Marta De Wulf
Food N’ Me, Bellevue, Wash.
I created an educational video game called Smash Your Food. I’ve been a nutritionist for 20-plus years. An obese client in her thirties was gifted an hour with me. I started talking to her about very basic things and she had no idea what I was talking about. She started crying. She asked, ‘Why didn’t anyone tell me this in second grade when I started putting on weight?’ At that time my daughter was in second grade. I called her teacher and said I need to give these kids a basic nutrition lesson. The teacher next door said come teach my class. This was the end of the school year. I said I’ll come in and do an intro, but I’m going to spend the summer putting together a program.
This isn’t what I intended to do. It just came to me that there was a real strong need. What I was looking for was what gave the kids the a-ha moment, what motivated the kids and what would empower the kids to make the choices for themselves, not being told and not being forced or mandated. Ultimately they are the ones who are going to choose carrots or not. Really we need to get them in their formative years so they have a basic understanding, so when they do stray in their teen years or college they know what to come back to.
What was really interesting were the residual values that teachers were seeing. Kids were staying awake. They weren’t hyper after lunch. I started really seeing the value in this and I said we need to really make this stick. I was looking at what made the children’s eyes light up. After a year of stories coming back and parents calling, my husband, who has a background in multimedia and business development, said you need to scale this.
So I put together a pilot group of mostly mothers and children between the age of 6 and 12. I asked them what are their pain points, what support do you need and what format do you want it in. Hands down the children wanted to learn about nutrition. The parents were saying, ‘I don’t want to nag them anymore. I need tips and I need to know how many calories they really need because I’m not sure how much to give them.’ The kids did not want their parents to teach them nutrition. The moms said, ‘I can’t take one more thing on.’ To disseminate something like a workbook or CD program requires the role of a parent. I started researching educational video games and I knew right away that was the space I needed to be in.
Upon launching the game, you pick your food face, which becomes your avatar. Then you enter your age, gender and level of activity. That gives you an RDI (recommended daily intake). Then you play. The child tries to guess the cubes of sugar, shakes of salt and teaspoons of oil in a food. You get stars for guessing correctly. The stars unlock the next level.
The foods become more complex as you move up levels. Level one is chips, fries or cola. Then it’s burgers, egg rolls. The fifth level is full meals. As the children play the game, the parents or teacher gets information back that says this is what your child learned.
All of our games have real images and real food. We smash real hamburgers, french fries and cola. Kids love that. This one girl said to me, ‘I never knew what was in a burger. I just eat it. Now I see what it looks like on the inside and I’m kind of grossed out by it.’ When they look down at their plate and see a burger, they remember what oozed out of it when it was smashed. If I put clip art in there, they wouldn’t get it.
Nutrition is not new. It’s how do you teach this? People don’t like being told they can’t eat something. What I’m trying to do is give them information without judgment and connecting virtual to reality. I don’t want to ever say this food is bad because children translate that to, ‘if I eat that I’m bad’ and they feel guilty. No food is bad. We’re saying this is the information. Now you go and make the choice yourself.
There have been 190,000 foods smashed. We’ve had a lot of downloads from educational institutions.