The value of food

porridge

Credit: Anthony Pugh

What does food mean to us? Is it fuel for the engine, a fashion item, an export commodity, a sensual temptation, a vehicle for culture and celebration, a badge of religious and political identity, or a vital connection with the natural world? It can be all of these things and more, and the stories we tell about food will have consequences for what we choose to eat, and ultimately the food systems that we end up with.

So for instance if we wander the aisles of a supermarket we may see food presented as an attractive consumer item, and we may be happy to pay not just for the food we buy, but for the packaging, the processing and the waste associated with our expectations of unblemished produce. If we lift new potatoes from our garden on the other hand, we are more likely to think of the work that went into growing them and the miracle of nature by which sunshine, soil and rain can turn a seed potato into a tasty meal for four, and to eat them with reverence.

How food is framed, or presented, affects us because it engages our values, something of which the advertising industry is well aware. Values are the things we care about, for instance honesty, authenticity, security, pleasure, beauty, status and power. Some of them are about having a better life for ourselves, and are behind the modern rise of individualism and consumerism, which also of course in turn perpetuates them. Others are more about living happily with others and with the natural world, without regard for our personal gain.

In 2010 a group of UK charities including WWF and Oxfam came together to commission the Common Cause report, which describes how values are engaged by education and marketing campaigns, showing how progressive social movements often shoot themselves in the foot by appealing to people’s concerns about financial gain and status. The use of celebrity endorsements for organic food springs to mind here, as well as the offer of free gifts in return for participation in surveys. Instead, author Tom Crompton argues, groups who are working towards a better world should not be embarrassed to talk of altruism and compassion, and should scrutinize their literature for covert appeals to self-interest rather than self-transcendence. The report struck a chord, and now we have a Common Cause network serviced by the Public Interest Research Centre in Machynlleth, who have produced a handbook and provide training courses in this approach.

The idea is catching on in educational circles. The Real World Learning Network (an EU project, not to be confused with the Real World Learning Cymru Partnership for Wales) has written a paper describing how thinking in terms of values and frames can bring depth to outdoor learning in the natural world. It’s time to think what it might bring to food education, as well. What values are we engaging when we organize a food event, talk about food miles, or take children on a farm visit? How could we do it better?

That will be the focus of a new project, Food Values, which will be starting in September 2014. We’ll be publishing more details as soon as we have them.

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