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New language for new ideas

New terminology is paving the way for a better understanding, and conversation, about issues in food today.


February 5, 2016
By Stephanie Ortenzi

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Getting education about farming and food into the classroom is a top priority of organizations like Agriculture in the Classroom Canada and Ontario AgriFood Education. A program is now in place where newly graduated or underemployed teachers deliver agricultural based information to students in Ontario schools. Photo: Fotolia

We’re never going to run out of new ideas, which is pretty exciting when you think about it. And language keeps up. It’s elastic and accommodates new ideas. Language shows us how to express and understand new ideas.

Advances in food policy have brought about some new language that was discussed at the Conference Board of Canada’s food summit in late October. Here are three compound nouns that inform certain aspects of our current reality.

Food swamp is a new way to recognize how in some neighbourhoods it’s considerably easier to find unhealthy foods than healthy ones. Some food activists have started working with convenience stores to find ways to merchandize fresh and healthy foods profitably. In Toronto, a public health program created a specially designed produce truck that travels to food swamps.

Food security points to a new way of looking at food in terms of availability. The World Health Organization says we have food security “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.”

 A downside of language is that it can obfuscate. The term food security is highly charged for me, because it’s really about poverty. Access to food is a moot point if you can’t pay. I wish that when we talk about food security, we could be more old-school and talk about poverty.

Food literacy is a term that captures the current reality of young people who are now three and four generations removed from the farm life. They have considerable gaps in their knowledge about the food system. Agriculture in the Classroom Canada (AITC) has put agriculture and food education into classrooms for over 25 years. Today, AITC is an alliance of eight provinces, each pursuing their own programs, but all sharing the common goal of stepping into this learning breach for students in grades 7 to 12.

Last year, they launched a new website (allaboutfood.aitc.ca) with intuitive design and content that’s current and captivating. Here are some of the articles you can find on the site: “The truth about hormone use in agriculture”; “The facts about conventional and organic farms”; “Three areas where modern farms are going digital”; “Four jobs on a farm that may surprise you”; and “Jobs in agriculture are trending, and here are the facts to prove it”.

Those last two highlight the fact that young people aren’t thinking about agri-food for careers. Given the demographic changes at work, we’re going to need them. The website also has a companion piece for the classroom, but the question is, how do we get the material into the classrooms as a proper lesson in a way that it connects to the provincial curriculum that each teacher has to satisfy?  

Three years ago, Ontario AgriFood Education (OAFE) had an inspiration. Under the guidance of executive director Colleen Smith, OAFE created the Teacher Ambassador program, which puts newly graduated, fully certified and/or underemployed teachers into classrooms to teach agri-food lessons that satisfy provincial requirements.

“There’s a win-win here,” Smith says. “Four out of five grads don’t get full-time positions in the first five years,” she adds.

The TA program gives them classroom time and a valuable addition to the work experience. The TAs, “who commit to an impressive amount of time to learn about agri-food,” Smith says, deliver the lessons that dovetail with subjects already on the curriculum, like biotech, finance, geography, politics, climate change, the environment and technology innovation.

To measure impact and efficacy, students are surveyed before and after the lesson “to see if the needle has moved,” Smith says, “and something is always learned, even a different perspective to explore in the subject or issue.”

OAFE is now working on getting the TA program in more schools with eLearning programs, through which TAs contributed personal passion for the subject. “It keeps the material fresh,” Smith says.

The material is indeed very fresh. One lesson, “Evaluating Internet Sources,” teaches critical thinking about information from the web. It’s a relevant lesson for everyone given the glut of data at our fingertips. Are we discerning enough? Do customers judge our products using spurious information? It’s an age when flour and sugar are relegated to enemy status, and discussions of moderation aren’t titillating enough. These foods are perfectly safe and make life better. It’s up to us to develop the language for that.


Stephanie Ortenzi is a Toronto writer and former chef.