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Children know less and less about food. Urbanisation and the demise of smallholder farming are the key culprits. The classroom has to take over from educational summers spent at grandparents’ farms. And, although the industry is already making a rash of commendable efforts, more could be done to move fresh foods to the forefront of children’s minds, by making it, for example, an integral part of history, social science, languages and, of course, science subjects.
Surveys highlighting schoolchildren’s woeful lack of knowledge in the area of food provenance surface at regular intervals. The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), a multi-stakeholder, partly industry-funded, not-for-profit organisation that disseminates nutrition information to health professionals and the general public, conducts one of these annually, and its May 2014 findings were pretty much in line with those of previous years: one quarter of 5-8-year-olds believed that bread came from animals and cheese from plants. In older children, such misconceptions, although less prevalent, were still surprisingly common. Also, 17% of primary school children in the BNF survey thought that fish fingers were made from chicken, while one in 10 believed bacon to be derived from sheep.
On the other side of the globe, things are not much different. Woolworths, Australia’s leading grocery retailer, commissioned a study this year involving 1,600 Australian schoolchildren aged 6-17 years. Well over half did not know that radishes and beetroot grew underground, and they were unable to identify a leek, a radish or a nectarine.
Children are a product of their environment; they assimilate what they see and hear, and if they are not directly exposed to primary food production, they can hardly be expected to make correct deductions about the origins of the foods that turn up on their plates and in their lunchboxes.
In many parts of the world, including Eastern Europe, Spain and China, most city-dwelling families still have close relatives living in rural areas and working the land, and summers spent helping out on the farm are a normal part of the childhood experience.
In other countries, however, like the UK, Australia, and the US, which import a significant proportion of their food and where large-scale industrial farming has largely replaced smallholder operations, the average urban child lacks such intimate links with the countryside. Sadly, supermarket visits are not exactly enlightening on that front. Even the fresh produce sections sell clean, washed potatoes, bearing no trace of evidence that they ever grew in the soil. And how would children know whether strawberries grew on a bush or a tree if they have never seen a strawberry plant?
Urbanisation and the consolidation of the farming sector are long-term global trends, and so the disconnectedness that modern city dwellers experience with how their food is produced is only going to increase. Why does it matter?
For the simple reason that “out of sight is out of mind”. What tends to occupy children’s minds are packaged snacks and drinks, rather than fresh peaches, cherry tomatoes, raspberries and chicken breasts, which may be well up to competing in tastiness, but not in terms of advertising budgets.
With childhood obesity levels still spiralling, children’s curiosity about healthy fresh foods needs to be awakened in order to stimulate demand. A child cannot desire what he/she does not know about, but, luckily, the workings of primary production are anything but dull. A tree laden with bright red cherries is a dazzling sight, a field full of dark purple aubergines is mesmerising, and a litter of pink piglets has the all-important cuteness factor.
Instead of putting all the blame on teachers and parents for children’s glaring knowledge gaps, the industry could be more proactive in this regard. There are a number of commendable multi-stakeholder initiatives already on the go, of course. The aforementioned BNF, for example, orchestrated Healthy Eating Week between 2 June and 6 June 2014 in the UK, with over 4,200 schools participating. Shedding light on food provenance played a major role in this exercise.
When it comes to teaching children about food, nobody does it better than celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. In early June 2014, leading Australian grocery retailer Woolworths launched the Jamie’s Garden Collectibles range, a collection of sticker albums and sensory stickers (featuring 3D, thermal ink and scratch and sniff technology), designed to educate children about the origins and benefits of fresh foods, including how to grow your own.
On the meatier side of things, the industry body Australian Pork Limited (APL) reported in June 2014 that it had launched an education resource kit. Besides teaching students where their pork chops actually come from, the material also incorporates contemporary concerns like sustainability and climate change.
It should come as no surprise that the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), an independent non-profit organisation that sets sustainable fishing standards globally, is riding particularly high on the sustainability wave. There are nearly 4,000 MSC-certified primary schools in England, and the organisation runs a Fish and Kids project, which gives both teachers and caterers access to curriculum-linked lesson plans and materials to promote sustainable fishing and fish consumption. Currently, there are nine MSC-certified fish and seafood suppliers in the UK, including Birds Eye Foodservice, 3663 and Seafish UK Ltd, as well as eight contract caterers offering MSC-certified fish, including Sodexo and Eden Foodservice.
Food is never just food. Food is a prism through which virtually all aspects of society are refracted. For example, some foods, like beef, pork and insects, are taboo in some societies and population groups, but freely eaten by others, and celebrations, whether they be public holidays or private family events, often centre on special foods. History has seen bread riots, governments have fallen over the price of onions, and armies march on their stomachs, as Napoleon once said.
There is no aspect of human society that is not touched by food in some way, which opens up infinite avenues to teach youngsters every conceivable subject, before even starting on the virtually inexhaustible domain that is food science and nutrition. Thousands of fascinating lessons are yet to be drawn up on the basis of food, and it is up to primary producer organisations to invest in bringing this treasure trove of knowledge to today’s children, to stop them from losing the connection with the very stuff that sustains their lives.