil from the bounty of drinks, Maya forfeits the juice dispute and moves on. She has identified that most popular and perennial of kid's drinks, the one featuring a 'Kool' animated pitcher, in a line-up of juice boxes.
"Mommy, can I get these? Remember you let me have one at my friend's birthday party?"
I remember the moment well. In the hush just after 'Happy Birthday' is sung and the cake is about to be cut, Maya received a drink box. She inspected it, looked up at me, and asked, "Mommy can I drink this?" I nodded yes. "But mommy," she chided, "doesn't this drink have CHEMICALS in it?" I turned a shade of red #40 as all eyes turned to me in a unified look of "Oh, one of those mothers."
Yes, I am one of those mothers. One of those mothers whose vocabulary includes words like 'food coloring,' 'genetically modified,' and 'preservatives.' I am that mother who groans and laments in the supermarket aisle while reading the ingredients of foods marketed directly to children. But, although it can be tedious and time consuming (sometimes even awkward when you have curious on-lookers), reading the ingredients of every questionable food item, out-loud, has become a valuable lesson in the constitution of shelf-food for both Maya and I. It has also allowed us to implement the simple line of reasoning that 'we don't put anything in our mouths that we can't identify' --- effectively thwarting many a toddler temper tantrum.
The cereal aisle is loaded with exotic ingredients to peruse that require a chemistry degree to pronounce. Maya stands at attention while I perform something akin to a roll call.
"Sugar?" Maya nods.
"Corn syrup?" Another nod from Maya.
"Mommy, what's that!"
I shrug and continue,"Sodium steoroyal? Lactylate?"
"Mommy, I can't believe I wanted to eat that!" Maya cries, plunking her palm to her forehead.
The verdict is in. The cereal has been found guilty of harboring alien elements.
"Mommy, what about those?" Maya's attention has crossed the aisle and zoomed in on some 'fruit' snacks.
"Let's see!" I reply. The snack offers bold assurance of 100% vitamin C. Neither impressed nor impulsive, I turn the box over and read. The manufacturer's charitable inclusion of a vitamin supplement seems feeble when a child would need an arsenal of anti-oxidants to eliminate a hidden legion of food colorings, corn syrup, wax, and sulfating agents.
Another aisle, another impasse. Maya grabs jello off the shelf and admires the packaging that had effected immediate recognition. (Here's a clue, the jello was 'Blue.')
"Maya, come on now . . . you don't even like jello!"
"But I'll like this one mommy . . . I promise!" she implores.
"No, honey. No."
We trudge on. Maya is disappointed that I have shot down yet another irresistible item. I am disheartened that this morning's reputable children's program which preached the graces of carrot sticks and graham characters now stands on the supermarket shelf, garbed in cheap artificial colors and flavorings, prostituting itself to the almighty dollar.
Maya grows quiet as we reach home stretch. I loosen my white knuckled grip on the cart and wonder if the other moms trekking to checkout are as spent as I am. Standing at the finish line, Maya eyeballs the contents of the cart just behind us where a young girl has positioned herself proudly over a booty of 'fun' food.
Sensing competition, Maya makes eye contact with the girl and boasts, "My mommy got avocados!" The girl shrugs, unimpressed. Maya, however, interprets the girl's reaction to be one of defeat. She looks up at me, smiling victoriously.
A few pensive moments into our drive home, Maya asks,"Mommy, why do people want me to eat junk food?"
So, how do I answer this one? How do I explain that some food manufacturers care more about exponential profit increases and market expansion than providing suitable food for children? How do I explain that several big-daddy food cooperations, vying for loyal courtship and enduring devotion, employ empty promises and handsome packages to romance an entire population divorced from their source of food? How do I tell her that there are people paid mammoth amounts of money to pick apart a child's heart and mind in the quest to find the perfect ruse which will lock her into a life-time of consumerism? How do you tell a five year-old all this, and not squash her esteem in humankind?
"Maya, imagine it's your birthday and there are hundreds, thousands, of presents."
Maya's eyes light up, "All for me, Mommy?"
"Yes, all for you. Now, some of these presents are wrapped in beautiful ribbons and colorful paper . . .."
"Yes, even Barbie paper. But some presents are wrapped in brown paper bags. Which present would you open first, Maya?"
"The one with Barbie paper!"
"Ok. But how do you know that your most favorite toy, the one thing you really want, is inside the prettiest package? You don't know. You won't know until you unwrap it.
"Everything at the supermarket is packaged, wrapped like a present, so that you'll want to take it home and open it. The problem is that once you open the pretty package you might find that what's inside is not that good."
"The people who make the food . . . they try to trick us?"
"Well, not really. Many people make food and they all compete to see who can be the prettiest or the cutest or the funniest. They know that if their food looks irresistible, we just might buy it. Unfortunately, in the race to win us over, the most important thing --- to offer us the healthiest food possible --- is often left behind."
Maya nods. She got it.
"Maybe we should call the food people and tell them we don't want to eat junk!" I smile in my rear-view mirror at my pint-sized activist and agree,
"Maybe we should."
I'm standing on common ground with my five-year-old and that's a relief. Yet I'm worried that my lecture on the machinations of the food industry hangs like a cloud over my daughter's spirit --- dimming her inviolable trust and faith in the world while casting shadows on the princesses, butterflies, and rainbows that populate it. But, gullibility is indigenous to the naivete that embellishes the bucolic country of childhood. So, for as long as Maya walks (runs, skips, cartwheels) through her youth, my mission must not only be to protect this innocence --- her childhood fantasies and amusements --- but also to reveal to her the strategists willing to use this innocence as a pawn in their marketing games.
I hope that my daughter, armed with her hard-earned acumen, will be able to weave with confidence and lucidity through the thick of consumer illusion all by herself one day. Perhaps one day she will even pick out the brown-bagged gift among the glittered and bowed without hesitation and smile at me. And on that day we both will have won.
My Note, 2016. Maya is starting college in the Fall, and there are, I believe, three more child 'activists' still at home. The New Boston Farmers market is going strong every summer. CK