Fundamental systemic changes require the understanding and support of all stakeholders, including numerous consumers. While the indisputable value of impact-driven by Public Food Procurement lies in a significant number of financial resources available for related services and initiatives and its privileged opportunity to impact whole communities, the Education and Information Spotlight is essential to transform food systems in the long term. This chapter exposes different perspectives on agricultural education; it shows small-scale farmers’ and operators’ main challenges, which can be solved only with a transformed educational approach.
All 9 COACH Beacons, who chose to dive into the subject of education, agree that no matter which part of Europe they come from, there is a significant lack of knowledge and awareness regarding agriculture, food systems, farming practices, understanding of differences between food labels, like “organic” products or “sustainable” food. Moreover, the gap in agricultural knowledge is filled with prejudices about the inferiority of the farming sector compared to other types of jobs that ensure more “profitable” outcomes from the capitalistic point of view. These issues are recognised in the literature and by policymakers. The work of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), also illustrated by initiatives of the COACH Beacons, has the potential to ‘decommodify food and support farmers while providing consumers with sustainably raised, seasonal, local food’. It is proven that engagement of the CSA members with tactile spaces and experiential practices like attending distribution or cooking more leads participants to a better understanding of farmers’ reality, creating compassion for the food producers, and thus reshaping environmental ethics (Hayden and Buck, 2012). The work of the COACH Beacons shows that CSA methods can be adapted to school context and ignite pupils’ closer connection to food and environment at a much earlier stage (GASAP’Ecole).
Organic production means a sustainable agricultural system respecting the environment and animal welfare, but also includes all other stages of the food supply chain.EU definition of organic farming (EP, 2021)
Regarding Beacons’ observations on the confusion and lack of adequate food labels, there are policy initiatives addressing these issues. The Our Food. Our Future campaign is an excellent example of advocating for effective and strong EU supply chain law, transparent labelling informing consumers about all food “ingredients” – those eatable but also those tasteless aspects of food like working conditions of its producers, its environmental impact and relation to human rights like the right to food and land (Our Food. Our Future, 2021). The COACH Beacons shared many good practices that could improve the territorial agri-food chains if scaled up. Most of the COACH Spotlight Templates point out the issue with consumers’ education. Consumers will keep choosing the “cheaper” mass-produced food available in international grocery stores over the high-quality products from local farmers because they do not understand the real cost of food, and often do not have the luxury to choose anything but the cheapest foods. Unfortunately, the lack of awareness and understanding of the complexity of food systems is also a challenge for the rest of the stakeholders, like farmers, policymakers, and food operators. Fortunately, the literature proves that Community Supported Agriculture can be a means of public education and can address the above-mentioned problems. Consumers’ understanding of food production can be reshaped by opportunities offered by CSAs, e.g., farm tours, classes, newsletters, and provision of recipes (Wight, 2015).
Nyiregyházi Kosár Buying Group, the Hungarian COACH Beacon, gives a valuable example of an organic reaction to the lack of knowledge among local community members.
In 2013, around 10 people deeply concerned about the impact of mass-produced food on the environment gathered to discuss the quality of products available to citizens living in the city, where access to high-quality products is more limited. Nyiregyházi Kosár’s team thought it is not enough to tell people in schools what food is better for them and the climate if there is no way for people to try out the newly acquired knowledge and change their daily habits. Only a small group of friends was enough to start a local food evolution. Discussion among colleagues transformed into creating Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) and into a buying group driven by social values and supported by numerous volunteers.
In Nyiregyházi Kosár Buying Group, consumers not only can access local food, learn directly from small-scale food producers and try out ecological ways of packaging food, but they also learn how to make more responsible choices in practice.
On top of training and workshops educating people about short agri-food chains, organisation of buying groups and other related topics, the Nyiregyházi Kosár team provides more detailed information about products offered by them in the online shop. By dividing the value of the product into 5 categories, clients can better understand the impact of their choice on the following aspects:
- Impact on the local economy: the place of production & the origin of the raw material;
- Quality and type of production;
- Type of processing;
- Waste generation;
- Larger economic impact.
Based on the 5-star scale displayed next to each category, consumers can decide if they prefer to buy a product that is not only tasty but also ethical and sustainable, or not. What is important is that they are provided with transparent information about the local product, and thus they better understand its price. According to Nyiregyházi Kosár team and other COACH Beacons:
…practices need to change, the hardest thing is to make a change in consumer choices that are local, that are organically grown, that have environmentally friendly packaging.Source: Beacons’ Spotlights Template
Fortunately, based on the Beacons’ experience, consumers who better understand food systems and their impact are eager to improve their daily habits.
Tamar Grow Local (TGL), a British Collaborative Short Supply Chain, believes that more and better education around food systems, their functions and costs could not only improve consumers’ eating habits but also lead to a rural regeneration in Tamar valley and beyond. Driven by social values, along with Nyiregyházi Kosár Beacon, they raise awareness around the total cost of mass-produced, industrial food, particularly expectations about the homogeneity of produce. In TGL’s approach, inter-dependencies and collaborations that make up local food systems are prioritised over consumer satisfaction.
