Food literacy: a forgotten life skill and why no one is teaching it anymore

We all eat. It can be easy to assume that we know what is best when it comes to food, both for ourselves and our families. Contradictory to this belief, obesity and associated chronic disease remain on an upward trajectory for both adults and children.

Defining food literacy for the Australian context is a recent occurrence.  In essence, it is the enabling of knowledge, skills and behaviour to plan, manage, select, prepare and eat a healthy diet. Food literacy is therefore important for the early establishment of healthy dietary behaviours that can be sustained in later life. In their important work on food literacy, Helen Vidgen and Danielle Gallegos describe it as:

“the scaffolding that empowers individuals, households, communities or nations to protect diet quality through change and strengthen dietary resilience over time. It is composed of a collection of inter-related knowledge, skills and behaviours required to plan, manage, select, prepare and eat food to meet needs and determine intake.”

“Students can calculate the energy density of foods in Mathematics; study food cropping patterns in Geography; explore food cultures in History; debate the role of food marketing in English and Media studies”

How will we equip future generations with this life skill?

Schools are a key setting to reach large numbers of children both frequently and over a prolonged period of time. Creating a supportive school environment can positively influence children’s lifestyle behaviours through the implementation of complementary policies, curricula and extra-curricular activities. This explains why many schools have invested in the World Health Organization’s ‘Health Promoting Schools’ approach, embodied as The Achievement Program in Victoria. However, the onus is still on teachers to access and adapt these resources for their classrooms.  This is a challenge for teachers who consider themselves time poor and lacking in confidence to deliver the content, frequently resulting in the delivery of one-off or add-on time-limited activities.

A recent World Health Organization report on ending childhood obesity recommends the ‘integration of nutrition and health literacy and practical skills into the core curriculum’ of schools. In Victoria, the majority of schools mandate the use of the Victorian Curriculum, which is based on the Australian Curriculum, tailored to state priorities.  Teachers are expected to cover eight learning areas, with an emphasis on English and Mathematics.  Only 2.6% of the Victorian Curriculum items relate to food and nutrition, taught within two learning areas – ‘Technologies’ and ‘Health and Physical Education’.

In a recent IPAN study led by Dr Penny Love key health and education stakeholders and teachers were asked what they felt about integrating food and nutrition into the school curriculum – and why it wasn’t being done. Stakeholders and teachers all agreed that child health is important to establish healthy habits early, and the positive link between health and academic performance. They also all agreed that food and nutrition should be embedded through all learning areas. The challenge, however, was an existing ‘crowded curriculum’ with a lack of ‘ready-to-go’ resources aligned to curriculum objectives.  For many teachers, a lack of knowledge and confidence was a greater barrier, with concerns about being judged or appearing judgmental. According to one teacher:

“Parents seem to get a bit testy about you interfering with decisions that are made at home, like eating…  I’d love to have that discussion, but, it’s just not my place . .’

The integration of food and nutrition throughout the school curriculum is a policy issue, and will require collaboration and leadership between health and education sectors.

A cross-curricula approach appears to be supported by health and education sectors, but making it a reality seems hindered by competing aims and interests. For food literacy to be firmly embedded throughout the school curriculum, rather than as an ad-hoc activity, the roles of the health and education sectors need to be more clearly defined, leading this work together rather than in isolation of each other. As stated by Margaret Miller, a senior researcher in the field:

“The advantage of embedding food and nutrition into existing subjects is that it enhances, rather than detracts, from these subjects, making them more relevant and applied to daily life. For example, students can calculate the energy density of foods in Mathematics; study food cropping patterns in Geography; explore food cultures in History; debate the role of food marketing in English and Media studies.”

The Victorian Curriculum already applies a cross-curriculum approach to the teaching of Sustainability, Indigenous History and Culture, and Australia’s place in Asia. This approach is needed for Food Literacy – to equip future generations with fundamental food and nutrition knowledge, skills and behaviours for life.

Dr Penny Love is a senior lecturer and research fellow at the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences and Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University.  A full version of findings from this study can be found here.

Click here for more information about Deakin IPAN’s research into physical activity and nutrition or follow us on Twitter @DeakinIPAN

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