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Jeannie Marshall (BA 1993 Woodsworth) is the author of Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products
Jeannie Marshall. Photo by Jane Ross

Thinking Outside the Package

Canadians need to push back against the processed-food industry, says author Jeannie Marshall

When Jeannie Marshall moved to Rome in 2002, she was lured in part by the sensuousness of Italian cuisine – from classic pasta dishes such as carbonara to a simple chicken stew of pollo alla romana. But she also wanted to immerse herself in Italy’s cohesive food culture, which embodies history, place, health and community. She began to think about how different Canada’s “industrial food environment” was – with its heavy emphasis on prepackaged, processed food. When Marshall became pregnant two years later, she realized how crucial it was to establish food traditions and wholesome eating habits in childhood: it is in this early stage, she argues, that entire food cultures are built or broken. This is the basis of her book, Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products (Random House Canada).

Marshall (BA 1993 WOODS) excels at explaining how much control the packaged-food industry has over us. She highlights the industry’s genius for manipulating and marketing science, noting it defines its products through the vitamins and nutrients that have been pumped into them, to convince parents that these are superior to the traditional diet of whole fresh fare. (“Of course fresh food has vitamins, too, but they’re not listed on a stalk of broccoli,” she writes.) Even the children’s items that are marketed as healthy – specialty yogurts and bars, and other snacks – are often heavily processed and may contain a large number of chemicals and preservatives.

Marshall traces the industry’s journey across the globe, as it peddles junk food overseas. To her chagrin, it also markets artificially fortified products to poor countries as the way of relieving malnutrition. “It would be so much easier, not to mention profitable, to simply give the world a Pepsi fortified with vitamins and minerals than it would be to ensure that people in poor countries have access to real food.” She believes one solution lies in putting the power in the hands of the disenfranchised – such as helping them cultivate the fresh foods that could be grown in their environment.

Abroad and at home, Marshall asserts, we need communities – not just individuals – to remake food cultures. This will help ensure that children’s rights to wholesome fare take priority over the food industry’s concerns.

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