Founder Offers a Brief Lesson in “Food Literacy”

You care deeply about your child’s nutrition. You’ve read the rising – and frightening – statistics on the overweight/obesity/diabetes epidemic surging in America. You don’t want your child to join those statistics. So you read labels. You limit sugary treats. You search for a nutritional regimen to protect your child.

But is that enough? According to Deborah Lewison-Grant, Ph.D., founder of, this fight is way bigger than saying no to an extra can of Coca Cola. It’s about redefining our relationship with food, and even more importantly, with Big Food.

At the April School PIA School Rep Luncheon, the audience got an eye-opening look at the forces underlying our current overweight/obesity/diabetes epidemic, and learned that guiding children on a path to healthful eating is not as simple as just counting calories. Deborah Lewison-Grant, Ph.D., former NYC School teacher and founder of, articulated her organization’s mission to “revolutionize the way we eat and think about food.” Using schools as a platform for educating teachers, parents and students, FoodFight equips them with the understanding and overview needed to begin reversing unhealthy trends, and seeks to help us all understand how we “got into this current mess”- our societal struggle with a serious and widespread epidemic.

A critical piece of this understanding is the back-story. With the sure touch and classroom management skill of a seasoned teacher, Dr. Lewison-Grant shed light for her listeners on a brief history of changes in food production and distribution since the 1940s and 50s. She revealed how consumers were gradually led, over time, to first blame themselves for personal weight struggles, and finally, to lay general blame for the entire obesity epidemic squarely at the feet of the consumer. This blame is misplaced, says Lewison-Grant, and is more myth than science. Blaming the consumer is a tactic, and it is rooted in corporate advertising.

If the poor choices of the consumer are responsible for the epidemic, then by logic, the makers of processed foods must not be. Therefore, we’re told that overweight, obesity and diabetes have increased because:

  • We make bad choices
  • We overeat
  • We have no self-control
  • We don’t exercise enough.

The fourth point highlights a popular misconception, that all calories act the same in the body and can be countered in the same way – with the correct amount of exercise.

Myth – Weight management = balance of calories burned and calories consumed. Lewison-Grant noted that Coca Cola has run campaigns suggesting their product’s entire caloric load can be balanced with exercise – if the balky consumer would only choose it. Easy formula: drink one 20 oz. can of coke, then exercise at high speed on a bike for 1 hour and a quarter. This equation suggests all calories are equal, and that responsibility lies with the consumer to “erase” them with the right choice of exercise.

Truth – Not all calories are created equal.

To illustrate, Lewison-Grant compared 160 cals. worth of Coca Cola and 160 cals. worth of raw almonds. The difference was striking:

1) Almond calorie count –  Contains beneficial fiber and protein.  Stabilizes blood sugar.

2) Coca Cola calorie count –  Contains no fiber.  Rather than stabilizing blood sugar, sends sugar straight to the bloodstream. Allows excess sugar to be stored as fat.

The immediate rush of sugar to the bloodstream has addictive consequences. The boost of a high-packed sugar treat lights up the same reward areas of the brain as “doing a line of cocaine,” noted Dr. Lewison-Grant. Food companies, she added, “exploit our biological preferences for formulas that maximize sugar, salt and fat.” Companies spend a great deal on research to create a “packed formula,” designed to make snacks (literally) “irresistible.”

Economics influence facts too, both historically, and in shaping food myths.

Push-pull: Dietary Guidelines vs. the growth of Commodity Crops

Early dietary guidelines were published in 1977, just as the USDA was pushing commodity corps like soy and corn. Who’s the winner? If spending reflects clout, it doesn’t look good for dietary guidelines. Lewison-Grant compared one year’s spending:

The “Healthy Plate” Promo – $   2 Million

Pepsi Ad Promotion:              $350 Million

Myths shape dining habits over time, and in the past few decades, processed food has become a staple for those on a budget, partly through a belief that it’s better economy. While low income used to be associated with home cooking (dining out was too expensive an option), that trend has been reversed.

Myth – Fast food is cheaper than Mom’s homemade food.

Truth – This statement has not held up under study. Further, it does not calculate the costs of the health deficits associated with a frequent diet of fast food. Messaging has convinced the consumer that it’s cheaper to eat at McDonald’s or KFC every night than to buy raw ingredients and cook them, but the claim isn’t borne out by facts.

