Who is Responsible for Educating the Consumer?

kids in a corn field
Should food and food production education have a larger place in school curriculum? If so, who sets the curriculum?

I’ve got to give her credit — Trish Sahlstrom, a vice-president of A&W, recently walked into a room of beef farmers in Saskatchewan to talk up her company’s ‘Better Beef’ campaign on beef produced without hormones. It’s a good niche to sell beef, but as I’ve said before, framing it as ‘Better Beef’ is where the problem lies. Many farmers and ranchers across Canada agree, which likely making the room Sahlstrom walked into a tense one.

But one of the important take-aways comes from Sahlstrom at the podium. It’s a take-away that needs to sink in to the mindset of every industry – dairy, beef, grains, vegetables – all of them. When asked, Sahlstrom said it isn’t the company’s job to educate consumers.

A statement like that is a big deal. Not because I agree or disagree with it, but because of where that puts farm practices and consumers. To be clear, I’m not picking on A&W on this. It only takes a few minutes at the grocery store to see dozens (hundreds?) of claims — from Sobey’s Certified Humane campaign, Loblaws Free-From ads that highlight pork raised without added hormones (something all pork features), to gluten-free, farm-raised, GMO-free and natural. Retailers sell, they don’t educate, nor do they see any need to do so.

But selling, without the education, leaves agriculture is a tough spot. Retailers are the most common connection consumers have with their food. It is almost impossible to get every consumer to visit a farm once in their life. They’ll visit a restaurant or grocery store nearly every day and in between be inundated with marketing claims, pop-ups, billboards and talk show hosts all trying to get the dollars heading their way.

I don’t blame anyone for wanting to grow in a crowded marketplace. Food is among the most competitive environments to be in, given the amount of money we have to spend on it to survive, however, if education or knowledge is not going to flowfrom the most common touch-point consumers have with food – then who should be responsible for education of food, farm production and healthy eating?

Here are where I see the options, going backwards on the food chain:

Restaurants & Grocers:
What is clear in the last few years is that this group doesn’t want to educate. They may appear to be in some of their advertising – however it is thinly veiled attempt to market and sell. Don’t get me wrong – they make the most sense — I just don’t believe the majority of them can be trusted with the job.

This middle-man group has been off of consumer radars for many year, but is starting to feel the heat of the spotlight. And this isn’t a comfortable heat. Processing is becoming a bad word as consumer reach for ‘natural’ (not realizing even what it means to them) and campaigns in animal abuse at the farm level often target the processor in an attempt to apply hard pressure back from the consumer. Many processors are unwilling to open their doors, all in the name of food safety or a competitive advantage, which means we have a link in the food chain that’s out of step in a world of gotcha journalism and need-to-know-now thinking. I think processors have a role in consumer education, but they need to first get comfortable with this spotlight. That is a few years away.

Farmers discovered a few years ago the need to open up their barn doors and shed light on misunderstood farm practices. The challenge so far, as I see it, is the 2% of farmers that make up the population reaching the other 98%. As much as I know farmers feel good about working to reach out, it is an incredible challenge to have an impact when we know that a consumer is going to walk away from a conversation about food with a farmer and then be hit with news stories, opinion pieces, advertisements and marketing claims that all have the power to erode the confidence they may have left the farmer with only a short time before. Farmers’ role needs to continue, but farmers can’t do it alone.

Governments are in a tough spot as they try to protect the public while at the same time trying to hold a job beyond four years. Those two don’t always go together. Education in the classroom is one role, and one I think needs to be addressed. While it is important for students to get a wide range of options, I often question whether or not true life skills should be moved up the importance ladder. Direct focus on money management, healthy living and food preparation are all often left off the curriculum. Even physical education, where the focus can often be in how to play dodge ball, rather than how to get more involved in physical activity when a student gets home or wraps up their high school career. Then of course, the question becomes where does food and food production fit? Should students have to focus on balancing price, quality, welfare, environment, growing populations and try to solve the problems of where to grow what food,  rather than simply leaving high school with the idea that some foods are good, some are bad, and modern, large-scale production is questionable at best? It needs to change.

While education by government is one role, regulation and legislation is another. I’m not a fan of overbearing governments but there is a role in maintaining a bit of order — especially when it comes to marketing gimmicks and the how-to behind growing and raising food. Governments need to become more nimble at responding to this – especially when new claims become common buzzwords. Gluten-free shouldn’t be posted on products that never have (or could) contain gluten. Natural should be defined. Consumers are being told one thing by groups with deep marketing budgets to the point it is impacting their values and opinions. Should a marketing budget be able to do that?

Whomever is involved in food and farm education, need to realize that more needs to be done — today. Perceptions are spinning so quickly out of control that it is time we worked on finding a solution from everyone involved in the chain.

7 thoughts on “Who is Responsible for Educating the Consumer?

