For our five-question series on food and education at The Common Table, we ask experts about their strategies and practices for fostering a healthier relationship with food. Here: agriculture and nutrition expert Namukolo Covic, the Director General’s representative to Ethiopia for the International Livestock Research Institute and Regional Director of CGIAR for East and Southern Africa.
The Common Table: How would you explain your perception of food as an educational discipline to someone who might think that just means cookery lessons?
Namukolo Covic: Food is about nutrition and diets. If the agriculture sector and our food systems are doing what they’re supposed to do – which is deliver healthy diets – we should be able to see it in the diversity and nutritional value of food on everybody’s plates, regardless of income status. If the diet is very monotonous, then the food system is not delivering. If the diet is lacking in some nutrients, the food system is not delivering. If we have too much fat or sugar in our diet, again, the system is not delivering.
How this manifests in different contexts varies. For some, it might be too much indulgence in fats and sugars. For others, it might be not having enough nutrients or micronutrients. And for others, it might be there’s just nothing to eat.
Then there is the issue of how we are preparing that food. Are all the main food groups that you’re supposed to be consuming represented on the plate? The question you need to ask here is: Are you going to be nutritionally secure in terms of your nutrition and health outcome? The answer here depends on what you have done with the food. And that’s where the cookery part comes in. Sometimes you might have all that you need for a good diet but if it’s all being deep fried and loaded with sugar and fats and stuff like that, then the ultimate outcomes of the food systems still do not deliver nutrition and health.
So when I think of food, I think about all those connections as well as thinking about food security. How are we producing this food so that we can have more tomorrow? I mean, if you look at the global north, you can ask: is it food secure? And I would say no, it’s not, because the ways in which you are delivering food onto your plates are not sustainable. What about the next two generations to come after us? If they’re not going to have food because of what we’re doing, then I don’t call that food security.
The Common Table: What changes need to happen in our understanding of our relationship with food and therefore in education related to food?
Namukolo Covic: In terms of education, there’s a lot that needs to change. We need to start thinking more of food as something that contributes to our nutrition and health. We eat food for nourishment and if we are properly nourished, then health comes. If we just eat food, for taste, we might fill our bellies, but health will not come.
That doesn’t mean food shouldn’t taste good. It simply means we need to think about what we do to our food to make it more palatable. It should be palatable and tasty, but it doesn’t have to take away from our health outcomes. Our education system needs to take all these components into account. Currently, I think we focus too much on: “How nice is it?” without thinking about the health part, so our education system around food needs to be a bit more holistic than it is currently.
The Common Table: Who are you trying to reach and teach and why?
Namukolo Covic: Multiple, multiple stakeholders need to be informed. The first, right at the base, are the producers and the farmers, the people who are producing the food. Here, our education should centre around how they are producing that food. What kind of practices do they use and how sustainable are they? And do those allow us to continue delivering food – not just for us today, but for subsequent generations as well?
We need a diversity of crops and we need mixed farming systems that integrate sustainable livestock production practices, if you will, to deliver a diverse plate. If we do that, we also deliver better soil health and greater sustainability. In pastoralist settings where food systems are predominantly dependent on livestock, it is critical to include sustainability and resilience in education. This is what I mean by education at the production level being required!
Then the next group of stakeholders that needs to be educated is the ones in the market value chain who are getting the food to our plates. Whether in transport, storage or retail, at each one of those stages, there is a role for education. And this varies depending on the context. In some of our contexts in Africa, for example, we don’t have cold chains so the kinds of things we need to think about to get fresh food to the market might be different. In the Global North, you’ve got the cold chains, but then what do you do with the food once it arrives at the warehouses and the shops? What I call the adulteration that we do to the food before we consume it.
A production-level education, as I mentioned earlier, is something we need in order to deliver that healthy plate. During transport, education also has a lot to do with what happens there to prevent spoilage and waste and all that. Then at the retail level, we have a lot of opportunities where things go wrong: the marketing of sweets and sweetened beverages, for example. When you go into retail centres and look at where the sweets are positioned, they’re not positioned for adults, they are at the eye level of children. So that it’s for the child to say “Mommy, mommy, I want! I want!” and then you now feel embarrassed because the child is making a scene and you throw in a few in the shopping basket.
And so the manner in which we market food products also requires some education. When the private sector of the food industry, for example, think of markets, they think of profit. But should it all be about profit? Can we not have profit and good at the same time? Why does it have to be profit at the exclusion of good? Can we not have both? I think education needs to come in there. I spoke to a food industry person once who said “No, the bottom line is profit”, I said “Yes, but it also means you have very sick customers and you’re the one that is making them sick and they are filling your pockets so what does that say about you?”.
