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Food and society

A survey for food education

There are many examples of successful food education projects around the world but a unified movement is still missing. The BCFN Alumni group has repetitively called out the urgent need for national standards in order to provide children with food skills and knowledge since an early age. The following are some insights from a small survey recently conducted among them.

Although dietary habits can change during the lifespan, educating people on food and nutrition can be an important way to encourage healthy eating and establish good, lifelong habits, to fight malnutrition (i.e., lack of proper nutrients intake) and the world’s ever-spreading obesity epidemic. There is some evidence that dietary habits formed in childhood can persist in adulthood. Not surprisingly, in fact, many adults are more likely to prefer foods that they ate when they were children. Hence, educating to proper food choices is the cornerstone of a child’s healthy growth and future development.
BCFN Alumni are the young finalists of BFCN YES!. They come from all over the world and they have different cultural backgrounds, nevertheless they share a strong interest for food and nutrition. It was of interest to the BCFN Foundation to know more about them and, in particular, to investigate the type of food education they had. For this reason, along with the BCFN Alumni Association, the Foundation decided to carry out an exploratory survey among them (a small questionnaire made of 7 questions, 4 of which were open).
Results suggest that nowhere in the world there was a national food literacy curriculum or standard to refer to. When available, food education was mostly carried out as small local projects or by single teachers. However, gardening and parental guidance seem to be the experiences that impressed them the most.

From seeds to habits
According to experts, the best programs in schools focus on hands-on activities and include nutrition classes. In such programs, children can directly interact with food (e.g., grow, touch, taste, or cook). Some of the respondents, especially those who lived in rural area, had the chance to touch the soil, and grow plants at the schoolyard and/or in the home gardens with the mother or other family members. Moreover, they also had the chance to learn how to manage or recycle food waste as fertilizer or as fodder for ducks or fowls. For many of them, the experience of seeing a seed developing into a plant and bear fruit/food developed into an interest towards food education. In particular, in many Asian countries, students of early ages had firsthand experience in planting vegetables and interacting with local farmers. That seems to create a sense of appreciation towards farmers and other stakeholders related to agriculture and the food system. For some of them, it further provides the springboard to venture into farming businesses.
Food education gradually loses its footing in the curricula during mid-high school and onwards. During the formative years, there would be lessons and texts on vitamins, proteins and other food contents and their impacts on human health. These materials tend to encourage the readers to avoid junk food and focus on the home made and cooked food.
Courses on agriculture had a tangible effect on people’s interaction with food. However, this was a rare phenomenon across the sample. Moreover, it also seems that the countries providing agriculture or home economics as core courses tend to groom more aware individuals vis-à-vis food and nutrition.
A lack of expert teachers on the subject of food and education could be observed across the board. In some cases, makeshift teachers taught the class. It has been reported, that this tendency of taking food education lightly creates general apathy among the sample, but on the other hand, teachers that arranged cooking sessions, carried out a plantation/gardening project or a walk through on cooking food promoted a keen interest among the students, at least for some time.

Models and institutions
More than 50% of the respondents have selected ‘family and relatives’ as the shapers of their food habits. A robust body of evidence has shown that parental food style and attitudes influence the food habits of their children through the mechanisms of social learning. Of course, it must be said that this relation is not always straightforward, because parents have their own food-related motivations and preferences. However, research has highlighted a positive association between parents’ and children’s diets.
In the very early age, the way parents talk about food, cook meals and eat provide the most important influence in developing a child’s healthy eating habits. Children watch and imitate adults and look at them to learn everything from saying please and thank-you to fitness and nutrition behaviors. Children can also pick up on their parents' attitudes about food. As role models, parents need to make sure they are demonstrating a healthy attitude toward food so that their children do that, too.
From the early school days in kindergarten and primary followed by pre- and high school, most of the interviewees received a very basic understanding of food and nutrition. Most importantly, food education received by students at school lacked firsthand experience or any immersive learning opportunity. It was a guided process rather than a participative or interactive one. Only 23% of the respondents had field trips to local agro-community and/or nutrition center or interacted with specialists.

Getting food education
Until a relatively recent past, food education was predominantly provided by public entities, as only 31% of the respondents selected “private entities” in this regard. The sample went to school roughly 15-20 years ago and their school memories may well not reflect the present state of the relevant school systems. Undoubtedly, governmental policies play a huge role in the level or depth of food education among the students. In recent years, much has been done to improve school meals and to provide children with some basic information about proper nutrition. Unfortunately, it seems that nutritional education takes the back seat in the public school system. That is because most schools simply do not have the time or the resources to focus on food/nutrition and because rulers fail seeing the tangible benefits of food education compared to other skills that may help in finding an employment.
In order to halt the hunger-obesity paradox it would instead be important revising such policies and create national programs to provide skills and knowledge to students, providing scientific-based materials and curricula, supporting teacher training and, finally, integrating food education into the core of learning.
In order to maximize the results, all stakeholders’ participation should be involved for a pragmatic and effective education process. Schools, parents, and the community should work together to promote health, well-being and learning of all students. In fact, when schools actively involve parents and engage community resources, they are able to respond more effectively to the health-related needs of students. These partnerships result in sharing and maximizing the utilities of resources and help children and youths developing healthy behaviors and future healthy families and, in turn, a healthier future.

Makame Mahmud & Elena Cadel (BCFN Alumni)
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