  1. While you did not consider it to be an option in your article above, it is worth noting that the Charitable and Not-For Profit sector does have many large groups doing a lot of consumer education around food, farm production and healthy eating.

    National groups such as 4-H Canada (4-h-canada.ca), Community Food Centres Canada (cfccanada.ca) and more regional groups such as Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation (greenbelt.ca) or Food Share (foodshare.net) have huge reach and are generally geographically located much closer to consumers than processors and farmers. Moreover, most have an intimate connection with their membership and publics.

    Ignoring the success such groups have at engaging & educating consumers means missing out on a valuable opportunity to find a solution from everyone involved in the chain.

  2. Is this really a problem of education? We all have access to more information about healthy eating than ever before. A&W is educating their customers; however, they have no incentive to teach or do the right things, especially as a private company. I can’t decide if I think it comes down to big marketing budgets or just how delicious salt, sugar and fat are?

  3. I agree with this completely!

    I have been saying for years that agriculture is the only large scale industry that does not “fight” back against misconceptions about our industry and our product. Any other large consumer driven industry spends billions of dollars on national and large scale marketing campaigns.

    All of these non-profit groups are great and I truly appreciate the good work they do, but this information and education needs to be done on a large scale. Handing out pamphlets at fall fairs etc. or having 100 kids to an Ag in the Classroom…it is just not enough anymore.

    I don’t think School curriculum is the right place either, because then we are relying on the a) the government and b) teachers. I have worked with enough teachers to know how many opportunities their are for misinformation and personal opinions that can actually result in miseducation.

    We are being attacked by groups with huge resources and national campaigns and television series….you can’t compete against that with grass roots groups holding beef bbq’s and booths at farms shows (which by the way is a waste of resources preaching to the choir).

    The issue is that farmers and the groups that represent them historically do very little to collaborate and when we do it’s again…small scale.

    We need these organizations to pool resources to produce national t.v. ads/programs etc. that tell the real story about farming and food.

    Best way to win an argument…SHOUT LOUDER!

    Sahlstrom is right it’s no one else is going to do it for us.

  4. I think the hardest thing with education surrounding agriculture is there are so many different ways each farm does things. There are very few hard and fast rules. That makes it difficult to show the consumer how their food gets to market since there are tie stalls and parlours, free range, caged and cage free, farrowing crates and open pens, large and small, and so many different combinations of enterprises per farm. I’ve been in this industry all my life and I still see things everyday that I haven’t seen before. Not to say we shouldn’t try to educate, but it’s hard to create a picture in people’s heads of what a farm is and what they do when the farm next door is totally different. I think the Farm and Food Care people making videos of different farms that produce the same product is a great way to promote agriculture. And handy for any teacher to grab and show in class, or anyone to find themselves on the internet. It’s a long road and we didn’t get on this path cause it was the easy one, so I guess we just persevere.

  5. Who is Responsible or Who is Teaching ?
    # 1. Parents by their actions, words and of what and where they buy their food.
    # 2. Teachers in school settings, in communities such as the CSAs, community gardens, Weston A. Price Foundation Conferences, and many of the Joel Salatin speaking engagements.
    # 3. Maybe the largest audience is the Internet. Regarding milk: http://www.rawmilkinstitute.org where the public is viewing the regular tests of raw milk of their Certified Farms. http://www.rawmilkconsumer.ca with more information for consumers. Other sites contain why people are growing their own food and / or switching to organic with their reasons. Sorry not seeing the switch to monoculture and away from organic.

    Public is starting to be split over Government Safety. Even Farmers are against Farmers regarding Government Regulations. Example: As a farmer, I am not allowed to let my guest drink Unpasteurized Whole Milk because I would loose my Quota but the Black Market is growing. If anyone tries to stop it, the Black Market will explode as it is happening everywhere. People want to know where they can get raw milk. The Media will educate!
    A prime example is Janeen Covlin in Saskatchewan this August, 2014 when the government stepped on the farm with their Regulations and 84% of people that heard about it was against the Regulations.

  6. Just now, reading this and its comments, I became uncomfortable with the whole idea of educating the pubic about farming.
    I get inundated with anti food production posts, tweets etc. all the time. Most of them come out of the US.
    A lot of noise exists in this category and, frankly, I wonder who really pays attention.
    Have we seen a drop in farm receipts due to this type of marketing?
    Maybe we should stop talking about educating and start talking about marketing farming.
    I’ve been around long enough to know that food fads change as often as the wind whether for or against any particular food.
    Education implies imparting knowledge;which requires effort on both sides. Whereas marketing sells an idea or product with cute animals and catchy phrases.
    Let’s try that.

  7. The biggest thing we can do is to keep our farms and practices clean. Yes there are a lot of people that do things differently but we can all do our best at learning how to do it the right way and to keep it clean. As a farm journalist of 43 years, it never ceasing to amaze me at people who still don’t want me to tell their story. Yet, it also amazes me at how many do invite me onto their farms and let me tell their story, but in their own words.

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