We've all had a chuckle over the case of the Manitoba mom fined by the daycare for failing to send a grain-based food with her kids -- only to have the staff feed them Ritz crackers.
Crackers are indeed grain-based. But nutritionally speaking, they tend to be full of empty calories and devoid of dietary fibre. As the lunches this mother sent contained meat, two vegetables, a piece of fruit and milk, the crackers potentially displaced nutritional food sent from home.
Although the daycare rule about having all four food groups represented in children's lunch kits was well-intentioned, the incident underscores the need for an important conversation about food literacy.
While Canadians appear to be drawing information from a diverse array of sources, a Conference Board of Canada report called What's to Eat: Improving Food Literacy in Canada raises the question of whether that information adds to our knowledge and skills or creates confusion.
For example, many are confused about the role of fats in their diet and how fat sources differ nutritionally. "Two in five Canadians believe in error that soft margarine contains less fat than butter, while 21 per cent don't know," the report said.
It also says a lack of national data collection makes it tough to quantify, qualify, prove or disprove the notion food preparation and cooking skills are declining. "However, there is strong evidence, both in Canada and around the world, that food choices and consumption patterns have changed in step with the increased availability of processed foods," it said.
Another gap in research is data on how much people believe they should eat in order to have a healthy diet. Such data could provide insights into why obesity levels continue to rise. As a society we are cooking less, and eating more prepackaged foods loaded withfat, salt, sugar and starch.
As the daycare example illustrates, literacy isn't just about knowing the words, it's knowing what they mean.
Food literacy also has implications for how farmers do their jobs.
"Whether new production and processing technologies that promise improvements to safety, yields, and/or environmental performance will be permitted for use, or are actually put into use, depends to some extent on whether households understand and have confidence in those technologies," the report said, noting 83 per cent of Canadians support mandatory labelling of food that contains genetically modified organisms.
"Many Canadians lack accurate information regarding the processes and safeguards in place to ensure that genetically modified foods and the use of antibiotics and synthetic hormones in livestock are acceptable for consumption," the report said.
But sometimes, as in the case of the growing alarm over antibiotic use in livestock production, the problem is consumers know too much. No amount of consumer "education" is going to reduce the pressure to rethink that production practice.
Canada needs a conversation that results in concrete action toward improving our knowledge of food and food systems. On that note, the daycare had it right: it starts with the kids.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org