Did you know that 7% of American adults believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows? Just kidding. That might be an inaccurate statistic due to the poorly designed survey, but reams of more accurate data actually show that many Americans are agriculturally illiterate.
For instance, in 2011, only 56% of fourth and sixth graders from southern California could identify hamburger patties as beef, while less than 40% knew of the origin of onions and pickles. Much of this ignorance stems from modernization: As people start moving into cities, we have disassociated from farming culture.
Also known as food literacy, agricultural literacy describes understanding the impact of individual food choices on our lives, society and environment. It involves awareness of where food comes from, how it is produced and how local food-related systems and policies have affected individual food consumption and food insecurity.
Like the U.S., Canada enjoys an industrialized agricultural system that yields a stable, cheap food supply, leaving Canadians just as illiterate as Americans. But unlike the U.S., Canada is doing something about it. The Ontario Food Literacy for Students Act (Bill 216), introduced last year, is our northern neighbor’s first consolidated effort to promote food literacy. Pending its passage, the act will mandate teaching children to “grow, prepare and choose healthy food” to promote sustainably healthy lifestyles. The benefits of a population not taking food for granted can improve advocacy for food injustice and foster a generation cognizant of the importance and interconnectedness of food in our lives.
In the 20th century, food education was a cornerstone of home economics classes, which originally taught so-called women’s work and domestic labor. Today, these classes are dwindling, which cheats students out of invaluable lessons about basic cooking skills, sustainable eating, personal finance and work-life balance. Because of this failure, Western pedagogy is falling behind countries like Japan, which incorporated food knowledge in its national education law in 2005.
As we transition into more health-conscious lifestyles, we must be wary of misleading, even inaccurate, definitions of nutritious food. Obsessing over health fads without understanding the purpose and functions of dietary habits can drive people toward anxiety, unhealthy competition and hysteria. A 2017 survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation found 78% of American consumers encountered “a lot of conflicting information about what to eat and avoid.” Only 45% of respondents could identify foods and nutrients associated with health benefits. For instance, many people hoping to lose weight might elect to stop eating salmon due to its high fat and caloric content. Cutting out fats entirely can be effective in the short run, but it promotes a dangerous categorization that all fats are unhealthy when this is simply not the case.
Some consumers who come to understand health through non-authoritative sources like social media influencers only see the story of highly individualized information as a blanket statement for everyone else to follow suit. Some bloggers encourage hyper-restrictive diets that cut out fat, sugar and carbs for supposedly superpowered replacements like açai berries. Such misinformation has helped fuel the recent rise in eating disorders like orthorexia, or the unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. In an effort to regulate misinformation, Instagram banned the Kardashians from promoting their miracle diet products after boasting bogus results. Increasing food literacy education at school, such as providing accurate sources and instilling food-conscious habits, could solve this problem. It would foster healthy eating patterns and diet choices, teaching people to make their own decisions and determine what is right for their bodies.
Working toward proficient food literacy is not easy, but OzHarvest, a leading food rescue organization in Australia, developed a six-week Nutrition Education and Skills Training (NEST) program to help participants increase their food literacy. The results speak for themselves. Researchers documented tremendous improvements in nutritional knowledge, cooking confidence, healthy meal preparation, eating behaviors and food budgets. Participants walked away with more knowledge on how to substitute cheaper ingredients, balance their diets and use more efficient food storage techniques.
Teaching children in the U.S. the same skills and information as the NEST program would help them develop a robust foundation of food knowledge. They should also spend time cooking, gardening and learning about their food. We invest in food every day, whether it is purchasing groceries at a local market or ordering dinner at a restaurant – so it’s time we started to get to know it a little better and stop taking our food for granted.
Sophia Ling (24C) is from Carmel, Indiana.