W.H.O Speaks:

With our commodities exports, exports of our style of eating increased too, says Lewison-Grant. Concurrently, the American obesity epidemic moved out beyond our borders. The World Health Organization, responding with alarm to an increasing health epidemic, wrote two guidelines regarding sugar intake:

  • Sugar is a major cause of metabolic disease.
  • We recommend that no more than 10% of daily caloric intake come from sugar.

Lewison-Grant noted these two recommendations, particularly the second, were met with a backlash from Big Food, comparing #2 to a directive from a “nanny state,” and fighting its inclusion in the report. W.H.O. was threatened with a withholding of aid if it didn’t strike the 2nd recommendation from its report, she said. It did so.

However, despite efforts to keep that recommendation from the eyes of the American consumer, statistics from studies of refined sugar intake are available, and we should be aware of them. The role sugar plays in damaging health goes well beyond the danger of tooth decay. Sugar consumption:

  • Blocks the brain’s ability to know it’s full
  • Forces storage of excess belly fat (linked to incidence of heart disease)
  • Causes short term energy spike, followed by crash, leading to poor food choices
  • Increases overall hunger
  • Saps energy from the body.

After years of unguarded sugar intake, weight gain may lead to obesity, and metabolic disease may ensue. Sugar cravings are ignited early in life, then aided and abetted as the child grows – from feeding highly sweetened formula to babies, to using candy as a reward for children, to offering sweetened children’s breakfast cereals, among the most highly sugared brands.

The result? We are a population that consumes, on average, approximately 3 pounds of sugar per week; this is in comparison to only 15 pounds PER YEAR prior to 1950. Of that consumption, about half comes from soda, juice, ice cream and candy, says Lewison-Grant, and about half of that amount is “hidden,” not obvious unless the buyer knows how to parse a food label. And that isn’t at all easy to do. While the American Heart Association helpfully offers a recommended limit (6-9 tsps. sugar per day), food labels list sugar content only in grams. Not a word about teaspoons.

As parents, what should we do? Lewison-Grant notes that we protect our kids from violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and street crime. We dutifully teach them safety rules. We need to add discussion of “Food Literacy,” she said.

Literacy, with respect to any category of knowledge, suggests the ability to access, analyze and evaluate information. Food literacy would mean having the ability to understand and define the entire life cycle of the food we and our children eat: its growing, harvesting, transporting, processing, packaging, selling, eating and disposal.

Train your child to be “Food Literate,” so he/she will:

  • Know the difference between ecological and industrial agriculture
  • Know how to articulate the impact of seasonality
  • Understand the difference between whole and processed food
  • Know and understand the relation between food and health
  • Possess basic food shopping and cooking skills.

Talk to your kids, Lewison-Grant urged. Just as you set aside time to teach them street safety, devote some time to nutritive safety. With your children:

  • Deconstruct advertising – show kids how to identify manipulative tactics.
  • Learn together to read labels; use the 5-5-5 rule: 5g or less of sugar, 5 g or MORE of fiber, 5 ingredients maximum on the label.
  • Understand what to ignore: false food claims are all over the box. Ignore all.
  • Encourage better food advocacy. Get involved. Ask questions. Vote with your dollars. Teach your children to become consumers who do the same.

Lewison-Grant opened our eyes to a rather sinister idea – that the food industry has unfairly suggested we and our lack of will are to blame for the obesity epidemic. Armed with some facts and better understanding, we might find that the reversal of that epidemic is a responsibility we’d be eager to share. If we can educate ourselves and our children to demand better food choices, and to help create a food-literate nation, we might replace artificial shame with a sense of real pride.


Deborah Lewison-Grant co-founded FoodFight in 2009 as a response to the growing impact of the obesity and diabetes epidemic on vulnerable youth. As a long-time public school teacher, Deborah saw an untapped opportunity to use schools as a platform for educating and inspiring school stakeholders to think differently about food and the food system. Although FoodFight started as a curriculum to teach high school students about the social, political and environmental forces that shape what they eat and buy, it has developed into a program that provides resources for teachers, staff, parents and students – all key constituents of their learning communities. Deborah earned her Doctorate in Curriculum and Teaching from Teachers College Columbia University. She lives in New York City with her husband, along with two fierce foodfighters – her 12-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.

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