Young girl with root vegetables, learning how food is produced. Photo: © mbt_studio \

The term food literacy is thrown around a lot in discussions of food education, especially as it pertains to elementary and high school curriculum. A number of documents, such as the Conference Board of Canada’s and the NDP’s food strategies, tackle food literacy as an important priority in Canada, and organizations such as FoodShare Toronto consider it a central tenet of their food work. However, the term means different things to different people, causing confusion in discussions about how best to implement food literacy programs in schools.

For some, the term is taken quite literally to constitute a person’s ability to accurately read food labels and Canada’s Food Guide – and to understand basic nutrition enough to apply that knowledge to meal preparation. In that case, cooking also falls into the category of food literacy. This definition appears throughout the Conference Board of Canada’s report What’s to Eat? Improving Food Literacy in Canada. The report was one of a number of studies contributing to the food strategy they published earlier this year. This definition offers a very individualistic approach to food that emphasizes a change in consumption patterns by purchasing better-for-you products and cooking more at home. While all of that is important for addressing food issues, two important aspects – social justice and the environment – are missing, and this definition effectively shuts down any further expansion of what might constitute food literacy.

For the more socially and environmentally minded, food literacy also encompasses knowing how food is grown and produced, who is producing it, how production affects the environment and who has access to what kinds of foods. It’s a far more comprehensive definition, and certainly hasn’t been adopted universally. But in order to truly tackle food system problems in this country, it’s the definition we need.

Broadening the definition of food literacy, and thus integrating questions of access and labour into food education, will better equip us for creating a more just and sustainable food system.

Broadening the definition of food literacy, and thus integrating questions of access and labour into food education, will better equip us for creating a more just and sustainable food system. The food system is far reaching and both affects and is affected by a wide variety factors. When working to make good, healthy food more affordable to those living on low incomes, we must also consider the farmers and ensure that they are being fairly compensated for their labour. When working for fair agricultural compensation, we must take into consideration both the farmers’ well-being and that of the many migrant workers who come to this country and work on our farms. We have to consider that pesticide use affects both human and ecological health.

Food system change requires an integrated approach and a broadened definition of food literacy – one that includes understanding the ecological benefits of a truly organic farm as well as being able to cook a nutritionally balanced meal – is key to making that happen. Focusing on individual responsibility alone will not work. Just as an effective organic farm is one that relies on mutually beneficial interspecies relationships, effective food literacy relies on a cooperative approach involving students, farmers, consumers, teachers and producers.

If food literacy is understood merely as the ability to understand food labels and replicate a recipe, it reinforces notions of individual responsibility and effectively takes the onus off of corporations and governments to implement any changes at a structural and legislative level. However, if food literacy includes social justice and the environment at its core, integrating it into the school curriculum will mean something quite different than basic nutrition and cooking skills. It will encourage critical thinking and ask students to consider their food in the larger context of the planet, and hopefully foster not only a deeper understanding of what food means in their individual lives, but what it means for communities, countries and the world.      

Genevieve is earning her master's degree in Environmental Studies at York University with a focus on sustainable food systems, food education and food literature. In The Mouthful, she blogs about the environmental politics and possibilities of food. Genevieve is a certified pastry chef and aspiring novelist. She lives in Toronto. @GFullan

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