Food Literacy

I gave up eating yoghurt a few years, after a decade or two of overindulgence it – rarely did a day go by without me tucking into a pot of the gloopy loveliness of yoghurt, either over fruit, alongside a curry, mixed with some cereal or just on its own.  I broke the habit, and in part that was I become too confused to make a choice, I would stand basket in hand surveying the vast selection of pots on the shelves unable to make a decision.  Did I want one with a bendy corner, with fruit or chocolate bits, organic with fruit, low fat, full fat and that was before someone suggested there was an alternative from an ethnic group or even something not made from cows milk?  A simple, healthy product had become a hyper-differentiated panoply of options that underpinned someone’s profit margins but ultimately took away from an elegant staple.
The psychologists, of course, tell us when we are confronted with too many choices we make bad decisions.  I set off with the intention of buying a health pot of yoghurt and return with something deeply drenched in sugar, in a plastic container I’ll struggle to recycle and hidden ingredients I really don’t need.   Often what we are told is that we need to become literate consumers of food, which is an interesting metaphor and one that we should unpack.  And importantly for this blog it echoes many discussions about citizenship, that to take part in our democracies we need to be able to distinguish between arguments and that involves literacy.  This sounds very reasonable until we think that the world’s largest democracy is in India where literacy levels are often very low, which has not stopped it having a very resilient and vibrant democracy.  But let’s hold on to the literacy metaphor for a bit as it is exciting and useful.
It raises an exciting host of questions – such as what is the language of food, can I speak different dialects of food and how good at reading do I have to be, who writes the dictionary of food and who teaches us about it?  What texts do we read and what is their quality?  Is this the refined reading room of the library where the tomes of food are a catalogue and lovingly cared for by chef-librarians or is that this the linguistic free for all that is twitter where narcissistic sociopaths sow half-truths and misinformation?
This is why Food Literacy is such as a productive metaphor, as it shifts us to think about how we would like food discussions and knowledge to be developed and how it actually happens.  At this point, we need to be careful to guard against our prejudices.  Some people will even now be shouting for the blood of all food companies, others will want to tell people about the visceral activities of the food systems, and others will be sneering at those eating handmade yoghurt as they sup on cola and woof down a microwaved meal.  There is enough bad stuff in the food system for all sides to be blamed. Equally, there is an inspiration to better food in the good works of a range of people.  Falling into the comfort zone of our tribes won’t help us overcome a food system that is broken, boring and bland.
If learning about food were like reading, then a lot of it would happen in schools, and it would be overseen by professionals how had an extensive set of professional responsibilities.  If food were written material then some of it you would be delighted to have in your house, you could sit around the table with your family, with your grandmother and all share a healthy serving of Dickens or perhaps a dollop of Jackie Collins if the kids had gone to bed.  But some of the top shelf material you wouldn’t read in polite company or even admit to owning, and some stuff would not be legal even if we all know you can find it on the internet.
Equally we would have measures of how well we can read, what our food reading ages would be – it could be displayed on the doors of supermarkets, this store has the food reading age of an 8-year-old child (aka a Tabloid newspaper) or that of a 14-year-old child or this delicatessen is only for those who finished their adult schooling.   It would also introduce to the paradox of fine dining which is like reading philosophy or science books, many people can read Neitshze, but how many understand it? Some people can afford to eat at Heston Blumenthal’s but how many understand it?
Then think about what that makes those people who produce, process and market food.  Farmers become like authors and artists, who need publishers and editors to make the most of their works.  There are already similarities, of course, those artisan food producers who like writers of high concept books and magazines who don’t make much money but have huge cultural cachet, punctuated by a few who break through to become celebrities.  Then there are those in the writing rooms of TV, who can put together 26 hour long episodes year after year, pooling their talent to create the stories and characters that keep our TVs flickering and our subscriptions renewed, the box set purveyors.
This also introduces us to the thought that not everyone will achieve a very high level of literacy, through lack of capability or that their learning is disrupted do we leave them unable to read food, to buy whatever they like whatever the consequence?  Or do we all have a duty of care to them and to one another to stop that happening?
Yes, food literacy is an interesting metaphor.
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