Q: Isn't food in the national curriculum already?
A: Yes, food features in different subjects, particularly design and technology (Damp;T) and science. The aim of food education is to pull together the different aspects so that students develop a coherent view about food, which they can put to use in their everyday lives.
Q: Isn't it basically about learning to cook?
A: There's a lot more to food education than cooking, and more to cooking than following recipes. There's the technical language and the processes: folding means one thing with paper and something quite different with eggs.
Cooking also involves understanding the functions that different ingredients play in a dish, so that you can substitute one ingredient for another, such as using vegetable oil in a cake instead of butter, dried fruit in a crumble instead of some of the sugar. It's understanding that the main difference between shortbread and sponge cake is raising agents.
There is less cooking going on in most homes than there would have been 20 or 30 years ago, less time for teaching children how to cook. And it's not just cooking skills that are lost: cooking provides opportunities to work together, to learn from experiment, to distinguish quality ingredients and judge what is not fresh or safe. With the loss of contact with ingredients, people lose the chance to make informed choices and control what they eat.
Q: So schools are being asked to step into the breach?
A: Yes, although the role is not exclusive to schools. Schools provide rich opportunities for learning about food and can give access to resources and expertise.
Q: What should food education be like in primary schools?
A: It should include knowing about familiar foods, where they come from, how they are produced and can be used, basic nutrition, health and safety principles, recognising food's importance in culture and, most of all, enjoying preparing food and eating with friends.
Q: But what if there isn't time?
A: In lots of schools, food education is already happening. The Food in Schools resource materials produced last year by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority give examples throughout the curriculum. Having a policy for food education means checking for gaps and reinforcing what is being taught, including checking lunch options.
Q: What about food education in secondary schools?
A: It continues the work of the primary schools: wider, deeper knowledge of food and where it comes from, the global and local implications (geography), more on the role food in different cultures (history), better understanding of nutrition (science), more knowledge when working with food (Damp;T). And again, it is important that the school practises what it preaches. Many are developing whole school policies on food and nutrition through organisations such as school nutrition action groups.
Why is food taught as part of Design and Technology?
Food work in Damp;T is essentially about developing knowledge and skills through hands-on work with food. There is scope for using computers to support learning, but it is no alternative to handling food materials.
Food technology offers the opportunity to understand food in different situations and scales of production, industrial as well as domestic. Understanding industry is important for all citizens, whether or not you want a career in it - and it is desperate for qualified technologists and technicians - and food technology offers a good balance of practical and theoretical work.
* Questions answered by Anne Waldon, who directed the Food in Schools project for the QCA, Louise Davies, a principal officer at the QCA, and Ali Farrell, an independent consultant and author, working in technology education.Food in Schools booklets were sent to all schools in England in December 1997. For copies, contact QCA Publications, tel 0181 867 3333.School Nutrition Action Groups, tel 01789 773915.