Food Literacy for Good Food

Pawan Agarwal, Founder and Chief Executive of Food Future Foundation and Former Chief Executive Officer, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI)

Today, people buy and eat food just to fill their bellies or for taste. Farmers and food businesses produce and supply food that maximises their profits. And the policies aim at producing more food for the growing population. The market for food only accounts for the sticker price of the food and not its ‘true value’. The ‘true value’ of food is at least three times its market value when we account for its additional economic, environmental, and health costs. 

The way we eat today is failing both people and the planet. It isn’t nutritious, it isn’t sustainable, and it isn’t equitable. This has resulted in a food system that is neither good for people nor for the planet. 

The crises

Six out of ten diseases are diet-related posing a greater risk of mortality and morbidity than unsafe sex, alcohol, drug, and tobacco use combined. With the quality of diet worsening, the problem is becoming more serious and the children are worst affected. Food systems account for one-third of greenhouse emissions. There is a clear message from all this: the food system crisis is deepening. Addressing these complex concerns requires context-specific solutions and multiple stakeholders working together.

Multiple and aligned actions

Actions are needed both on the supply and demand sides. On the supply side, all businesses, whether big, medium, or small; whether in food, transport, storage, finance, or advertising – have a role to play. Innovations are happening within the food sector in the supply chain, fortification, sustainable packaging, and product labeling. For more sustainable diets, food businesses are scaling up plant-based meat alternatives. More needs to happen. 

The policy focus has to be on encouraging and enabling food businesses to shift the balance of their activities in favour of products as well as fresh produce which is more nutritious, affordable, and accessible to all. And, both policy and businesses have to work together to shape consumer behaviour. Shaping consumer behaviour towards healthy and sustainable diets is the key to creating incentives both for the businesses and government to build a better food system. Unfortunately, since it is not easy, there have been limited efforts in that direction. 

Need for dietary shift

Changing consumer behaviour is crucial to make a conscious dietary shift to healthy, balanced, and diverse diets. This would not only address the problem of diet-related illnesses but given that good food for people is good also for the environment, it would alleviate the adverse impact of the food system on the environment. 

Ensuring dietary shifts at the population level not only requires awareness and knowledge but active engagement to bring about dietary changes. Currently, there is no structured intervention to educate people, and children, in particular, about the impact of diet on their health, to enable them to make the right food choices while keeping their culinary traditions in mind. 

There is thus a need to focus on food literacy that would enable school children and their families to make a conscious dietary shift to healthy, balanced, and diverse diets. Inspired by the current thrust on foundational literacy and numeracy (FLN) skills as a backbone for school education reforms, this programme is to impart foundational food literacy (FFL) skills to children in schools with active parental engagement as a mainstay for preventive healthcare.

What is Food Literacy? 

Food literacy is defined as having the knowledge, behaviour, and skills necessary to choose, grow, prepare and enjoy healthy food to support one’s health, environment, and the community. It is a catch-all term. It would cover – what to eat? how much to eat? and why not to waste?  

Food literacy would be imparted through a carefully curated curriculum. It must focus on the middle school years, a stage which is most crucial as it lays the foundation for lifelong food habits. At this stage, children would be able to grasp and perceive various aspects of food which will result in a smooth transition to food literacy in adolescence and adulthood.

Various studies including those based on randomised controlled trials and systematic reviews have shown positive effects of school-based nutrition education interventions on dietary intake outcomes in children. A recent study by SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai based on intervention in the form of 12 weekly sessions with children and three parents’ sessions over three months has shown improvements in mean knowledge, attitude, and practices related to diets in pre-to post-assessments. The current approach of having a few chapters on food and nutrition in different classes across subjects does not result in the desired impact.

The new approach and school engagement strategy must focus on activity-based learning. It must leverage technology and collaboration with parents and the family to effectively address the gaps in the current provision. The proposed module should focus on the science of dietary shifts and habit formation. Being an inexpensive intervention, it would be easy to scale up and sustain by engaging with schools, governments and their agencies. With a greater focus on health and well-being in COVID times, it is an opportune time to launch such a programme.  

Over five years, this programme could reach out to a large majority of people in India to make the right dietary transition as per National Dietary Guidelines (NDGs). This would eventually lead to the universalisation of foundational food literacy skills to address the rising concerns about diet-related and lifestyle illnesses in the country. Lying at the intersection of education and health, the programme would have a measurable and lasting impact on healthcare in the country. 

Good food 

Small changes in diets by individuals and families would make a large and positive impact driving demand for good food and sending clear market signals all the way through the food value chain to the farmers and producers. 

Diet quality determines health outcomes. Good food supports healthy brains and bodies and significantly reduces the risk of disease and disability. Good food would benefit the planet and curb climate change, making food supply chains more regenerative and encouraging agricultural practices that restore biodiversity, improve soil health, protect human and animal welfare, and elevate culture and community.

As consumer behaviour aligns with good food, the food businesses would gear themselves to supply food that is healthy and sustainably produced and processed. The policies would also align with these changes and must account for the ‘true value’ of food rather than its sticker price alone.

Driven by consumer demand, as markets begin to work for good food and government policies align with such diets, a food system would be built that is healthy for both people and the planet. This positive feedback loop would lead to much-desired food system transformation. 

Given that food literacy holds the key to changing consumer behaviour for good food, governments, businesses, and civil society all need to work towards building a food literacy society – a key to good food strategy. 

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