Ontario’s culinary skills deficit hits farmers

I wrote about the general lack of culinary skills in our society in the my column in the Guelph Mercury this month.

I’ve had this thought in the back of my mind for quite a while but was motivated to write about it after participating in #foodchat on Twitter last month and following the discussion there on this very subject.

The abundance of fresh Ontario foods is expanding as more and more fruits and vegetables come into season. Never is it easier to enjoy fresh, local foods. But an online conversation I followed on Twitter last week somewhat stopped me in my tracks.

Participants in a monthly Twitter chat linking farmers and non-farmers in conversations about food made the argument that an important link in our chain from farmer’s field to dinner plate is weak or sometimes missing altogether. And, without it, they assert, the effort going into growing and marketing local food isn’t worth very much.

What they meant was the loss of culinary skills in our population. Many people just don’t know how to cook anymore. It’s easy to get swept up in the tastes and smells of a farmers’ market or a roadside stand selling tree-ripened peaches or field tomatoes off the vine.  I’ve sure had that experience myself. But then the question becomes what do you do with your newly purchased bounty when you get it home?

Many culinary skills aren’t learned at home as much as families are time-crunched in new ways and other activities fill the calendar. And the disappearance of the home economics program from our schools has left a generation of kids without any notion of how to prepare healthy, fresh meals for themselves.

Perhaps it is time to make home economics part of our school curriculum again to help make that connection between farm and food. I’d go as far as saying it should be a mandatory course for all students. But we need to rename it so it appeals to today’s youth.

I think their interest in food is generally there. The Food Network has a large following, including many teens, and television shows like Gordon Ramsey’s Hell’s Kitchen are very popular. Now, maybe in Ramsey’s case, folks are just tuning in to watch what kind of new abuse he’ll heap upon an unsuspecting kitchen staff member. But food is the underlying premise of the show.

There are already some great school examples — and two shining stars of culinary education for young people are right here in southwestern Ontario. Centre Wellington District Secondary School, in Fergus, runs a hospitality and tourism class called the Food School.

Students can take single or double credit courses and learn everything from where food comes from to how to prepare it. Their instructor also takes them outside of the classroom for hands-on food experience through their participation in Cater Wellington, the school’s event-catering service using foods sourced from Wellington County.

At nearby Stratford Northwestern Secondary School, students have similar opportunities to immerse themselves in food as part its specialist high skills major program in hospitality and tourism. Students run the Screaming Avocado café, where they plan, prepare, market and serve meals to the student body and the community using slow food principles.

There are many benefits to knowing how to prepare your own food. It helps us lead a healthier lifestyle as we can control what ingredients go into our meals, and lessens our dependence on processed foods. And in these tough economic times, cooking your own meals will help save your pocket book as well. It also helps connect us to where our food comes from.

That Twitter discussion made me stop and think. The way I see it, farmers put a lot of effort into growing great food and work hard to market and promote their products.

But maybe it is time for all of us to put a bit more effort into what happens after we’ve bought all this local food. After all, it won’t do anyone any good if it just ends up going into the compost.

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