How childhood lessons craft grown-up tastes

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child eating strawberry

My friend’s mother recently passed away. She was relatively young and yet old school in all the best ways. She knew how to cook anything without a recipe; she enjoyed quilting and crocheting and antiquing and making things with her finds. And she would generously share her talents and wisdom with friends and family, gifting us a homemade meal or a hand-knitted scarf that she had whipped up just that afternoon.

Her way of passing along those passions and skills was through hands-on lessons—much in the way Alice Waters’ The Edible Schoolyard Project teaches schoolchildren the value of eating wholesome food by showing them how to tend a garden and cook up their bounty in delicious and healthful ways. It’s the old “give a man a fish vs. teaching him to fish” philosophy. And we’re arguably seeing the impact of Waters’ program, and ones like it, now—20 years after the first seed was planted in that Berkeley, Calif., schoolyard.

Whether some portion of the credit goes to Waters or not—it should be said that not everyone in the foodservice or academic community buys into her approach wholesale—today’s young consumers clearly are demonstrating a game-changing desire for more “natural” and transparent food options. And that’s causing foodservice operators, particularly in schools, colleges and universities, to re-evaluate everything from the mix of plant-based foods on the plate to the method in which they’re delivered.

Multiple research reports label Gen Z diners as preferring more “real” food, however they define it. That might be organic, GMO-free, locally sourced, grass-fed, high-protein or any number of buzzy terms. And these diners are not necessarily die-hard or preachy about it, strengthening the case for ideas such as Meatless Mondays or dishes that flip the typical protein-to-vegetable ratio.

Is it because they planted a garden at school or grew up cooking and eating this way with their family at home? It may be all of the above. Fusion Hill, a consumer-research firm in Minneapolis, has reported that members of Gen Z tend to rely on and trust their parents, teachers and coaches to guide them on what’s healthy and nutritious to eat.

The specific tactics for delivering information about smart food choices can continue to be debated—whether that’s through a hands-on lesson in a garden, in a message from the first lady of the United States, via a sign in the cafeteria or standing at a parent’s side in the kitchen as he or she prepares a family recipe. The point is to find a way to show your work.

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