Food education should no longer be seen as a soft subject for less able students but as a basic necessity which links areas of the national curriculum, according to the Focus on Food campaign launched this week by the Royal Society of Arts.
The campaign is the latest measure to stimulate interest in food education and change British eating habits, which too often revolve around the television. "Patterns of eating have changed. Fewer children than before are sitting down to eat a meal with other people," said the RSA project's director Anita Cormac. "There has been a shift towards fast food, so most young people don't possess the ability to create dishes from scratch."
Increasing numbers of teachers are concerned that pupils are not taught effectively about food. While home economics has declined in popularity, references to food in technology lessons tend to focus on the mechanics of food production and the food industry rather than the joy of cooking. In primary schools, food education is at best taught spasmodically - and often not at all.
The RSA had little difficulty recruiting 500 schools (roughly equal numbers of primaries and secondaries) to take part in activities to coincide with Focus on Food week, which starts on Monday. Projects to be undertaken in primary schools include planning a creative teatime meal, looking for healthy foods in a lunchbox, making different types of bread and designing a school cafe. Secondary school activities include cooking dishes in the style of well-known chefs and creating a nutritionally healthy meal or snack from limited ingredients.
Although healthy eating will be a feature of the campaign, it is not the main point. "We are not just talking about what you should eat and what you shouldn't," said Anita Cormac. "We want to raise the profile of food education in its own right."
Prue Leith, deputy chairman of the RSA and a former restaurant owner, said it was "an absolute tragedy" that food is given such low priority in Britain. In countries such as France, where gastronomy is a fine art, children are taught how to cook at home as well as in school. They are warned about the tide of fast food invading their culture.
Prue Leith believes the British attitude to food and eating is partly governed by social background. "The middle classes have turned cookery into a hobby. They watch television programmes and buy cookery books with lots of pictures in them," she said. "Poorer people are eating less because they can't afford to cook. Some houses are built without any room for a table. People sit and eat on the sofa watching TV."
While food education has low status in school and the home, many jobs in the catering industry are low-paid and fail to attract school-leavers of the right calibre. "If young people knew more about how exciting cooking can be, more would consider it as a career opportunity and restaurants would employ fewer people from other European countries."
The Focus on Food Cooking Bus is the campaign's flagship and will visit schools and exhibitions throughout the country. Inside there is room for up to 40 children to watch demonstrations or about 15 children to cook. The bus, which will concentrate on visiting inner-city areas, can also be used for in-service training. "Primary teachers say that they would do more cookery if they possessed the confidence and skills and saw how food education fits in the curriculum," said Anita Cormac.
"There are so many things which can be learnt through food. It's a question of identifying where it can be linked up with other subjects."
Focus on Food is being sponsored by Waitrose, whose stores are expected to run projects with local schools. Alan Martin, manager of the Waitrose branch in Marlborough, Wiltshire, agreed that school-leavers do not always know as much as they should about food. Issues such as hygiene and how to handle fresh foods are covered during early in-house training.
"We would like young people to develop a profound interest in the variety of foods which are available," said Alan Martin. "Many of them experience different dishes when they go abroad and do not realise the ingredients to make them are available in their high street."
HABITS AND HEALTH
* Up to 15 per cent of children are overweight.
* Iron deficiency is a problem for 3-5 per cent of boys and up to 20 per cent of girls aged 11-16.
* Young people's diets are too high in fat and sugar and too low in fibre, iron and calcium.
* Notified cases of foodpoisoning in England and Wales increased from more than 63,000 in 1992 to almost 94,000 last year.
* More than 23 million working days are lost each year due to food poisoning, at a cost of more than pound;1,000 million.
* The main causes of foodpoisoning are poor cooking, keeping cooked food too warm and contamination of cooked food from raw.
* People spend pound;631 million a year on ready-prepared meals - an increase of one-third in the past three years.
* Tesco supermarkets sell more than 23 million ready-prepared dishes a year; most are Italian meals, followed by Chinese and Indian.
* The amount of processed meat sold to British householders has risen from about 1 million tons in 1990 to more than 1.2 million tons today.
* The total amount of meat sold has risen very slowly in the past 25 years to about 4.2 million tons.