Educate, Educate, Educate

How important is an understanding of food and nutrition to society? How do we measure the importance people place on food quality and how do we increase the value they place on it? We know that consumers who care most about food quality, healthy diet and biodiversity are the most likely to be consumers of organic food. So education is about getting down to the roots of people’s understanding and helping them make the connections.

There are considerable shades of difference in people’s priorities concerning food. One way to measure this is by total food expenditure. The average American spends seven per cent of their income on food, the average Briton 10 per cent and the average Frenchman 18 per cent.

Shopping, cooking and eating occupy one in six of our waking hours. So you’d think that understanding the importance of food is one of the key ‘life skills’ we should all have acquired as adults. Most food education of the public is focused on food safety and avoiding food poisoning from bugs that shouldn’t be in food in the first place. It’s clear that what we want to see is an understanding of food that will help ensure that people’s lives are productive, happy, healthy and not prematurely terminated by food-related illnesses. This makes sense for economic, political, social and ethical reasons, which should not need to be elaborated.

With few exceptions, in 12 years of primary and secondary education most children learn nothing about food, nutrition and health apart from tangential and reductionist references in biology, where the human digestive system and metabolism are studied. Home economics, a study previously restricted to female students, has been abandoned altogether as a result of curriculum changes. Yet this acted as a ‘feeder’ course for students who went on to study food technology. Students leave school able to calculate the collision time of two trains travelling at different speeds in opposite directions but unable to boil an egg or bake a loaf of bread.

Ignorance of the fundamentals of food quality and diet occur where a rational person would least expect. In the four years of medical education that a doctor undergoes before qualification, just four hours are spent studying the subject of nutrition and health. In most hospitals the dietician or nutritionist is a lowly staff member, who is not allowed to diagnose and whose main role is to issue pre-programmed nutritional advice.

But children do get information, I hesitate to call it education, about food. It’s worth considering what we are up against – and to some extent what we should emulate. British children are exposed to 10 TV commercials an hour for confectionery and other sugary, fatty foods. Between the age of two and 12 a Canadian child will see 100,000 television commercials for food. By the age of three one in five American toddlers are making specific brand name requests for food. In the US Channel One is a daily 12-minute in-classroom current events broadcast. It features ten minutes of news and two minutes of commercials. Companies pay up to $195,000 for a 30-second ad, knowing that they have a captive audience of 8 million students across the country.

Coca-Cola pays schools and supplies educational material in exchange for exclusive rights to position drinks vending machines in schools. In Colorado Springs Coke cut an $8 million deal with the school district to allow unlimited access to Coke machines and to allow students to drink Coke in the classroom. Elsewhere Pepsi contributed $1.5 million to build a sports stadium. In exchange the science curriculum includes a study of a Carbonated Beverage Company that includes a visit to the local Pepsi bottling plant. That was in Jefferson County, Colorado, home of Columbine High School. School busses are hotly sought after in the States by advertisers such as Wendy’s and Burger King. If you ever have occasion to fly into Dallas, look down at the Dr. Pepper and 7-Up logos on the rooftops of the two high schools near the airport. They’re part of an exclusive vending machine deal.

Pizza Hut run a ‘Book-It!” programme to encourage kids to read, the reward is a personal pan pizza. Hershey’s chocolate provide the entire curriculum for one grade’s maths, science, geography and nutrition under the title of “Chocolate Dream Machine.”

How can children possibly obtain a balanced view of healthy nutrition in the face of such overwhelming corporate influence? Is the answer to restrict such influence? ... or to buy our way into the system? I suggest that it’s a bit of both. The hierarchy of information distribution is flattening with advances in desktop publishing capabilities, in access to broadband, and with new channels of information dissemination. Luckily we’re in Britain, where newspapers exist on the basis of their circulation sales income. Readers respond to stories about healthy eating and organic food, so the press are valuable allies in spreading our message. This is very different to the US press, which serves the interests of the grocery advertisers who keep it going by buying dozens of pages of food ads daily. There has never been a food scare in America – the media are too intimidated. We have a persuasive story to tell and people, including journalists, who grasp it, find it holds together seamlessly.

The challenge is not that mountainous and we have already established a base camp near the summit. We don’t have to swing 100% of the population around to the organic worldview for it to prevail. What we need to do is create an educated bloc of consumers who manufacturers, retailers and foodservice companies ignore at their peril. We are well along the road already towards building this critical mass but we still need to broaden and deepen our reach. We’ve got the affluent elderly and the young, hip parents leaning most heavily in our direction, the young families and their grandparents. The lost generations in between are in our sights.

I’d like to quote the President of General Mills when asked about Genetically engineered ingredients in their breakfast cereals.. “Our research shows that 8-9% of American consumers will not buy a product if they know it contains GM ingredients – that’s too large a chunk of our customer base to ignore unless GM offers some real benefits elsewhere”.

Perhaps I should also mention Vladimir Illyich Lenin in this context, who said: “Give me 5% of Russia’s population as Bolsheviks and the revolution will surely follow.” He actually did it with a much lower percentage, but with unacceptable resort to violence.

It costs a company a great deal to develop brand loyalties. An educated consumer base can and will force changes from the bottom up in the values of well-managed brands that do not want to lose their expensively-acquired loyal customers.

So what other examples can we look to?

