Our research group SFERE – sustainable food economies research – is actively involved in European projects dealing with food and farming. In line with the vision of the agricultural European Innovation Partnership (EIP-AGRI), European consortia bundle academic and non-academic expertise to foster competitive and sustainable farming.
Apart from the institutions directly involved in European projects, one can’t ignore the increased interest of citizens in (local) farming, the concerns about global challenges such as climate change, and the stubborn unhealthy food patterns. One specific group of citizens that deserve special attention are youngsters. Today, I had the opportunity to have a dialogue with 17 and 18 year old pupils of the school that is located right at the heart of Leuven, Paters Jozefieten.
The key questions on the table during this guest lecture in the geography class were diverse. What is sustainable farming? Why do so few people want to become a farmer? What is a healthy diet? And, what is a sustainable diet? Is it worth to become member of a local food production initiative?
These are all questions that link up directly or indirectly with projects within our research group. In Newbie for example, the focus is on new entrants in farming and new business models of these farmers. COCOREADO, which kicked off in January 2021, puts the focus on strengthening the position of the farmer. Moreover, COCOREADO specifically deals with empowering young people in rural areas all across Europe.
It was not my first time entering into dialogue with secondary school students. As always, I started my conversation asking if someone has a farm at home? Not very surprising the answer was close to zero, whereby ‘close’ means one of the girls had some horses.
It is always striking to see how much young people know about food and farming. They are well aware of the general tendencies in terms of global food needs, hunger and the challenge of obesity. They are concerned about climate change and the need to take action. Yet, many misconceptions were confirmed during our conversation. Some questions illustrate that. Isn’t small always better as compared to large scale farming? Can’t you just leave out meat and eat a bit more vegetables? Should we not stick to local food instead of importing food from far away?
Even more striking is the enthusiasm of these young people to talk about food and farming. Only one mobile phone appeared, whereby a girl apparently urgently needed to check her BMI. Overall, young people are eager to learn about food and how they can contribute to more sustainable food systems. They realize the bottleneck of deep-rooted unhealthy food habits, and there is a strong willingness to think about how to overcome them.
It would have been an option to just present a colorful PowerPoint. However, talking about food and farming, I do prefer a dialogue rather than a monologue. We explored together the labels on food products. What do they tell you, and what remains hidden? We also tasted some foods they never tasted before: insects. The tasting was positively evaluated and gave a spicy flavor to the afternoon.
No doubt, our conversation took place in what must be one of Europe’s most liked classrooms, with a view on the Old Market square of Leuven. But apart from the Old Market, one could also spot the University Hall. I belief there is a lot of potential for our research team and, by extension for many European consortia, to go into dialogue with youngsters. It is a privilege that this is exactly at the core of the COCOREADO project.
A last reflection on this experience goes to the teacher, who gave me the opportunity to take part in his class. I must admit that apart from being a joy, an afternoon of dialogue is intense. My own teenagers warned me: ‘Be prepared, we easily get bored’. I couldn’t notice any tiredness in this very active and involved group of youngsters. Though once back on the Old Market I realized once more how much respect we owe to those who teach our children hours a day, day after day.
Tessa Avermaete – KU LEUVEN