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This is a spoon designed to encourage children to eat enough breakfast. It’s one of a number of whimsical inventions by artist Dominic Wilcox for breakfast behemoth Kellogg’s. Now, I realize it’s an art project, so the whole point is going to be more about getting people thinking than a solving nutritional problems, but let’s just run with the idea that this is trying to solve something.

What is it solving?

To quote from the artist’s statement about the piece:

“This robot spoon appears to wake up with every spoonful. The LED row of lights gradually illuminate with ever tip of the spoon as it picks up a new spoonful. The eyes gradually wake up and look around. Once you and your spoon are fully energised[sic] after eating your breakfast cereal you can carry your spoon with you all day. Over the course of 4 hours the robot spoon gradually goes back to sleep as it loses energy, letting you know it’s time to boost your energy again.”

Kids who aren’t eating enough aren’t refusing meals because they’re picky or stubborn. Yes, some children are disgusted by food due to underlying health problems or meal fatigue, but a large portion of kids who don’t eat breakfast in the USA are doing so because their parents are too poor to afford it.

Here’s the paper Meal skipping children in low-income families and community practice implications (1) observing children in South Korea:

“A significant proportion of children skip breakfast and dinner due to no food supply, suggesting that these children might be insufficient in food and nutrition intake. Particularly, children of no food supply were less frequently taking fruits for breakfast (r = 44.88, p < .05) and for dinner (r = 47.75, p < .05).”

43% of respondents in that same study said they skip breakfast because of the rush to get to school. The factory model of education, offering that the character built by adjusting to life meted out by the bell is worth the health consequences of doing so (2), isn’t going to be snuffed out by a whimsical spoon.

The myth that kids need to be fed more breakfast cereals to improve their school performance is an invention by companies selling those same cereals. The vaunted mineral content and healthy folate in cereals are a poor substitute for feeding children fruits and vegetables. Since it takes time, money, and experience to prepare regular fresh meals, parents who work long hours for low wages are deprived of any opportunity to provide them for their children.

Ounce-for-ounce, the nutritional content in a children’s multivitamin is cheaper than what’s sprayed into a box of cereal. Food fortification began as an effort to stem widespread malnutrition (3) but it has since atrophied into another nodule on the eructing mass of food marketing. If you want kids to eat breakfast, and more so to grow up with good nutrition and food security, you need to abandon the idea that influencing the personal choices of children with tech interventions and cute nudges will suffice. You need to unpick the causes of malnutrition to see where parents are deprived of wealth, time, healthy foods, and a world where their children can flourish.

This is why I can’t just appreciate the Get Enough Spoon for its whimsy. Interventions to help the children who are already doing fine in the light of tremendous suffering are lazy design at best and a blinkered misallocation of resources at worst. Pretending that children are malnourished due to their own fecklessness and self indulgence pulls the rug over deep rot in how we think of food and justice – instead framing malnutrition as a consumer choice. It doesn’t even begin to touch on how Kellogg’s has had its own role to play in crushing local economies and creating monocultures that turn food variety into a luxury. Either help an actual child or get back to the Laputan world of TEDx where ideas stay ideas.

Bae H, Kim M, Hong S (2008) Meal skipping children in low-income families and community practice implications. Nutr Res Pract 2(2):100–106. [PMC]
Owens J, Adolescent S, Committee on (2014) Insufficient sleep in adolescents and young adults: an update on causes and consequences. Pediatrics 134(3):e921-32. [PubMed]
Bishai D, Nalubola R (2002) The History of Food Fortification in the United States: Its Relevance for Current Fortification Efforts in Developing Countries. E 51(1):37–53. [Source]

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