Why food education must be a key mission for independents

15 June 2022, 07:32 AM
  • After a disappointing Government Food Strategy that did little to tackle the issues facing the UK’s food system, fine food retailers are ready to take up the mantle of food education
Why food education must be a key mission for independents

The government’s Food Strategy, which was released on Monday, contained few additional measures to tackle the soaring cost of food, childhood hunger, obesity or the climate emergency, generating criticism from environmental groups, trade groups and food industry bodies. 

What made this failure to address food poverty and education so significant was that a report from the British Nutrition Foundation was released on the same day, revealing shocking statistics about nutritional knowledge.

The report found that nearly a quarter (24%) of primary school children and 17% of secondary school children think that chicken counts towards your 5-a-day, while nearly a fifth (19%) of primary school children think that cheese can be one of your 5-a-day. Perhaps even more worrying was the revelation that nearly a quarter (24%) of all schoolchildren think that chicken is a source of fibre, as it provides no fibre at all.

As Sara Stanner, science director at the British Nutrition Foundation, explained, “Lack of knowledge means people are less empowered to make informed choices, and achieving a healthy diet, with a good balance of the right types of foods, is more difficult if they don’t know which key nutrients different foods provide.”

Anna Taylor, executive director of The Food Foundation, added, “The white paper shows that no one in leadership in government appears to have really grasped the scale and urgency of the challenges posed to our health and our planet by the food system. What’s more, these challenges are growing exponentially with the cost of living crisis. Despite its name, the whole document is lacking a strategy to transition the food system towards delivering good food which is accessible to everyone.”

Why fine food retailers are in a position to educate
Fine food retailers naturally find themselves in a prime position to take up the mantle and educate consumers on healthy, sustainable food choices.

As James Woodward, sustainable farming officer at Sustain, explained, “Food retailers are in an excellent position to inform their customers directly of the provenance and production method of their food. 

“They have direct relationships with their customers and can fulfil the increasing appetite from consumers for information on how their food is produced and for reassurance that the buying decisions they are making are not harmful to people or the planet. Traceability and transparency for customers can also be a great way to drive change.

“In our view, the Food Strategy is far from a strategy – it is a feeble to-do list that may or may not get checked. We will continue to hold the Government to account and argue for legislation to drive the change our broken food system needs.

“However, government lethargy and inaction shouldn’t stand in the way of food retailers helping customers make the best choices they can. Local food outlets can engage with their local farmers to help supply more food to their communities. These shorter supply chains are good for farming incomes, and we hope, can see more healthy food finding its way to customers.” 

Because indies have such positive and close relationships with their customers, it also means they are able to have honest, informative conversations about the food they buy, according to Heather Copley, co-owner of Farmer Copleys in West Yorkshire.

“Fine food retailers are in the perfect position to help educate in a non-patronising manner, the public on the merits of choosing to eat local, sustainable quality foods, mainly because it forms the backbone of all such businesses”, she told Speciality Food.

“At Farmer Copleys, we use social media platforms to spread awareness and communicate the merits of quality foods, be that online, in-store, at local food festivals, cookery demos, and via our on-farm events. But we don’t highlight the need for education per se, we try to educate throughout in accordance with our values: Friendly, Cheeky, Trusted, Welcoming & Honest, the first and last in this instance being the most important.

“One of our personal goals is to tell people where their food comes from and why they should eat local, in-season food, because, A) it tastes amazing B) it’s better for the environment. All the team are aware of what’s in season and due to the fact that we have deli counters and butchery counters with real people who enjoy customer interaction, we are well placed to naturally talk about and thus educate people as to local, seasonal, quality foods.”

This is something the multiples simply cannot do, meaning indies are best placed to take on food education.

Becoming an educational hub in the community
Simply selling and promoting your products isn’t enough to become an educational hub within your local community. In fact, Heather argues that indies with the means to do more, should. 

“Fine food retailers can become the educational hub via a number of different avenues, some may choose to actually do educational courses, walks and farm tours. They can use social media to tell their stories and in all fairness it’s easy, we always have something to talk about! 

“At Farmer Copleys we host Bee Talks where we invite children early to the farm for a workshop, and in 12 months we will be hosting them in the evenings for adults, and in our Jam Kitchen, which opens in July, we will be showing people how we make the actual products and celebrating the seasons.

“I myself host talks with local secondary schools on local food when requested and have even recently taken part in evening TFI Friday styled events (seriously out of my comfort zone but necessary).

“We have tasting sessions every week where we invite hero partners in to share their product, and 2022 has seen us improve this element from a simple tasting to a mini-event. This all helps to become the ‘hub’. It takes some planning but we all have the knowledge and capability to set things in motion very quickly, unlike the big boys. 

“The reason that we should do something is that I personally feel we have a responsibility to communicate everything that is great and good about British agriculture and food production but also even more basic, it gives us a point of difference and pays the bills, keeps people employed and enhances the community.”

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