“Do you know where your food comes from? You should – and you can find out”

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“A fundamental cornerstone of a strong local food system is the food literacy of consumers.”- Ontario Apple Growers.

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What is food literacy, and why does it matter for the ordinary citizen? How is food political and historical? And how can consumers get involved in the decisions that are made about the food that reaches them, especially urban consumers and those that do not grow their own subsistence crops, but have to rely on what’s available in the market? These – and more – are some of the crucial questions explored in the inaugural Food Literacy Forum, hosted by the Route To Food Initiative (RTFI), the first of a series of three virtual panels examining the social, economic, political and historical sources shaping consumers’ relationship with food, with the ultimate aim of strengthening consumer knowledge of sustainable local food systems.

Food literacy is understanding how your food is grown, processed, transported and priced, as well as understanding your own choices to buy and consume the food that reaches you as a consumer, said Emmanuel Atamba, a food systems expert and the research and policy analyst at RTFI, starting off the conversation. “For me it’s really important that we just don’t exist and eat,” said Atamba, “We have to put in a lot of thought and understanding into what we’re eating, why we’re eating it, and how our choices affect our own lives, the lives of others, and the environment.”

For chef and food activist Njathi wa Kabui, otherwise known as Chef Kabui, food literacy today is inextricably linked with questions around history, power, and politics, and must be framed within the context of decolonisation in the present moment. “Every action we take to consume a certain food item over another does empower someone, and potentially disempower someone else,” said Kabui. In that way, food is power, and consumers hold the ability to shift this power in a very significant way.

This was echoed by Wanja Muguongo, ecofeminist and organic farmer, who argued that our food habits, and even what we believe are our ‘preferences’ have been shaped by the forces of history and colonialism. “Why is ugali and rice [considered to qualify] more as food compared to yams and cassava, or bread more a breakfast but matoke, less so? A lot of this goes back to how the colonial project robbed us of the pride we should have in African food … it is internalised racism, and knowing this would help us interrogate better the idea of what qualifies as food.”

The panel explored how individual consumers can exercise their agency in making informed food choices that would secure their families safe, healthy and sustainable food. Do we really have the capacity to know where our food comes from? Of course, the most direct way to exercise full control is to grow one’s own food, in a farm or kitchen garden. But this not an option for many urban consumers, who have to rely on what’s available in the food markets that they buy from. Rural consumers too, are increasingly net buyers of food.

Still, even with these limitations, knowing how your food is grown isn’t completely out of reach for the ordinary consumer.

“There are ways of knowing your farmer,” said Muguongo. “There are networks of farmers, and farmers increasingly on social media and finding other ways to be visible. Put an effort in knowing your farmer; it’s not that difficult – and I don’t say this to trivialise the dilemma. If you put the effort, you can find the answer. Hunt for your farmer the same way you hunt for an employer, or a good bank, or a good school for your children,” argued Muguongo emphatically.

On their part, the webinar audience was engaged and vibrant through the discussion, raising crucial questions of how these issues of food safety and knowledge intersect with poverty and limited resources of both time and energy.

In the West, consumer food regulations are strong and one of the ways this shows up is in nutrition labels that indicate the different components of packaged food, outlining calories, carbohydrates, vitamins, fat content and so on. How can we adapt ‘the need to know’ to our context, where relatively more of our food is prepared fresh, and less of it is packaged?

For Atamba, the intricate and expensive certification process that the West has taken isn’t our only option as African consumers. “Organic or safe food doesn’t have to be expensive. Alternative trust systems which we can build based on our African context, of strong cultural and community ties, to replace expensive certification process that is just unnecessary gate keeping,” said Atamba. In essence, Atamba advocates for a ‘relationship-based certification’, leveraging on community trust and local knowledge – for example, choosing to buy your vegetables from a farmer you know personally.

This piece was first published on the Route To Food Initiative (RTFI) website. The session was moderated by Christine Mungai, writer, journalist and curator of Baraza Media Lab in Nairobi.