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Food education

Ralph Early, Professor of Food Industry at Harper Adams University, discusses the changing attitudes to food in society and explains the initiatives that Harper Adams is undertaking to raise awareness about the interesting and varied career opportunities in the food industry and to give school pupils hands-on experience.

Food in abundance
Never before in British history have consumers had such easy access to food and food products. They can buy and eat food according to choice, almost at any time. Supermarkets, convenience stores and fast-food eateries are open nearly 24/7. Petrol stations with their adjunct food sales allow access to calories around the clock. Motorists can refuel their cars and themselves at will and without entering what might be considered a conventional grocery shop.

Tradition in food shopping and consumption is fast disappearing. High street grocers, greengrocers, butchers and bakers have almost entirely been replaced. Supermarkets sell most of the products consumers need and the model of small independent food stores has been reinvented through the creation of supermarket miniatures. US-style, fastfood outlets provide the tasty, yet energy dense, foodstuffs that young people find so appealing. In Britain today, consumers commonly choose from a variety of easy to make, easy to eat foodstuffs, often ingesting on the move and all washed down with carbonated beverages. Meals are clearly being displaced by convenience foods and grazing, which necessitate little knowledge and judgement about food and nutrition.

Food of unparalleled quality
Some believe that the changing face of British food retailing and the changing nature of food consumption spell disaster for both consumer choice and consumer waistlines. Change is inevitable. If tradition is important, we must explain why and justify its retention. It is easy to blame modern food-related woes on supermarkets and fast-food chains, but we must recall that only just over a generation ago Britain was experiencing post-war rationing. Until relatively recently concerns about the abundance, stability and quality of food supplies were usual, as they have been throughout history. In contrast, people now take food for granted and, indeed, such is the perceived value of food that we dispose of around 30% unused and uneaten.

Our modern food system brings us daily food products of a quality and safety unparalleled at any time in history. Gone are the days of sour milk, rancid butter, soggy biscuits, breakfast cereals that neither snapped, crackled nor popped, routinely staling bread and flat beer. Poor quality foodstuffs are a thing of the past. They are representative of traditions in food supply that have been superseded by our modern food system, the work of highly skilled food manufacturers and the standards demanded by supermarkets.

Food and health
Though we may be thankful for the excellence of our food system, it is not free from problems. Food security and sustainability are major issues for the 21st-century, along with global climate change and the control of communicable human diseases. The issues of noncommunicable diet-related disease in industrialised societies have been brought into focus in recent years. These are undoubtedly associated with our modern food supply system, but whetherconsumers are eating too much, making poor choices and eating the wrong kind of food, or not taking enough exercise, is open to debate.

As our food culture has shifted from a ‘meat and two veg’ model with meals taken three times a day, the diet-related health of the population has declined. As grazing has become the norm, its correlation with obesity and type II diabetes in society today has become difficult to deny. Irrespective of the precise causes of diet-related disease, we can be certain that children and young people generally have become distanced from what food is, how it is produced and how it is turned into meals. Significantly, they appear unable to learn how to make healthy food choices.

Historically children learned about food by participating in the conversion of raw food materials into meals in the home. In a convenience food society, such learning experiences are limited. The construction of a diet comprised mainly of packaged foods, which require little preparation other than microwaving or reheating, as well as fast-foods, snack foods, confectionery and sugary beverages, will tend to restrict potential to learn about food and its relationship with health. The loss of food related topics from the education curriculum has not helped. Home economics and related subjects make way for contemporary topics, such as citizenship and information technology. Given the way that food culture in the UK has changed, and the way the food marketplace has become dominated by products that are quick and simple to prepare without expertise, it is perhaps unsurprising that many young people have little substantive knowledge of food and the impact of poor food choice on health.

The report on the Future of Farming and Food (the Curry Report), published in 2002 in the wake of the foot-and-mouth crisis, recognised that modern consumers have a meagre understanding of food. The ‘reconnection’ of consumers with food was set as a national food policy objective. The belief exists in some quarters – particularly the corridors of power – that if people can learn about food and its relevance to health, then the collective health of the nation will be improved. The unremitting rise in UK obesity levels since the publication of the Curry Report indicates that few, if any, of the Government’s food policy actions have yielded improvements in the population’s diet related health. The Global Burden of Disease study, published by the Lancet in 2014, states that 67% of men and 57% of women in the UK are now overweight or obese. The UK has a significant and worrying public health problem that relates precisely to the consumption of food. It is a problem that concerns the food industry as a whole and some sectors specifically, because of the linkage between certain kinds of foodstuffs and the reduced health of those that consume them in quantity.