So our education system needs to address different stakeholders with the type of messaging that they require to do better. Yeah. It’s not the same kind of message for everybody. We need to think in terms of context because it varies. But everybody across the food system requires an education that will play a role in terms of getting us to a better place.
The Common Table: Where would you like to take your work in this field; what are your goals?
Namukolo Covic: I find myself in an opportune place in that I’m a nutritionist but I also have a background in agriculture. I have a good understanding of food systems and the connections there. What I would want is to bring greater awareness of what the food systems need to transform towards for us to deliver better nutrition and health.
In the context of dietary transition – the shift from traditional diets high in fibre and cereals to unhealthy Western-influenced high fat, high sugar, high animal protein diets – I want to send the message to my peers at a personal level, to family and extended family that I have refused to be victim to an unhealthy dietary transition in my personal life, that I still want to see my different African leafy vegetables on my plate. If I can send a message to somebody to say, it’s okay for us to love our foods, because there’s a lot that’s good about them. As our dietary transition takes place, we are letting go of things that are good for us and taking on consumption patterns that are not healthy for us – and we call it progress.
So if I can use myself to say, “Okay, can my knowledge work for me? Can my knowledge maybe make a difference?”, if not, on a broader scale, then at least in my own circle of influence, I must make a dent.
In my work environment, I do tend to look at our work in terms of “How does what we are doing relate to us delivering that healthier plate?” If somebody asks me to be part of a project, that’s one of the first questions I would ask myself: “Am I contributing positively?” If my contribution is going to be negative, then I am not interested.
The Common Table: What is the big-picture perspective in terms of the future of food education and where is it coming from? How can food education achieve big changes? Is it through lots of little changes at a grassroots level? Is it from policymaking, lobbying, or legislation?
Namukolo Covic: I think it’s all of the above. I think it’s everybody doing their part. Because all those pieces have to come together for us to deliver food education. I think we wait too long before we start talking about food and consumption patterns, and the like. We forget that taste is an acquired characteristic. We’re not born loving sweet things or salty things. Otherwise, we would never have people who love sour things, people who love very hot chilli things. Think about a child growing up in India or Nigeria where they eat very spicy food, and another child growing up where I come from in Zambia, where we don’t eat spicy food. They eat what they eat because they’ve acquired that taste; because that’s what we’ve been giving them from childhood.
So we can introduce better consumption patterns from childhood. Education should start at an early age as a mother introduces solid food to her child as part of complementary feeding. That education is not even considered as education but it’s even more impactful. If you say to your child “If you do this, I will give you a sweet; if you do this, I will give you a packet of chips”, that’s education. If by the time the child is 12, you start saying that they need to eat healthy food, it is too late, their palates, their taste buds, everything has already been fixed in a particular direction. If we do nothing else, if we do absolutely nothing else but just make sure we introduce proper consumption patterns from an early stage, we would do a much better job. I have a grandson who thinks broccoli is wonderful!
In terms of policymakers, it’s about giving them an understanding of what the impact from a food and nutrition perspective might be, or what the unintended consequences might be of a particular policy. Let me give you an example. We had an agriculture input programme in Zambia, that was tied to maize. So if you wanted to get fertilizer subsidies, you grew maize and the marketing structure was built around maize. But at the same time, we were singing a song about wanting to diversify our agriculture sector. I mean, the farmers are going to grow what they have help with, right? If the only help they can get is to grow maize, that’s exactly what they’re going to grow. It doesn’t matter how much we cry about diversity and what have you. That’s what you get. So from a policymaking perspective, it’s focusing on issues like looking at coherence across policies and being aware of the consequences.
Everybody, I mean everybody, can be educated when it comes to food. I think it is important to be strategic about it. We need to do some work now to start looking at identifying those entry points for education from different perspectives. Food systems are like a car: if you have three wheels it won’t move, you need all four. With food systems, you have multiple stakeholders. If there is a piece that is out of place, then your ability to deliver that healthy plate becomes limited. So that’s why I say it’s food education for all because all stakeholders have their entry points. From the policymakers to the moms and dads in the kitchen, everybody has a role to play.
Namukolo Covic was born in Choma, Zambia, studied at the University of Saskatchewan and completed her PhD in Human Nutrition at North-West University. An expert in both agriculture and nutrition and a master facilitator of dialogue processes, she is the Director General’s representative to Ethiopia for the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the Regional Director for East and Southern Africa of the CGIAR (Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research), a global partnership that unites international organisations engaged in research about food security. She is responsible for ensuring that the research the CGIAR does has a country-level impact and that that impact aggregates to a regional level in Eastern and Southern Africa. She has strong links to the African Union processes as well. Before she joined the International Livestock Research Institute, she was at the International Food Policy Research Institute where she led the Agriculture for Nutrition and Health programme in Ethiopia and Africa. She is also the current president of the African Nutrition Society.
Title photo © ILRI / Kabir Dhanji