Potential of Food Literacy Education for Supporting Food Systems Transformation

Research Brief Publication Date: December 05, 2018
Last Updated: September 03, 2021

Dr. Lisa J. Powell, University of British Columbia and University of the Fraser Valley

Dr. Hannah Wittman, University of British Columbia


This brief is based on research that has been published in a peer-reviewed journal article.


Global concerns surrounding ecological sustainability and social justice continue to drive discussion around food sovereignty, which can be defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” The global food sovereignty movement aims to transform food systems so that they support farmer livelihoods, decrease the environmental impact of agricultural practices, and increase universal access to healthy foods, among other objectives.

Farm to school programs can be found across North America. These are initiatives that aim to not only change the way food is provided to schools, but also foster food literacy in students, with food literacy encompassing the knowledge, skills, and practices that allow people to support their personal health and a sustainable food system. In the framework of food literacy, a sustainable food system is one which considers environmental, social, economic, cultural, and political components.

Farm to school programs have been theorized to further the food sovereignty movement by:

  • Strengthening local food production systems

  • Reducing the effects of poverty in urban centers by improving food access

  • Reducing the distance between producers and consumers

  • Reflecting local community values

The majority of research on these initiatives has been conducted in countries with national school meal programs, such as the U.S. and Brazil. Therefore, the objective of this study was to examine the farm to school movement in Canada, which has no such program. Specifically, the farm to school movement in British Columbia was analyzed in order to determine its potential role in achieving the goals of food sovereignty.

Research Process

The farm to school movement in BC was investigated in two ways:

  1. The researchers analyzed documents produced by groups and individuals involved in organizing BC farm to school initiatives

  2. The researchers interviewed and observed two sets of focus groups made up of farm to school actors in BC. One group contained participants in “Learning Labs”, which were a series of activities that aimed to explore how locally-sourcing school food service could be achieved. The other group included stakeholders in the Farm to School BC Regional Hubs pilot programs, which are networks in Vancouver, Kamloops, and the Capital Area that support farm to school initiatives.


The researchers concluded that Canada’s lack of a national school meal program is a major hurdle in the farm to school effort. The absence of “mediated markets”, in which government interventions make it more feasible for local farms to supply food for schools, can be an economic barrier. Other infrastructural limitations for farm to school programs include the seasonal variability of produce, unsuitable school facilities, and the time and expense of organizing local food procurement.

Despite these limitations, the researchers also determined that farm to school programs are contributing to the food sovereignty goal in other ways, namely by fostering food literacy in students, teachers, and community members. For example, school gardens provide experiential learning opportunities for students and allow them to gain knowledge and skills on growing and preparing food. Students who participate in farm to school initiatives may have an increased interest in food systems throughout their lives, which may affect how they direct their consumer spending, lead them to become directly involved in food production, or lead them to support policy initiatives as adults. Therefore, the farm to school efforts currently occurring in Canada could be part of a long-term, gradual approach toward achieving food sovereignty goals, rather than an immediate and radical one.

About this Research

This research brief is based on the following journal article:

Powell, L.J. & Wittman, H. (2018)  Farm to school in British Columbia: mobilizing food literacy for food sovereignty, Agriculture and Human Values 35: 193. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-017-9815-7

This research was conducted in conjunction with Farm to School BC.  It was supported by the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm, the Public Health Association of British Columbia, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Key Findings

Structural limitations, such as the lack of a national school meal program, remain a challenge to achieving the goal of food sovereignty in Canada. However, farm to school programs in the country contribute toward realizing this goal by advocating for institutional change and fostering food literacy in students, which creates the potential for greater citizen involvement in food systems in the future.