Words: Ellen Kenny
This fever dream from childhood has left a bitter taste in a generation’s mouth.
You can’t ask someone who attended primary school in the noughties if they remember the Food Dudes without inviting a flurry of PTSD.
Their eyes glaze over and look off into the distance like a soldier remembering the war as if they can still see the raw tomato they were forced to eat in exchange for a pencil case.
For the blessedly uninitiated, Food Dudes was a programme launched in 2007 in primary schools across Ireland. It aimed to promote healthy eating, cut out unnecessary fats and sugars, and give children nightmares about raw peppers. It achieved one of those things.
It has stuck so viscerally in the hearts and minds of young people is because of its basic, horrifying premise. Provide children ages four to twelve with raw fruits and vegetables and force them to eat them.
Well, not force, per se. You didn’t have to eat raw vegetables. But you also typically weren’t allowed to eat most food you brought in yourself. So dig into that raw broccoli, my friend.
As well as some light starving, Food Dudes had other incentives to get kids to eat healthily. Anyone who finished their raw meals was given a small prize. Eat a raw mushroom, and get a small fuzzy ball with googly eyes in return (please tell me I didn’t hallucinate the googly-eye monster).
The more food you ate, the better prizes. Eat enough raisins, and suddenly you’re the owner of a step counter at age nine.
They also had to prove that vegetables were cool; thus, the most incredible Irish television show was born.
I wonder where the Dudes are now. I hope they’ve received financial compensation.
It seems like introductory psychology, doesn’t it? First, incentivise impressionable minds to eat healthy with rewards; eventually, they’ll eat them willingly.
People who took part in the programme will know this did not happen. Eating raw vegetables did not increase healthy eating. In fact, it more often did the opposite.
Start associating broccoli with the uncooked, unsatisfying taste you experienced in Food Dudes. You’ll be too scared to eat them elsewhere and miss the chance to taste vegetables cooked right.
And studies have even proved that Food Dudes had no discernible effect on children’s diets whatsoever. There is no correlation between increased eating of fruit and vegetable and decreased consumption of high-fat and high-sugar foods following the Food Dudes intervention.
Food Dudes also didn’t do anything to help people’s mindsets about food. Children have all sorts of sensory issues when it comes to food. They can grow out of them, but if you give a child an assortment of uncooked food (often gone past its best-by date), turn eating into a competition and guilt anyone who is having problems with new foods? You’re just asking for trouble.
And Food Dudes is still around, with a new logo and a slightly different approach. The food comes packaged together in little bags, and they’ve gone from raw, uncooked foods to soft, processed foods that will excite precisely no one about eating healthy.
So instead of improved diets, all we got from Food Dudes was poorer relationships with eating and a ruler.
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