Why Food Literacy Matters: Reviewing the Conference Board of Canada’s “What’s To Eat” Report

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Author: Sera Weafer

Posted: February 14, 2014

Categories: Edible Education Network / Food in the News / GoodFoodBites / News from Sustain Ontario / Research

Source: http://www.healthyeatingpei.ca/images/ABC-apple.jpg

Credit: Healthy Eating PEI

Last October, the Conference Board of Canada released What’s to Eat? Improving Food Literacy in Canada, authored by Alison Howard and Jessica Brichta. The goal of this report was to determine the level of food literacy across Canadian households, and how their knowledge and practices help them to make healthy food choices. Ultimately, the findings of the report are intended to help guide the development of the Conference Board of Canada’s Canadian Food Strategy, a comprehensive long-term framework of actions designed to solve issues facing the food sector, created with input from businesses, governments, communities and others across Canada.

The report looked at why food literacy is important, how an increase in food literacy can affect household food choices and what differences in knowledge exist between socioeconomic and cultural subgroups. As household food purchasing behaviour and nutrition knowledge drive government and industry food policies, giving all Canadians the tools to build their food literacy skills will greatly influence how our food system grows to become more sustainable and equitable in the future.


In What’s To Eat?, food literacy is defined as “an individual’s food-related knowledge, attitudes, and skills”; this encompasses:

  • How Canadian’s choose nutritious foods
  • How we read and understand food labels and Canada’s government-developed food guide
  • How we store and prepare food safely, and
  • How food advertising affects its public audience.

Most of the data used in the report was collected from the Centre for Food in Canada’s household survey, one-on-one interviews and international food literacy program case studies.

The study reports that:

  • Despite growing public interest in the health and environmental impact of household food choices, there are major gaps in Canadians’ knowledge of food nutrition and food preparation.
  • Addressing these gaps to help households make better food-related decisions would help to increase health outcomes, as well as guide healthy government policies in other areas, including the environment, food procurement and agriculture.
  • Food literacy is becoming a larger part of the overall nutrition conversation because there has been a rise in Canadians’ interest in food and health, and how food is processed.
  • Food literacy is just one part of how households make food-related decisions; other factors include the price and availability of food, taste preferences, and social and cultural contexts for food preparation and selection.
  • Canadian households that participated in the survey reported that while they read food labels and know of Canada’s Food Guide, they often have trouble understanding the information presented on food labels and meeting the nutritional recommendations. This is especially seen in new immigrant and some Aboriginal communities.
  • Currently, food literacy education in schools is focused on health promotion for young students up to grade 6. While many food literacy programs involve parents, the community and other stakeholders, they are not comprehensive enough to provide consistent food and nutrition education that will influence positive dietary, health and environmental outcomes for all.



What’s To Eat? concludes with several recommendations to help improve Canadian households’ food literacy. These recommendations include:

  • Making nutritional information more easily accessible, understandable and effective so that households will incorporate this resource into their daily routines
  • Creating culturally specific food literacy programs for high-risk populations such as newcomers and Aboriginal communities
  • Incorporating food literacy programs permanently into school curricula
  • Replicating successful international programs
  • Creating guiding principles for children-focused food advertising, and
  • A comprehensive child and youth food literacy curriculum, where students, and in turn their parents and communities, learn the health, social and environmental impacts of their food choices.

In elaboration of the recommendation for a comprehensive food literacy curriculum for children and youth, around the world such campaigns have achieved a positive influence on children and youth’s food literacy skills, as shown in the case studies discussed throughout What’s To Eat?. In California, the implementation of a food literacy program focused on positive affirmation of good nutrition practices allowed young school children to successfully make healthier food choices based on their understanding of food’s impact on their health, community and the environment around them. In the U.K., a social media campaign allowed youth to challenge their peers to be active and discuss healthy eating across a digital platform. Creative, comprehensive food literacy strategies have been shown to be able to engage children and youth and promote healthy behaviour change and lasting nutritional knowledge and food purchasing and handling skills.


Challenging the Definition

Although the specific definition of food literacy, as used in this report, is broad and encompasses some important components for identifying the nutritional qualities of food and the impact our choices make on the food system, the study’s analysis appears to be limited to a few key elements of food literacy: specifically, understanding food labelling, food groups and food advertising.

Missing from the evaluation of food literacy presented in this report is a dialogue around our larger food system, both across the country and internationally. This report gives a strong focus to initiating behaviour change through food labelling and nutrition education, but largely ignores systemic issues. Achieving long-term structural change in our food system, including achieving a counterbalance to the strong embedded corporate and financial interests, requires more than good labeling; it requires in depth critical assessment of the broader issues facing the development of an equitable and sustainable food system, as well as staunch political support.

Sustain Ontario refers to the following as a definition of food literacy: “Involves understanding where food comes from, the impacts of food on health, the environment and the economy, and how to grow, prepare, and prefer healthy, safe and nutritious food.” Embedded in this is the concept that food literacy involves understanding our broader food system and how our food choices impact our own health as well as the well being of our broader society and environment. These links can excite people to learn about food and see themselves within a broader context. There is much to gain by including more information about local food production and procurement in food literacy education, including helping to increase knowledge of local food systems, positively influencing the environmental impact of household food choices and raising awareness about the link between agriculture, food and wellness.

While What’s to Eat? discusses in detail the importance of engaging young students with nutrition knowledge and food literacy skills, it falls short when it comes to increasing food literacy in households where children are not present or where older students are making food choices on their own. As adults determine the food that is purchased, having adult-focused community programs and social media campaigns, in addition to children’s programming, may have a bigger impact on healthy household food choices.

As many of the recommendations provided in What’s To Eat? are not new, the report could also have been strengthened with a brief discussion of why similar recommendations in the past have not been successfully implemented, and what barriers new policies might face.

Overall, this report provides some important information for understanding the current level of food literacy in Canadian households, and some good recommendations for improving nutrition knowledge and food purchasing skills in children, and in turn their parents. Continuing the conversation about food literacy and its impact on our health, and ensuring that high-risk communities, youth and older adults are involved in developing a strong national Food Strategy, will help to define Canada as a leader in nutritional knowledge, healthy communities and sustainable food systems.

What’s to Eat? is available for free from the Conference Board of Canada here.

For more about Sustain Ontario and the Ontario Edible Education Network’s recommendations regarding food literacy, download our Food Literacy, Food Security, and Local Food Procurement in Schools Backgrounder

The Locally Driven Collaborative Project on food skills has also just undergone an analysis of food skills and developed a definition and stronger understanding of food literacy. Find it on their website.