Teaching kids food literacy

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Every parent wants to raise a healthy, happy child. But with busy lifestyles, healthy eating can easily take a back seat to convenience.

After all, it’s easier to pick up fish and chips for dinner than to prepare a hearty casserole or salad. But the result, according to Garden to Table founding trustee Catherine Bell, is a lack of “food literacy” in today’s generation, with many children having no clue where their food comes from, let alone how to cook it.

With parents having less time to teach food literacy, and possibly not the same food knowledge as previous generations, food literacy should ideally be taught in schools to back-up home-based learning says Bell.

That’s where she sees organisations such as Garden to Table playing a role. Garden to Table is a charitable trust established in 2009 to facilitate a programme of food education for children aged 7 to 10-years.¬¬¬

Bell wants the New Zealand Government to invest in a curriculum-based food skills programme. She’s taking her cue from others overseas, such as celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who is petitioning the governments of G20 countries to introduce food education programmes in their nations’ schools in the wake of a global obesity epidemic.

The World Health Organisation rates childhood obesity as “one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century,” with more than 42 million children under the age of five categorised as obese.

Closer to home, New Zealand’s Ministry of Health figures show that childhood obesity in New Zealand is on the rise. According to 2013 figures, one in every nine children (11 per cent) is categorised as obese, up from 8% in 2007. A further one in five children (22%) is overweight.

The question is how to tackle the issue.

Lots of schools have gardens, but the difference with Garden to Table according to Garden to Table executive officer Anne Barrowclough, is that it is more than growing vegetables or just understanding how to make good food choices.

“It’s actually about empowering children with a hands-on lesson, full of practical skill development focused on how to action those choices – what you need to grow your own tomatoes, how you follow a recipe, how to cook from fresh ingredients. It also adds immediacy and relevance to science and maths concepts.

“Learning is about more than telling, it is about experiencing, active engagement and interaction.”

The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, which runs a similar programme in Australia, recently evaluated how well its food literacy programme worked. As well as more children taking initiative to start home veggie gardens and to cook at home, there were unexpected spin-off benefits. These included improvements in students’ social behaviours; improvement in students’ teamwork skills, modifying of previous bullying behaviour, improvement in managing difficult behaviour, interacting with people of many ages, and development of leadership skills.

Bell says with this in mind, food education programmes in schools have the potential to change the attitudes and habits of whole future generations.

“It enables children to learn skills and have experiences that will influence and inform the rest of their lives and positively impact outcomes across their education, health and social development as well give them respect for others and the natural world.