Growing Healthy Communities Through Food Literacy and Education
On June 16th, the London Food Bank, the London Community Foundation and London-Middlesex Health Unit released the London-Middlesex Food Policy Assessment, which identifies assets and opportunities in the region to develop a more sustainable local food system. A key area of the report is food literacy, which is defined as “…a set of skills that help us plan, prepare and cook meals for ourselves, and our families and…help us prepare food that is healthy, tasty and affordable.”
A recent paper from the London-Middlesex Health Unit found that 89% of local residents are not meeting their daily fruit and vegetable requirements. Only 54% of elementary schools in the area participate in Ontario Student Nutrition Programs, which are designed to ensure that children and youth receive healthy breakfasts, lunches, and snacks throughout the day. Although many of us view cooking and meal planning as basic skills, there are still those in our community who do not have access to food education or the knowledge needed to purchase, prepare and consume healthy, affordable food.
As we are moving towards the elimination of poverty and working to help low-income members of our community, it is important to recognize the financial impact that food has on local households. According to Statistics Canada, the average household in London-Middlesex spends an average of $7,427 on food each year or about $220 per person, per month with 31% of this cost going to restaurants and fast food. When we look at grocery spending, the Assessment reports that the largest amount of spending goes towards meat, which over the last decade has increased in price twice as much as produce.
Improvements in food education and literacy can help combat the incorrect belief that discount meals and fast food are cheaper that home cooking. It can also help people learn to better plan meals and prepare healthy meals that take advantage of cheaper, local ingredients. Through food literacy promotion, we can lower the monthly cost of food and help reduce the financial burden on low-income families in our communities.
Despite the current gaps in our food literacy and education system, the Food Policy Assessment reports that 90% of London-Middlesex residents agree that it is important that children, youth and young adults learn about food and the food system. The Assessment identifies organizations that are currently providing food literacy and education programming to the community - programs such as those offered by Growing Chefs!, Nutrition Ignition, Life Resource Centre’s Community Kitchen Cooking Class, and the London Training Centre’s Local Food Skills program can help build food literacy in the community.
As an example of this programming, attendees at the launch of the Food Policy Assessment had the opportunity to see Growing Chefs! Ontario’s Fresh Food Frenzy program in action - a three-hour session at the Covent Garden Market where students have the opportunity to meet with local famers and vendors to learn about locally produced food and the farming process from seed to market. After this, they get a cooking lesson and prepare a three-course meal using local farm and market fresh ingredients– and of course they get to enjoy the fruits of their labours!
Thanks to the generosity of local sponsors and donors, the program is offered at no cost to participating students, parents or schools. Although the program is open to any organization interested in participating, it has become so popular that there is now a waiting list. Families whose children have participated in the program report that their children have brought to the family an increased interest in home cooking, a willingness to try new food, and a desire to learn more. This is just one example of how food literacy programs can empower families to make healthy food choices, prepare affordable, healthy meals, and support the local food industry.
Empowering people to choose affordable, healthy food and preparing meals at home in order to lower expenses are just two ways that food literacy can help improve our communities. Learning about food systems and where food comes from allows people to make consumer choices such as choosing food from local producers. This in turn helps local farmers and food producers sustain their businesses and create local jobs. Healthy diets can reduce health issues, which reduces the strain on local doctors and hospitals. Food education provides skills that are easy to learn and have very meaningful outcomes.
Ensuring that everyone has access to food literacy programs is an important step towards growing a healthy community.
Spencer Sandor is a London resident and serves as the Board Chair of Growing Chefs! Ontario.