Conspiracy theorists propose that diet-related disease in the modern world has been caused by global food businesses that seek dominance over the world’s food supply system, working hand-in-hand with pharmaceutical companies. One industry feeds people into fatness while the other provides the pills to make them thin again. Such ideas are good storylines for Hollywood blockbusters, but are far-fetched. The food industry has however sleepwalked into the problem of diet-related disease hand-in-hand with consumers. Providing consumers with products that are good value, pleasurable to eat and which provide utility in terms of labour and time saving is a creditable aim. But, as the practical involvement of people with food and the informed preparation of meals has declined, so consumers have lost the opportunity to learn how to manage healthy food intake. The skills and knowledge gap, another, less noticeable, consequence of the creation of our convenience food society, would seem to impact directly on the food industry’s ability to fill its own ranks with suitably skilled staff. The industry is suffering from a severe skills and qualifications gap that threatens the stability of food businesses, especially if they cannot establish viable succession plans. Knowledgeable and experienced staff retire, but young, skilled and educated replacements are difficult to find. Why? The decline in food education in schools, coupled with the development of a food culture tuned to easy access, no fuss, convenience foods, will naturally limit the potential for children to develop their curiosity about food. Without such curiosity the probability that they will want to learn about food and seek careers in the food industry will be low. Additionally, in a society where supermarkets constantly compete on price to keep food as cheap as possible, a meme will inevitably be communicated that perpetuates the notion that food itself has little real value. How many young people want to work in an industry that produces low value products? Where is the glamour in that? The skills and knowledge gap that the food industry faces is partly of its own making. But how can it be resolved?

The convenience food society will not be unmade. We will not return to cooking meat and two veg in the home, so young people must learn about food in other, non-traditional ways. If it is to solve its staffing problems, the food industry has to link with schools and work in partnership with colleges and universities. This means, amongst other things, being prepared to support colleges and universities in activities which stimulate the interest of school pupils in food technology and the food industry. If pupils understand the value of careers in the food sector, then the food industry stands a chance of recruiting the staff it needs.

Encouraging school pupils to consider careers in the food industry
Currently not enough skilled and qualified people are choosing careers in the food industry. This is compounded by the fact that the university sector is not producing the graduates needed to fill management and leadership positions. For some food businesses, succession planning is becoming a nightmare. Harper Adams University is however working to help resolve the food industry’s problem. Apart from providing undergraduate and postgraduate education, the university works with schools to raise awareness of the interesting and rewarding career opportunities that the food industry offers. For instance, children from the West Midlands visit Harper Adams to undertake ‘food industry taster’ days which have proven very successful.

The essential element of the days is hands-on experience. Young people frequently have a limited understanding of food, where it comes from and how meals and food products are made. Consider the child who thought that pigs lay sausages like chickens lay eggs. The logic is obvious. At Harper Adams, children as young as 9 work in teams designing, making and testing beef burger recipes, as well as other products. The transformative power is significant. Natural curiosity is aroused and when working in teams each child is assigned a role, e.g. managing director, NPD manager, technical manager, etc. This begins to create awareness of food industry careers.

Harper Adams also works with older pupils. Gemma Cashion, from Shrewsbury Sixth Form College, commented, ‘Completing workshops with Harper Adams University has given our A Level Food Technology students the opportunity to gain insight to the practical application of their qualification within a higher education and industry setting. Students now realise and identify clear educational pathways to a successful career within the food manufacturing sector.’

Food industry taster days provide school pupils with important lessons in the handling of foodstuffs and equipment, as well as hygiene and food safety. Cost can be a limiting factor as university budgets are tight. In June 2014, around 110 primary school children participated in a taster day focused on meat products with the funding for raw materials provided by the Worshipful Company of Butchers’ charitable trust. Such tangible support for university initiatives can raise awareness in schools of career opportunities in the food sector.

Professor Ralph Early, Head of Department of Food Science and Agri-Food Supply Chain Management, Harper Adams University, Newport, Shropshire, TF10 8NB,
Tel: +44 (0) 1952 820280
Twitter: @ProfRalphEarly

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