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Tell me, is this a meaningful educational initiative?
General · 29th October 2011
Francesca Gesualdi
As soon as I learned to write, that is, as soon as my childish scribbling became legible penmanship to adults, my father ordered me to sit down at the kitchen table in front of a writing pad and a blue pen (“Never black,” he’d admonish). He motioned that I write, while he began to dictate a correspondence.
“Carissima Nonna e Carissimo Nonno,” he addressed. He was dictating a letter that I was to sign in my name, and I was to take this dictation twice a month, until such time as my father deemed I no longer needed his help in writing a proper letter home in Italian to my grandparents. The Italian part is significant, as all my schooling up that point had been in English.

My father began each and every letter with the sentence, “ I trust this letter finds you both in good health.” For the next twelve years, every letter I wrote in Italian began with this phrase. Every letter disclosed the current health status of family members, much like a weather report. Often, reports of the yields in our subsistence garden, which occupied our entire back yard, were included. Pictures tucked into the folds of these letters often featured a family member standing alongside a particularly prolific row of tomato plants, or a newly cured batch of home made prosciutto ham, or a birthday celebration at a wooden table groaning under the weight of traditional healthy foods.

Every letter I wrote ‘home’ to family also ended with “sincerest wishes for optimum health” for every member in the destined household, with each member clearly named. Once, when I omitted the name of a newborn cousin (one I’ve actually never even met), in these salutary greetings, my father made me tear up the whole letter and start over again from the beginning. I remember wanting to scream at him that it was unfair to make me sign off on a letter that was not really my voice; that children didn’t write in this style, and everyone would know it wasn’t me behind the words. But in my culture it is hazardous for a young girl to challenge her father, especially when the health of the nation/family was at stake. To forget even one name in the “optimum health” section of the salutation would be seen as a terrible slight and insult, as almost setting a curse upon the household, especially omitting the name of a young one.

Back in the old days, greetings over one’s health were not petty ramblings to fill the page. They were respectful recognition of the value of physical health in our community. It was social custom, it was a religious imperative. The wealth of one’s family was reflected in the health of the children in that family, and so this mandatory health reporting was a material reckoning, a list of one’s most precious tangible and intangible assets.

We enjoyed gracious good health in those days, and our food was considered our key to this health. We were the working poor. We didn’t own a car and my clothes were hand-me-downs from an older cousin, but even then I was acutely aware of the bounty at my table, for my labor was involved in producing it. I spent a hundred weekends canning tomatoes with my mother. It was my job to prepare a salad from the garden every single day the garden bloomed. No exceptions. It was my job to prepare the traditional meat marinades, rich in health promoting enzymes. There are steaks in my freezer today graced with those very same marinades. I applied my strength to the press that made the wine from the grapes we bought wholesale. And I ate my hearty share of everything. I ate a lot for a girl.

Sometimes, when I am beginning an email and really want to get someone’s attention, the first phrase that comes to mind is “ I trust this email finds you in good health.” I never actually use this phrase, as it feels antiquated in a world where a traditional greeting is lol (lots of luck for the techno unsavvy, like myself). Nonetheless, the phrase still auto-fills itself in my brain when I struggle with how to begin a meaningful correspondence.

If I were writing my grandparents today about the state of health of our young generation what would I tell them?

I would quote our BC Minister of Health, Michael de Jong. He says, “It is shocking to think that today’s kids may be the first generation to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.” What are you feeding them, I can hear my grandparents ask.

I would write that, here in the land of plenty, 26% of BC teenagers are obese, and obesity is close companion of undernourishment. I would write that 15 out of every 100 children in BC cannot afford a proper breakfast. Once, when we entered a kindergarten class to deliver one of our food literacy workshops (we are food literacy educators, as mentioned in previous articles on this page), the teacher approached me rather hesitantly. “ Would you mind if we took 15 minutes to let these kids eat, before you start your workshop?” she asked. “Some of them did not get breakfast at home,” she explained, “and they will listen more attentively if we let them eat first.” If you see any teachers today, hug them. Thank them.

According to one government figure, some $2 billion dollars in provincial health care costs annually go to treating health problems that can be prevented by a proper diet. Recently, some of our health care dollars were put to work treating a teenager we know who was admitted to hospital for overdosing on Monster drinks. What are Monster drinks, I can hear my grandparents ask.

Michael de Jong made his much quoted statement (well, I quote it a lot, anyway) while announcing Premier Christy Clark’s $69 million dollar Healthy Families Campaign, ostensibly aimed at addressing these problems. Any official recognition that food is a major determinant of health is to be lauded. Congratulations Christy and Michael, we commend you on your initiative. If government names the problem then we the people can hold them accountable to funding solutions. Admittedly though, the government has been naming the problem for some time. The 2005 Provincial Health Officer’s Report carried equally grim findings on the health status of “malnourished” British Columbians. The state of our community’s health is worsening, not improving.

“So what do you know about this $69 million dollar campaign?,” asked my sister, the Chef, when she first brought the campaign to my attention.
“Nothing, Chef,” I said. “I know nothing about it. I’ve never heard of it”
I asked my chosen MLA (the MLA whose electoral district I’d choose to be in) what she knew about the campaign, and she’d never heard of it either, but she promised to look into it. I have written a letter to Michael de Jong. I inquired as to whether the $69 million dollars will fund any initiatives that we, as food literacy educators, get asked by community organizations and nurses and food advocates to deliver all the time. We get told there is a dire need for this experiential learning, hands-on education, but no money for it.
“Let’s invite Christy to lunch,” the Chef beams at me.
“You can’t just invite Christy to lunch,” I try to reason with the Chef. I have worked with artists and I am now working with the Chef. Both types have that deep conviction /artistic temperament that is so difficult to reason with.
“Why not?,” she argues. “Tell her she can bring her son, so she doesn’t have to worry about childcare issues.” This is a feature of our workshops for women; they are encouraged to bring their kids, so they don’t have to struggle with task of finding a babysitter in order to participate. Besides, families that cook together, grow healthy together. “ Invite Michael and his family, too,” she continues.
Why not? They can only claim they are too busy.

I think I should tear up that first letter I wrote to Michael de Jong and start over. This new one will begin, “ I hope this letter finds you both in good health.”

© Francesca Gesualdi, 2011
Food for thought
Comment by Sehleeah on 29th October 2011
Hi Francesca,
I am really enjoying your articles. Maybe because they bring up my own italian heritage and concerns regarding health and nutrition for our families. Can you tell me how one goes about getting you into our schools for nutrition education?