As an organisation, TGL links its educational initiatives to address food insecurity, provide access to fresh food, and support marginalised communities, or recently, families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tamar Grow Local supplies fortnightly bags of 5 different seasonal fruits and vegetables coming directly from growers and community growing projects in the Tamar Valley and Plymouth through the Grow Share Cook project. Besides the food products, project participants also receive essential kitchen equipment like vegetable peelers, free pots, and receipts explaining how to best use the received package. TGL provides a successful informal path to education. By curating family-friendly recreational activities, Tamar Grow Local delivers knowledge and skills and leads to more formal pathways (courses) to practice and acquire more skills.
Another good practice that focuses on consumers’ education comes from the GASAP’Ecole, a project raising awareness about food systems and the real price of food by creating buying groups in elementary schools. This Beacon initiative reaches out to people who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in learning about similar subjects by meeting them in schools, where they must pick up their children anyway.
GASAP’Ecole was created out of a need to address prejudices and a general lack of knowledge about the operational structure of food systems. Farming skills and interest in agriculture is underestimated and considered an unattractive path of life for the “uneducated” and “less intelligent” part of society (such stereotypes are also present in the experience shared by Beacons from the Czech Republic: Centrum Konipas and KPZkoALICE). On top of that, Belgian Beacon points out the gap between urban and rural purchasing behaviour. If one is not raised with adequate food education, and its community is similarly uninformed, it can lead to a lack of cultural values and priorities around food (Cotter et al., 2017).
GASAP’Ecole does not lose hope, however, and continues raising awareness in elementary schools because:
We have found that the more informed eaters are, the more inclined they are to support producers and engage in a long-term relationship with them, and also because they want to participate in the transition to more resilient and local food systems.Source: The Beacon’s Spotlights Template
There are several GASAP formats that partnering schools can engage with, e.g., children can put together food baskets during school hours; in other schools, retired teachers can join the project and present additional information during fortnightly meetings. In other cases, children can make food baskets during after-school care, under the supervision of their teachers, and sometimes also their parents. Some GASAP’Ecole members invite teenagers to participate, and others can engage with the school board and discuss ways of implementing more agricultural knowledge into the school curriculum.
The Centrum Konipas, COACH Beacon from the Czech Republic, and the GASAP’Ecole project support the use of experiential methods in educating children and adults about agriculture and the complexity of food systems. However, their approach is more systemic. The Konipas Center recognises huge Czech agricultural potential on the one hand and the alarming tendency of disappearing agricultural traditions and skills on the other. The Konipas team is advocating for more farmers’ education in the school curriculum and more practical, experiential methods of teaching that would encourage students and adults to practise farming skills in the field during short- and long-term internships, learning-by-doing training on modern farms and basic farm visits. The Konipas Centre highlights the growing problem of the young and unskilled generation who inherits farms and agricultural land from their family members and is unfortunately not prepared to manage such work on their own.
The Konpias Centre and another Czech COACH Beacon – KPZkoALICE – bring lots of hope and inspiration for national agriculture. While The Konipas team focuses on systemic change in the education system, the KPZkoALICE team focuses on awareness-raising activities and building the national CSA network. As mentioned above, both Beacons are addressing negative stereotypes regarding farming. They engage with the public through webinars and advocate for agroecological solutions in the Czech Republic.
The feedback from the GASAP Participatory Guarantee System and the Farmer-Miller-Baker Beacons underlines the need of assisting food producers in the transition into modern, organic, and agroecological businesses. While consumer education is crucial to boosting innovative agrifood chains and the potential of small-scale food suppliers, it is essential to mention that better education is also required for farmers and food operators. As the Hungarian Beacon points out, knowledge co-creation and mutual visits of all stakeholders involved in the food creation process are necessary to improve for everyone.
To the long and complex discussion on consumer and farmer education, it is important to add two unexplored insights from Pipers Farm and Chartre en Mouvement COACH Beacons.
Pipers Farm, in its Spotlights templates, highlights the commercial value of food producers in educational and awareness-raising initiatives. In its work, he noticed that with the effort put into providing transparent, clear and informative messages to its services, the Beacon had gained more customers over time. Its investment into social values related to food helped Beacon build a trustworthy brand and boost its popularity.
In its Spotlights Template, Charter en Mouvement has not only supported the need for better food producer education but also pointed out two big problems that small-scale farmers and operators face. One of them is the financial struggle; the other is the urgency to engage with policymakers and work closely with local authorities, requiring additional education about food systems.
BEACONS’ WHO CONTRIBUTED TO THE EDUCATION AND INFORMATION SPOTLIGHT ANALYSIS
Participatory Guarantee System of the GASAP network
Nyíregyházi Kosár Buying Group