A recent study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that a disturbing portion of children between ages 4 to 7 don’t know where their food comes from. The authors say their data demonstrates that about 40% of kids think bacon, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets come from plants. Those findings are published in the article “Children are unsuspecting meat eaters: An opportunity to address climate change.”
As nice as the idea of picking bacon flowers may sound, it’s seriously alarming to learn that such a large portion of kids in the group surveyed believe that meat comes from plants. Wait a moment, do you hear that? The hunters, farmers, and ranchers are yelling from the back of the room: “Hey, our kids know where their food comes from!”
The researchers, hailing from Furman University, a private college in South Carolina, investigated how children classify foods. They first presented children with images of foods, asked them to identify the item and then sort it into one of two boxes: plant-based or animal-based. The animal box was covered in an animal-print synthetic fur, and the plant box was covered in green felt with paper vines and leaves.
In the identification portion of the study, 25% of children failed to identify shrimp correctly, 15% didn’t identify bacon correctly, and 27% misidentified an almond. Even the humble apple, which 100% of kids correctly identified, was labeled as animal-based by 15% of kids. Surprisingly, the most misunderstood food in the study was French fries. This data shows that 47% of kids surveyed believe french fries are an animal-based food product.
You might reasonably reply here that young kids can barely tie their own shoes. Why should they have to carry the weight of understanding complex food systems? As an adult, it's easy to disregard the importance of education during those impressionable childhood years because kids talk nonsense, make up stories, and have make-believe friends. I thought it was a good idea to cut off my bangs with craft scissors when no one was looking. I once covered my body in temporary tattoos before a dance recital when I was 5 years old. You’re perfectly capable of forming opinions and making decisions (good or not-so-good) at that age, which is why it’s a critical time for education. I might not have been able to do basic multiplication, but I knew that French fries came from potatoes and burgers came from cows.
In the study, next up came an edibility sorting task. Researchers asked kids to sort food pictures into either a big creepy mouth, like the ones you’d find in the dentist's office, or a flip-top trash bin. Then the researchers’ biases really start to show with what they consider “edible.” They said to their tiny test subjects, “In this game, your job is to figure out whether the pictures I show you are things that are OK to eat or not OK to eat.”
But items that researchers considered “not OK” included cat, horse, monkey, dog, and caterpillar. Folks love eating horse in Iceland. In South Korea, eating cats and dogs is a cultural norm. And caterpillars offer a nutrient-dense, extremely sustainable food source. Monkeys are consumed by humans across the world. Often considered “bushmeat,” the selling and purchasing of monkey meat is illegal in most areas due to the risk of transmitting diseases like HIV and Ebola. So, while these animals may not be common delicacies for the standard American palate, they’re sure as shit edible. (But maybe stay away from the bushmeat.)
The structure of this task led the majority of children to mislabel typical livestock consumed in American cuisine. About 77% of the kids labeled cow, and 73% sorted pigs as “not OK” to eat.
These kids' inability to associate a burger with a cow or bacon with a pig demonstrates a fundamental weakness in our society–a society that is generally becoming more and more involved and aware of what it eats and the food systems that feed us. Clearly, this presents an opportunity and need to educate young kids on where their food comes from.
The researchers present this information as an “opportunity to address climate change.” The study’s conclusion claims that livestock are responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and because of that, states that one of the most effective changes individuals can make to mitigate climate change is adopting a plant-based diet. They seem to suggest that since kids don't know some meats come from animals, the kids wouldn't be missing anything by not eating meat. All those tiny vegetarians could then help turn the tide on rising global temperatures.
I’m no mathematician, but if all the people who currently eat meat suddenly shifted to a plant-based-only diet, the impact on emissions might not be that staggering. Industrial hog farms aren't great for the environment, but the fertilizers, pesticides, and fossil fuels involved in monoculture crop production aren't helping either. You're going to have to grow a lot more soy to replace all that beef. Wildlife populations would likely suffer as more and more habitat gets plowed into fields, too.
If I had the solution to problems like how to feed the masses while maintaining some semblance of environmental integrity and diversity, I’d likely be a billionaire instead of an editor. No simple solutions exist for addressing problems of food scarcity, broken food systems, and a warming global environment. But educating our youth is foundational to growing forward into the future. Whether their food comes from plants or animals, kids should know its origin.
Take your own children along when you hunt, fish, or visit a farm or farmer's market. Stick their hands in some garden soil and let them stew in the magic of photosynthesis. Food is one of the many wonders of the world and should be respected as such. If one individual action can address climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, it’s buying local, growing your garden, and killing your own meat.
If you’re raising children of your own, check out Steve’s new book “Outdoor Kids in an Inside World: Getting Your Family Out of the House and Radically Engaged with Nature” for tips on raising fully aware young meateaters.
Perhaps in some other dimension you can pluck bacon off of trees like a ripe peach. But until we find that place, we'll just have to keep feeding and raising hogs until we butcher them and smoke their bellies into the glorious meat-candy we call bacon.