Angela Glore's food column is printed monthly.
I recently received an e-mail containing a collection of definitions for the term "food literacy."
I read through them with interest because I'd been thinking about that phrase ever since taking a food literacy quiz and getting three of the answers wrong. I like to think I'm pretty food literate, so my ego might have been slightly bruised.
Food literacy means different things to different people, I learned as I read through the options.
There's a clear divide between definitions that focus on individuals and those that include a broader community, culture or environment in their scope. For some, it's mostly about knowing how to choose and cook healthy food. Others, like this one from the Nourish Initiative, are more comprehensive: "Understanding the story of our food from farm to fork and back to the soil."
I prefer the broader definitions, in part because farms are so intimately connected to our forks, even if many of us are unaware of the connections. Wendell Berry, the wonderful philosopher of agriculture and community, has said that "eating is an agricultural act."
Even the most heavily processed ingredients like high-fructose-corn-syrup and hydrolyzed soy protein start as corn and soybean plants in a field. The kinds of foods we choose to purchase and eat every day support a particular kind of farming and food system.
Unfortunately, food literacy - in the kitchen and the larger food system - is increasingly rare.
Americans simply don't cook as much as we did in the past. According to Michael Pollan, Americans spend on average only 27 minutes a day cooking, but over 2 1/2 hours watching TV. It's a trend that leads to higher consumption of heavily processed foods that have significantly more salt, sugar, and fat than we should be eating.
Processed foods have been available for long enough that multiple generations have been able to open a box or can and call it dinner. Americans have forgotten how to cook real food.
The Community Food Council for Del Norte County and Adjacent Tribal Lands is working to change that locally. For several years, it has organized gardening and composting classes. Two years ago, it set up a weekly cooking class at Sunset High School.
For Food Day in 2013, a whole day was devoted to six Do-It-Yourself Food Workshops ranging from keeping backyard chickens to foraging for wild mushrooms. In 2014, the schedule calls for workshops on a wide variety of cooking, gardening and foraging topics throughout the year.
Little by little, the Do-It-Yourself workshops reintroduce lost skills. Through other projects, the Food Council offers opportunities to learn bigger-picture food literacy as well.
My favorite story illustrating how far our nation has strayed from food literacy is from almost two decades ago. A friend of a friend (we'll call him Steve) worked at a garden center and told me this story: A customer brought a six-pack of plants to the register and asked Steve what color flowers they would have. It was a six-pack of broccoli seedlings. Steve pointed that out.
The customer replied that the seedlings were clearly a flowering annual and she just wanted to know what color they'd bloom. Steve explained again that they were broccoli plants and would normally be harvested before the flowers opened, but if she let them bloom, the flowers would be yellow.
After several frustrating repeats of this conversation, and escalating anger on the customer's part, she finally shouted, "You must think I'm stupid! These aren't broccoli. I know where broccoli comes from: They make it!"
Now, I understand if your experience of broccoli is limited to a frozen block of chopped broccoli, you might not associate it with a growing, living plant. But even so, I've spent the last 20 years trying to figure out what a broccoli-making machine would look like and hope that a few years from now, nobody in DNATL will think that broccoli comes from a factory, not a farm.
Reach Angela Glore at firstname.lastname@example.org .