Harvard University Dining is big business. The self-sustaining department serves 25,000 meals a day during the academic year and five million annually. It has a staff of 650 and annual foodservice revenue of nearly NZ$90 million.

But it’s more than just big business. In 2005, it started The Food Literacy Project, which hosts a fellowship programme and academic events and opportunities for students and the wider community. Its mission is to cultivate an understanding of food “from the ground up”, focusing on sustainability, nutrition, food preparation and community “to promote enduring knowledge, enabling consumers to make informed food choices.”

Food literacy has been described as “the relative ability to basically understand the nature of food and how it is important to you, and how able you are to gain information about food, process it, analyse it, and act upon it”, and “understanding the impact of your food choices on your health, the environment, and [the] economy.”

I’d say it’s a bit of both, but one sure thing is that it’s recognised by governments and industry the world over as the key to good health and fighting obesity. If we don’t know where our food comes from, how can we make informed choices around it?

In New Zealand, the Government’s Childhood Obesity Package is the cornerstone of our approach to obesity. Its 22 initiatives range from targeted interventions to food literacy, in the form of evidence-based nutrition and activity guidelines, information and resources aimed at helping caregivers make better choices.

One initiative involves working with the industry, which has long been involved in work on reformulation, portion sizes, and school and community education programmes. These include initiatives by the likes of Nestle (Be Healthy, Be Active and Cook for Life), Sanitarium (Eat Your Words), Harraways (Breakfast Club), Heinz Wattie’s (Project Cook), George Weston (Nourish our Kids), Fonterra and Sanitarium (Kickstart), Kellogg’s (Breakfast for Better Days), and Coca-Cola (Move 60). Along with distributing products, these initiatives contain materials and ideas for the all-important education component.

For those who aren’t convinced of the vital role of food literacy (and believe a tax on sugary drinks will solve all our ills), you don’t have to look too far for examples.

One that left me amazed was from a survey by the Innovation Center of US Dairy. It found that 7 per cent of American adults believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows! That equates to 16.4 million people who’re totally misinformed about the origin of their chocolate milk!

It doesn’t stop there. California researchers found that half of pre-college pupils surveyed didn’t know onions and lettuces are plants, three in 10 didn’t know cheese is made from milk, and four in 10 didn’t know hamburgers come from cows.

How does this happen? When you think about it, it’s probably not so surprising.

Historian Ann Vileisis, in her book ‘Kitchen Literacy’, argues that in the US this ignorance developed alongside the industrial food system, when fewer people were involved in food production or processing, and innovations and packaging made it possible to ship foods in different forms: “Many Americans couldn’t imagine the origins of the boxed cereals or shrink-wrapped hot dogs in their kitchens”.

I don’t know how New Zealand compares (that would be a fascinating study), but I imagine the trend could be similar, though not as extreme. Being a small country, we are not as far removed from our farms and market gardens as are those in big US cities.

Nonetheless, I have no doubt there are big gaps in Kiwis’ knowledge of food nutrition and preparation, and that those gaps are contributing to obesity.

Nutritionists and industry agree that knowing the origins of our food is critical to raising children who know how to eat healthfully.

Industry will continue to work with schools and communities on improving food literacy. Perhaps it’s time the education system took a closer look, too.

(originally published in FMCG Business)