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At Bug-Eating Festival, Kids Crunch Down On The Food Of The Future

Photo by Melissa Banigan

Tennesee Nydegger-Sandidge (left) and Holly Hook try chowing down on some crickets. "People should eat them because they're good for the planet," says Tennessee.

Elementary school student Holly Hook takes a deep breath, crinkles her nose and pops a cricket into her mouth. Chewing thoughtfully, she looks up and smiles: "It's good!"

Although the thought of eating insects might make many parents in the United States cringe, people living in the 80 percent of the world's countries that consume bugs probably wouldn't bat an eyelash over Holly's crunchy snack. Neither would a small, but growing, team of renowned chefs and scientists from across North America who are trying to persuade kids to eat insects at the Brooklyn Bugs festival.

By 2050, there will be more than 9 billion people on the planet. The United Nations estimates that to feed everyone, sustainable food production will have to increase by 70 percent, and bugs will need to be a critical source of protein.

Joseph Yoon, founder of Dinner Echo and developer of the festival, not only wants Americans to get accustomed to eating edible insects, but he wants children to get in on the action. This is why, in addition to organizing a number of panels, speakers and insect-laden gourmet meals for adults, he asked Robert Nathan Allen, president of Little Herds (a nonprofit that is educating the public about "feeding the future with edible insects"), to assist with developing an all-day children's program at t.d.b. Brooklyn, a neighborhood lounge and outdoor beer garden.

Insects are healthy. Very healthy. Containing about the same amount of protein as beef, pork and chicken, they also contain a lot of iron, B12 and calcium, as well as all nine essential amino acids. In addition to offering a potential solution to global food insecurity, they're also planet-friendly, requiring less water, energy, land and feed than most traditional protein sources.

Holly and her friend, Tennessee Nydegger-Sandidge, are less impressed, however, by how healthy insects are, and are more enthusiastic that they are a food source that comes from nature. "They're kind of good for you," says Holly, popping another cricket from Aketta crickets into her mouth, "but I like them the best because they taste like nature and my dad says that nothing in nature is bad." Tennessee agrees, adding: "People should eat them because they're good for the planet."

A 2013 study at the Teacher Training College in Bilbao, Spain, showed that children have a deeper concern for following environmental rules (such as not carving names into trees or not stepping on flowers) than for following social rules (such as not picking your nose or being a messy eater). This could conceivably manifest in kids not only wanting to protect the natural world, but also being able to ignore stigmas — even in the kitchen — that would thwart conservation efforts.

David Gracer, a college educator and passionate entomophage (a person who eats insects), thinks a lot about such stigmas. As he gently lifts writhing mealworms from a plastic worm "petting zoo" and sets them into the palms of Holly and Tennessee, he tells NPR: "Eating bugs is a visceral experience. It's emotional. It requires trying something new and pushing past biases."

Jenny Buccos, founder of Project Explorer, has traveled the world making educational videos for children. Along the way, she's noticed that people eat bugs — a lot of them. Buccos is a vegetarian, but also a pragmatist. If at least 2 billion around the world are eating them, then so will she. "It's so not a big deal," she says with a laugh.

In 2017, Project Explorer debuted Lets Eat Bugs!, a video about the global phenomenon of eating insects. The video featured Robyn Shapiro, founder of SEEK Foods, a company that is trying to get Americans excited about eating snacks made with protein-rich crickets.

"I've been really interested in seeing how we can make a positive impact on our food system," Shapiro says in the video, which is not only shown to curious children in classrooms across the country, but also to attendees at the festival.

Offering children and their parents a variety of cricket snack bites and granola, Shapiro adds that educating kids about entomophagy isn't just healthy and normal, it also widens their world views. "We learn a lot about cultures through food," she says, "and it builds cross-cultural understanding."

Allen agrees that educating children about edible insects increases cultural awareness: "Younger generations are leaving behind many of their cultures' food traditions, but by reintroducing eating bugs here in America and in Europe, we can say, 'Your grandmother was right: bugs are delicious.' We can instill a lot of pride just by sharing this information."

Allen believes it's only a matter of time before more people climb on the bug bandwagon. "Eating insects is so stigmatized," he says. "It's thought of as barbaric. But our grandparents in the United States once thought sushi was disgusting. This movement is just getting started. It's a fledgling industry."

And it's a fledgling industry that 12-year-old Isabelle Benavides would like to be a part of. "I want to be an entomologist when I grow up, but I also like the business side of eating insects. I'd like to develop my own product."

Venture capitalists may want to pay attention, because Isabelle even has her own innovative idea for a business: to open an outfit modeled after Blue Apron. "But my business will serve mostly meals made out of bugs."

Asked which product she likes best at the festival, she isn't sure. "I really like SEEK's products, but the Bolognese sauce is also delicious." Produced by One Hop Kitchen, this isn't your typical meat sauce, as it's made from either crickets or mealworms.

"We can build a sustainable, unique and expansive gastronomy," says One Hop Kitchen's co-founder, Lee Cadesky, speaking to a festival group of businesspeople and farmers who work with edible insects. This leads, of course, to an interesting question: The products are out there, and consumer demand for edible insects is on the rise. Why, then, aren't healthy supermarket chains such as Whole Foods stocking their shelves with cricket powder and other tasty insect edibles?

"It's really about a lack of knowledge," says Juan Manuel Mercado, one of the four founders of Merci Mercado, a premium edible insects company. "People really want access to the products. As far as Whole Foods, I think there's a huge hidden demand that they don't seem to be seeing."

Mercado didn't try eating crickets until he was an adult, but his toddler-age daughter, Maya, grew up on them. Munching on premium chapulines (grasshoppers) at the Merci Mercado table as though they were kernels of popcorn, she looks like a poster child for the edible insects movement. Asked if she enjoys eating crickets, Maya answers by pulling her bowl of grasshoppers closer and popping a couple of them into her mouth.

"If you like seafood," says her father, "then there's really no reason to not eat edible insects." While it may seem strange to compare seafood with bugs, a team of researchers from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles found that many insects share evolutionary history with a group of crustaceans.

David George Gordon, author of The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, believes that although "adults are skeptical [about eating bugs], kids are so receptive to trying them. Events like this are a great way to engage their parents."

When asked if he tried eating any bugs during his day at the festival, Isabelle's father, Jorge Benavides, nods. "I tried them because of her," he says. "And then I bought some products to bring home."

According to festival developer Yoon, getting kids and their parents to try eating insects has been a huge success. Laughing, he says, "I guess they caught the bug!"

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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