On the table
Once learning to cook was one of the signs of growing up but with fewer and fewer people able to cook a nutritious meal for themselves, more and more groups are calling for action
Boiling an egg isn’t rocket science, but it’s more than most kids these days can handle in the kitchen.
Between working parents who have no time to cook, and children whose cooking knowledge doesn’t exceed pushing a few buttons on the microwave, families are spending less time in the kitchen preparing nutritious meals and more money on convenient and less time-intensive food options.
This may better suit their lifestyle, but convenience rarely – if ever – comes without a price, and when it comes to food choices, that price can become quite high, as Huron County Health Unit dietitian Amy MacDonald explains.
“In the long-term, cooking from scratch can be more cost effective, but the issue is the initial investment to be able to purchase all of those ingredients. You can’t just purchase the exact amount you need, you have to buy them in larger volumes. It costs less if you know what you’re doing,” said MacDonald.
Many people don’t know what to do with all of those extra ingredients when they’re done cooking, and as a result most of it ends up going to waste. They don’t know how to preserve it, and so their only option is to throw it out before it goes bad.
Then, once the hassle of cooking becomes too much, people instinctively fall back on the convenience of the prepackaged and canned alternatives, which may have a lower price tag on the container, but what they don’t realize is that they are effectively cutting out a large portion of the daily vitamins and nutrients that you can really only get from fresh foods.
“Food companies have done too good a job marketing convenience and not enough time marketing good nutrition,” said Mary Carver, member of the Ontario Home Economics Association (OHEA).
Carver is a professional home economist (P.H.Ec) who has been with OHEA for almost 20 years, supporting its efforts to improve the quality of home and family life by training professional home economists, equipping them with the necessary knowledge and skills to fulfill that goal.
The OHEA is also a strong advocate for food literacy in schools, and recently started a petition to convince the Ontario government to make at least one food nutrition course mandatory in all schools.
“I think food literacy has gone from the ‘nice to know’ to a ‘need to know’ issue,” said Carver. “I rarely see anyone who disagrees with the need for food literacy.”
It used to be that the basics of cooking and baking were something you learned in home economics class. This changed, however, around the 1970s, when women – as the class was predominantly female – began moving out of their traditional role in the household and out into the workforce.
Based on Carver’s high school experience, home economics was never a mandatory course, and as schools began to offer a wider range of alternative studies, women saw the class as limiting their career options.
“It was once more popular when there were fewer optional choices for credits,” said Carver. “Women enjoyed being offered other choices such as computer skills, and may have thought food courses were only for home-makers.”
Contrary to popular belief, home economics never completely disappeared, but was instead spread out across other subjects, rebranded as “family studies”, and focused more on theoretical knowledge and less on practical application.
As we continue to witness higher rates of childhood obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other food-related health problems, more emphasis is being placed on food literacy research, which up until now has been extremely limited.
MacDonald was among a team of researchers, representing eight health units from across Ontario, who took part in a research study in 2012 funded by Public Health Ontario, to address the issue of food illiteracy by looking at how people prepare food in their everyday lives, how they learned to prepare food, and find out what they think constitutes food literacy.
“One of the things we were a little surprised by was that most of the groups said that recipes really weren’t the best way to learn,” said McDonald.
This is where food literacy comes in, for as P.H.Ec and family studies educator Diane O’Shea explains, food literacy is about more than just learning how to chop vegetables or boil water. It’s also about getting back to the basics of food.
“It is a complex term that’s not only about food preparation, food and kitchen safety, but an understanding of where food is coming from, how it is grown and how it is produced,” said O’Shea.
O’Shea was awarded the Ontario Agri-Food Education’s (OAFE) Teacher Award for Excellence in 2010 for her efforts to integrate agriculture into her classroom by engaging the students in food labs, teaching them how to make preserves, and even taking them on field trips to local farms to see first hand where their food came from.
“This award was a lovely honour,” said O’Shea. “The OAFE have worked really hard to provide resources and education for teachers.”
Parents try to be a teacher and role model for their children in all aspects of their life, but the truth is that when it comes to food, most parents have a bit of learning they need to do themselves first.
“I got a message recently where a colleague had just taught a 20 year old how to crack an egg,” said O’Shea.
So much of the common sense about food that we grew up with has been lost to today’s generation of fast food and take-out, forming a barrier between consumers and what they eat. They don’t see the farmers hilling the potatoes, harvesting the corn or milking the cows. They only see what has already been packaged and prepared for them.
“We need to create a connection between agriculture and food, which many people are not aware exists,” said Carver.
The Ontario Federation of Agriculture is concerned enough about the need for food literacy that it made it part of its presentation to candidates in last spring’s provincial election.
“Our food literacy goal is our ‘6 X 16 Program’, taken from the National Food Strategy,” says an OFA position paper. “It is a measurable goal to ensure that by the age of 16 years, each Ontario teenager can plan and prepare six nutritious meals.
“OFA believes that the Ontario government must develop and implement curriculum enhancements to the elementary and secondary school systems to improve food literacy by a targeted and measurable amount on an annual basis (6 X 16).
“The Ontario government must work closely with the agri-food sector to provide enhanced school nutrition programs to remote and vulnerable communities across Ontario,” the OFA paper concludes.
The push for food literacy is not something new, and it’s not limited to Canada, either. O’Shea attended a council meeting for the International Federation for Home Economics (IFHE) in July, which shows just how far of a reach this issue had.
“There really is a world-wide interest in the push for food literacy,” said O’Shea.
The world is full of delicious recipes, which will continue to go untasted until everyone learns how to be confident in the kitchen.◊