In earlier days we used to have our parents and grandparents teach us everything about food, including where food comes from and how, when and by whom it was grown. We used to know our farmers and had some sense of seasonal eating because there simply was less available around the clock and we shopped outside at farmer's markets. We also knew the stories, traditions and the land tied to the food and the recipes. While this food knowledge is still around, it is quickly disappearing, and this loss robs our food culture of meaning and diminishes what could have continued to build a healthy relationship with food. There is so much to know about food- from growing it to cooking and eating, and with UCCS's recent Food Revolution, we suddenly have a living-learning laboratory where serving locally grown food on campus plates opens a chance for a new kind of healthy lifestyle approach.
Because we grow food and work with farmers nearby, we can look at it from a life cycle approach, where we must include the seeds and where they come from, the soil and how it was amended, and the climate and length of the growing season. Knowing the farmer we begin to appreciate the physical labor and all that goes into successful farming, including the methods by which food is grown and whether resources are extracted or farmers employ principles that protect and restore ecosystem services, such as biodiversity. But it does not stop here. In a local food system we also must work through distribution and processing barriers that arise when local food is moved from field to kitchens and ultimately how this food ends up on our plates. Food Next Door is its own living-learning lab and it occurs each week, led by fearless graduate students and an entourage of eager volunteers as they prepare over 200 meals with local ingredients. Each step in this local food system is a part of training- but the learning is hands-on. Food flows from production to consumption but in local food systems, the lives of consumers begin to merge with those of the producers, be it to help out, learn on the fields or process and cook in campus kitchens. And it is this emerging consumer, often also called "prosumer", who begins to connect the dots, from seed to plate, and discovers health in a refreshed way through learning about local food. This is food literacy.
Food literacy is defined as "the scaffolding that empowers individuals, households, communities or nations to protect diet quality through change and strengthen dietary resilience over time. It is composed of a collection of inter-related knowledge, skills and behaviors required to plan, manage, select, prepare and eat food to meet needs and determine intake"1. Local food literacy goes a bit further because local food systems include the farmer, thus, deepening nutrition education as it integrates ecological perspectives from farm to table. While local food systems aim to be ecologically sustainable, they do not always result in emission or land use reductions, thus, critics of local food systems may say they are not more sustainable than conventional food systems. What local food systems do, however, is that they awaken community living and mobilize families, churches, community centers, city councils and institutions to forage for food together. This is transforming as it lets people reflect on their own values and as people begin to work together to create a resilient food system it mobilizes civic engagement and it builds a sense of place. Local food systems also create access to healthy food more readily and with literacy, for those in need than any grocery store would ever do. Local food systems are socially just food systems that teach about food in a transformative way. Local food systems also support the local economy by keeping the dollar spent on food in the community. Some may call this Slow Money. Local food systems are critical in times of economic downturn and strengthening the local food system helps in climate change mitigation because it protects, and at least in part, ensures basic needs are met for people. Local food literacy also includes the topic of food waste, thus, nothing is left out as people engage in producing some of the food they consume. What's not on the plate or ends up not being eaten is not thrown away. Local food systems, and thus, food literacy includes awareness, knowledge, and skills on how to divert food, otherwise wasted, to community cafes and kitchens to serve those in need or to processing for later use (e.g., preserving). At the very least, food scraps are reused to make soup stock or compost for soil.
At UCCS, we teach local food literacy around the clock- be it at our campus farm and greenhouse, at Food Next Door and other Dining and Hospitality Services outlets, or in UCCS's Farmhouse. With the help of students, we will bring you up-to-date information on food as it relates to various topics from nutrition, sustainability and health to growing, cooking and eating, not forgetting the stories that connect us all to something deeper, and our approach will always come back to the plate using ingredients grown mostly here in Colorado.
1 Vidgen HA and Gallegos D. Defining food literacy and its components. Apetite. 2012; 76:50-59.