The mother of all healthy eating education programmes was The Peckham Experiment in South London in the 1940s which showed that, when a group of families learned the fundamentals of nutrition and healthy eating their children did better at school, crime rates fell, domestic strife was reduced and overall health improved. It was run by two of the eight founders of the Soil Association, which shows how deep our roots run on education. Prisons where healthy food has been introduced or where prisoners develop an understanding of vegetable gardening, farming and food production, show lower rates of violence and recidivism. We know what we are doing is the right thing for society.

So what are we doing – and what more can we do?

The Soil Association Demonstration Farms Network helps educate children in the origins of food with the aim that every child in Britain will have visited an organic farm and been educated in the fundamentals of food production by the age of 12. 100,000 kids visited an organic farm this year, there are 20 farms in the programme and we have funding to increase this number. Children remember 20 per cent of what they are told and 80 per cent of what they do, so farm visits have a real and lasting educational impact. Because organic farms usually have a mixture of crops and livestock the whole picture of food production can be studied. Demonstration farms include a farm trail that allows kids to see animals close-up, help them understand the connection between sustainable farming and care of the countryside, and the chance to buy fresh organic food from the farm shop or taste something at the farm café. The challenge is then to encourage an ongoing interest in wholesome fresh food – perhaps to offer box schemes.

Schools, hospitals, canteens in public and private enterprises are all targets for improving choice and nutrition. Public/private partnerships open the door to some possibilities. Sodexho is one of the world’s largest caterers, with interests in foodservice in schools, hospitals, factories and transportation. They now have an organic division, called Organica. It’s main customer base at this time is upscale events such as Goodwood, Ascot, Henley, Lords, weddings and banquets, but their eye is fixed firmly on a future where parents of children who have been reared organically will demand the same choices for their children at school as vegetarian parents demanded - and obtained - in the 1980s. If Italy can make locally sourced organic food in school meals public policy, then so can we.

Defra now have organic food available in their canteens and for committees and working groups. This began with UKROFS related activities but has now spread throughout the department. If they can do it, every organisation should be able to.

A missed opportunity this year was the Catering Conference For Schools, which took place earlier this summer. Next year there will be a Soil Association speaker at their conference, so attendance by organic suppliers could help open doors into this important marketplace and to increase our industry’s understanding of the mechanics of reaching this sector. A first step to getting organic food into schools is to educate the caterers who supply the schools. As I mentioned earlier, Sodexho are already Soil Association certified and on the inside track.

The Soil Association has made available a schools pack for some ten years that contains valuable and well-structured teaching aids that increase primary school kids’ understanding of agriculture, with an emphasis on organics. It’s a bit long in the tooth now, but got a positive response from schools where it was used as part of the curriculum. It needs updating, perhaps to include a DVD and video element. Perhaps a collaboration with the Guild of Food Writers would help to broaden its appeal and increase public awareness of the availability of this teaching tool. If Coke can spend $190,000 for a 30 second spot on schools TV in the US, let’s hope that there are some organic processors who can see the benefits of sponsoring something of genuine value and at a much lower cost.

There are developments in updating the food technology curriculum that can increase its appeal. Placements and sponsorship for students will help deepen their understanding and commitment to the organic way of thinking. Food technologists who understand the holistic environmental and nutritional picture about food will be well-placed for career advancement and I am sure that a well-constructed curriculum would not suffer any shortage of candidates. Our industry, as working environments go, is one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling, so placements will ensure future interest in our sector.

The Soil Association has a good record for putting on one day seminars that have helped bring real progress to sectors such as eggs, dairy, horticulture and meat production. A seminar that provided a forum for discussion relating to curriculum changes, catering considerations, and careers advice would attract interested parties from schools, colleges, universities and other interested organisations. Perhaps we can explore what shape such a seminar could take in this afternoon’s open forum.

I’m a member of the Caroline Walker Trust, which was established in memory of the eponymous campaigning nutritionist. Its Chairman is Peter Bazalgette, now best known for the Big Brother programmes, but who made his mark with the Food and Drink Programme. (Trust members, along with the Food Commission and the member groups of Sustain, such as Women’s Institute and Townswomen’s Guild, are our natural allies and we should keep the door open for their support of our goals). The Caroline Walker Trust have an award category for ‘student nutritionist of the year’. A similar award for a student who has shown initiative or undertaken a significant project to do with organic food could be introduced at next year’s Organic Business Awards. This would send a signal to students and their teachers that there are short term as well as longer term rewards in developing understanding of organics.

We are much bigger and more powerful than we think. How many of you realise that the global market for organic food, at £16 billion, is 6 times the global market for genetically engineered seed, at £2.7 billion? Yet the 4 companies in the world that sell genetically engineered seed have far more influence in universities, over governments and in the business community because they use their power in a coordinated, controlled, focused and selfish way. Our £16 billion pound global community numbers in the hundreds of thousands, from small producers to multinationals. We need to be organised and focused and clarify exactly what our medium and long term goals are. It would be great if we could create a set of key educational goals, a ‘Declaration of Intent’, so to speak, that we could all sign up to and that we could all support in a coordinated and cooperative way. We know we’re right and anyone who studies the issues of food and farming in any depth ends up agreeing with us. We’ve captured the moral, scientific and intellectual high ground. Now it’s time to get organised and capture the middle ground - the mass market. The Soil Association has proven that it has the capability to act as your vehicle for educating society at all levels – we need to expand and build on our successes so far. Your support and commitment is an essential ingredient. Let’s go for it!