Too many kids in Ontario are food illiterate — and it’s costing us big

A new report highlights the many negative impacts of unhealthy eating. So how can we help the next generation make the right calls about food?
By Corey Mintz - Published on Nov 25, 2019
According to a new report, unhealthy eating costs the Ontario economy $5.6 billion each year.(Dominic Lipinski)

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Ring, ring. It’s an unknown number. You pick up. Three seconds of silence tick by as you say, “Hello? Hello?” The call-centre auto-dialer alerts a salesperson that there’s someone on the line.

“Hello,” they say. “Is this,” pauses to look at name, guess pronunciation, “Mr. or Mrs. Ontario? I’m sorry for calling during the dinner hour, but I have an exciting offer that can save you up to 40 per cent on your annual bill.”

This patter may be a bit drab. But every sales call is some version of this.

Since buying a house, I’ve routinely gotten phone calls from people offering to save me money by installing new windows, new roofing, or new basement water protection. One day, a salesperson from one of the companies in our nation’s telecom duopoly showed up on my doorstep as I was trying to get my screaming infant into the stroller and asked whether this was a good time to discuss my internet service. I snapped at him to get the hell off my property. Later, I saw him in the park eating a banana and had the opportunity to apologize for having been mean.

No one likes unsolicited sales calls. The salespeople are not trying to save us money. They are trying to sell goods we don’t want, don’t need, or can’t afford (or some combination of the three).

But what if — here’s what I’ve been setting you up for — I could save you $5.6 billion a year?

According to a just-released report from Nutrition Connections (a program of the Ontario Public Health Association), that’s how much unhealthy eating costs the Ontario economy each year. Of that staggering figure, $1.8 billion can be directly attributed to limited vegetable and fruit consumption. While that figure may seem high, we wouldn’t be surprised to end up with a big heating bill if we left our windows open all winter.

That’s why food literacy is so important.

In simple terms, it means knowing enough about food to make smart decisions for your health. The report, Policies That Influence Food Literacy Among Children and Youth in Ontario, identifies five categories of food literacy: food-nutrition knowledge, food skills, self-efficacy and confidence, food decisions, and external factors (such as socio-economic status). It then looks at 10 provincial and federal policies — including the Child Care and Early Years Act, the Food and Drugs Act, the Healthy Menu Choices Act, and heath and physical-education curriculums — to determine whether and how they meet the above-mentioned criteria. For example, food skills are embedded into curriculums from grades 1 to 8 but are offered only as an elective at the secondary-school level. The posting of calorie counts for food and beverages (required under the Healthy Menu Choices Act) can influence food decisions — but it’s most effective when combined with additional nutritional knowledge, food skills, and/or access to healthier food.

There’s no single solution. Fostering healthy eaters requires a broad approach with many strategies.

The report has its fair share of jargon and fancy talk, but its summation of our current food illiteracy is pretty straightforward: “Ultra-processed foods have become ubiquitous, home economics and family studies classes have been de-prioritized in schools, family meals are less frequent, and people are spending less time on food procurement and preparation activities due to constraints on time and a societal emphasis on convenience. These changes have contributed to a generation of children and youth with low levels of food literacy.”

Translation: junk food, what my grandmother called chazerai, is everywhere. We don’t teach cooking in school like we used to. We don’t eat with our families like we used to. We don’t spend as much time grocery shopping and cooking with our families, because we are busy. Meanwhile, companies are constantly trying to sell us products and services that promise convenience. As a result, our kids don’t know about food — where it comes from or how to prepare it — so they are doomed to negative health outcomes.

There is no big request in the report, although it does recommend introducing a mandatory food-literacy program for secondary schools. Mostly, it advises us to monitor and evaluate the existing policies to see whether they’re getting results.

But it’s not shy in expressing its admiration for Japan’s “comprehensive” and “robust” nutrition-education program, Shokuiku: “The policy requires all levels of government, food producers, food-related organisations, and professionals to embed food literacy and healthy eating in all settings, including in child care and school settings.”

The implication is that we need to adopt a similar approach. Most people who care about public-school food education suggest we learn from Japan.

We know that children who are exposed to a wider variety of foods are more likely to choose fruits and vegetables. We know that healthy eating helps prevent chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer. And we have it within our power to provide students with the necessary skills.

This is not rocket science. It’s not even Rocky science. Hell, someone figured how to retell the same story of an underdog Philadelphia boxer training for the fight of his life eight times (yes, I’m including the Creed movies). But we can’t seem to get our heads around the fact that investing in our children’s food literacy would pay dividends in the form of better health and lower health-care costs.

Will we wait until we are like the United States, where obesity alone accounts for 20 per cent of health-care spending?

I suspect we will. But I’d love to be proven wrong.

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