The food inquiry begins the same way each time. I place a variety of fruits and vegetables, on tables around the classroom and ask the groups of eight year old students to discuss where the food came from and how did it get to us (in Toronto).
Over the past two years, I've facilitated the same process, in each instance the students divide into two theories: either I brought the food to them or that it can from the grocery store. A few children suggest that it may have been delivered to my home from the grocery store. Actually, all ideas are correct but I want to dig deeper into their understanding of the farm-to-table process. When prompted to question how the food got to the grocery store in the first place, some students have an ‘Aha' moment realizing that the food must come from a farm while several other remain stuck at the point of the grocery store. This is where the investigation gets really fun.
Learning about food miles
I ask kids to break out their lunches, list all of their food, and hypothesize its origins, the majority think Canada. They're tasked to play detective to confirm their predictions by investigating at home, reading the labels and talking with their families. The results end up being fascinating as a wide range of countries of origin emerge. From here, I pose the question, Does it matter where our food comes from? And then, we explore and research this. Kids start learning about food transportation methods and food miles, wondering aloud how food can be edible by the time it reaches us. One child mentioned that chemicals that were banned in Canada were still be used in countries from where we buy food. Good point, kiddo! Of course, talking about where food comes from is a simplified way to dig into the connections between planet and food but it is a starting point for which to evolve the conversation as children mature.
What is food literacy?
You just need to take one look at Canada's Food Guide to know that typically food literacy focuses on the identifying healthy foods to eat and navigating nutritional labelling. In October 2014, the Conference Board of Canada released What’s to Eat? Improving Food Literacy in Canada, authored by Alison Howard and Jessica Brichta. Here food literacy is defined as “an individual’s food-related knowledge, attitudes, and skills”; encompassing the following:
- How food is chosen
- How to select and/or purchase nutritious foods and
- An understanding of how food is connected to
health, well-being, and safety
- Knowledge of what constitutes a healthy diet
- How to read and understand food labels and claims;
Our environmental food literacy
Howard and Brichta's report postulates that much of a households knowledge of the connection between food and the environment was derived from topics that grab media's attention, such as an incident of local water contamination. Whereas the environmental impacts of the food industry can include the depletion of natural resources, land and water contamination, carbon dioxide and air emissions from transportation and production, and food waste. Eighty percent of the Canadians interviewed were more concerned with affordability, safety, and quality rather than the connection between environment and food.
Unless your family are regular farmers market shoppers, it's easy to understand why children can believe that grapes boxed up in plastic containers and carrots are pre-cut in baggies the norm. It also makes sense that by purchasing the majority of food at a grocery store, removes us from the process of how our foods are made at the farm to the impact of their journey to our dinner table. Learning about the local food system is an accessible way for children to begin to understand the complex issue of where food comes from and why it matters.
Ways to grow your child's local food literacy:
- Regularly take your child to a pick-your-own farm.
- Look for local food signs in your grocery store. Point them out to your child and discuss why you may want to choose those foods.
- Go to farmer's markets, let your child meet the people and choose their food
- Watch for special openings of your local food distribution centre and go for a visit. It's rare but sometimes they open their doors to the public.
- Perform sensory experiments. Choose something from store and the same thing something from the market. Does it taste the same? Look the same?
- Talk about the waste involved with food. Notice the peppers wrapped in plastic at the grocery store rather that put directly into your reusable bag at the market allowing the farmer to reuse the container.
- Sign up for a CSA or organic food box and talk about how the food is sourced.
- Make more meals with seasonally available food
- Try to plan all local meals or make a local meal a week.
- Talk about the Greenbelt or agriculture space in your province/state.
- Let your child choose produce that catches their eye and build a meal or snack around it.
- Rotate the farmer's markets you visit, allowing your child to see that there is more than one place to choose your own food
- Look for roadside food stands while travelling, stop and choose something to bring to your destination. Discuss with your child how the food traveled from the field to the road.