One of my favourite cooking utensils is a hand beater that I inherited from my grandmother. All the paint has worn off, but it has a good weight to it and the action still feels smooth. It has a nice sound, and using it reminds me of her and the times I’d help her cook.
I started learning about food from my grandparents. Visiting them and helping to prepare the Sunday roast are among my strongest memories. Both of my parent’s parents had small suburban back yards with vegetables gardens tucked away up the back. Grandpa would take me out to get carrots, zucchinis and chokos. With Gran I’d pick the mint to go into the mint sauce. Poppa would take me get some apple cucumbers if we were having a salad, parsnips for a roast and I remember picking and shelling bags of peas with Grandma. Some even made it to the pot! At Grandma’s we’d also have stewed rhubarb, straight from the garden, with sago for sweets.
Like many people working in agriculture, I was disappointed with the results of the recent survey undertaken by the Primary Industries Education Foundation that showed very low levels of knowledge of food and fibre production in Australian school children. I have followed the development of the Foundation from a Network started in 2004 and programs I’ve worked on feature in the original scoping study published in 2005. But my disappointment was more than general frustration at the survey’s findings. I am only one of a whole bunch of people who have been talking to community groups, the general public, school teachers and school students about agriculture for a decade or so now. So were we wasting our time? I’d like to believe we weren’t.
Of course we need to increase awareness of the opportunities that agriculture provides to learn within a whole range of curriculum areas such as science, geography, history, nutrition and health and even design studies. We also need to ensure that excellent resources are provided to give teachers the confidence to present material that they initially may be unfamiliar with, and I’m delighted that the work of the PIEF can continue.
But I don’t think the disconnection of urban Australians with food production is solely a product of a lack of agricultural education in schools. While I (and many others) would like to see more, agriculture has been there. This means that I don’t think we are going to solve the problem with school-based programs alone. I think we need to look further. We need to understand the social and cultural environment in contemporary Australia that led us to this situation and I’m hoping to explore this further in my research.
However I do think there is an obvious contributor to the situation we’re in, based on my own personal experience. I didn’t start learning about food production in school. I learned about it at home, or more correctly, in my grandparents’ homes. Once a generation or two of busy urban Australians lost that connection and understanding, the chain of knowledge was broken. And I think that learning about food production at school will only have a real, enduring impact if it’s supported by what happens at home.
Perhaps I’m impatient, but I don’t want to wait for today’s school children to grow up before our society values food production and all that goes into it. I want to see more programs that involve today’s adults, so that they both teach their children and support what their children are learning at school. Of course, without a curriculum, a classroom and a teacher, programs for adults are a lot tricker to do.
I’ve been thinking for some time that the key to this has to be food. Everyone eats, and food would provide the perfect vehicle for food producers to explain why they do what they do to people from the city. But would only a one-way conversation, which would never really work. The most profound learning experiences are those based on dialogue, exchange, shared learning. I believe it is equally as important for producers to understand consumers as it is the other way around. Last week I came across a journal article that discussed the relatively conservative eating habits of rural Australians and I’m beginning to think that this could be the opportunity for exchange that would be needed. The urbanites would share what they know about preparing the diverse food that makes up modern Australian cuisine and rural food producers could share what they do to produce the foods. Preparing and eating meals together could provide a very powerful way for people to engage and exchange ideas.
So I’ve started to enrol people that excel at turning ideas into something while I let the idea percolate for a while. I think, ultimately, it’s going to have to be up to other people to make this happen. I might have the occasional good idea but I’m not so great on the follow through and I already have more on my plate than I can manage. As long as I get an invite to that inaugural city/country banquet, I’ll be happy!