OFA: Surveying The State Of Food Literacy With Ontario Consumers

By Crispin Colvin, Director, Ontario Federation of Agriculture

It was 2011 when the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, with input from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), released its draft paper Towards a National Food Strategy. The plan outlined key objectives to ensure a long-term, sustainable and healthy food system in Canada.

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Food literacy was identified and included in the document, and has become a household phrase in the last six years. We know it’s in the best long-term interests of the agri-food sector to work together to ensure consumers understand where their food comes from, how it’s grown, and how to make healthy choices for themselves and their families. It is also critical for the future health of our nation.

OFA recently led a joint initiative called the Food Literacy Attitude and Awareness Research Project to take a pulse on the current state of food literacy. The project surveyed three distinct groups of Ontario consumers – parents with children at home, teenagers aged 13-17, and millennials aged 18-26 who are living on their own. OFA worked together with an advisory committee including the Nutrition Resource Centre of the Ontario Public Health Association, the Ontario Home Economics Association, AgScape, and Farm and Food Care Ontario. The project measured the current level of food literacy among the three groups to develop baseline data, and gain insights to guide future programs, resources and information.

Two focus groups gathered qualitative information, and an online survey with 1,003 consumers collected quantitative information on local food, meal planning, purchasing, preparation and consumption in the home, and sources of information.

According to survey results, the way we are currently reaching teenagers with food literacy messages doesn’t seem to be as effective or impactful as it could be. Dietitians generally target their message to parents, but it’s time to revise those messages to target youth directly.

Overall, there is a clear understanding of local food products, but not of farming practices or food production. Local food knowledge does not differ significantly depending on where consumers live – rural, urban or suburban. Nearly one quarter of all consumers surveyed didn’t know any of the food groups. Less than half of the parents surveyed knew safe cooking temperatures for meat and poultry.

Not surprisingly, millennials seek health and nutrition information from a wide variety of sources, with the internet being the most utilized source.
Information gathered in the survey serves as a guide to OFA and other partners to identify future needs – including public policy – to develop strong food literacy components in curriculum and through other programs and resources. As a result of the research study, OFA is working with a registered dietitian to develop meal plans for teenagers – as part of its SixbySixteen.me program – to help them understand how to put together a properly balanced meal.

The complete Food Literacy Attitude and Awareness Research Project is available at ofa.on.ca.