Questions that can promote healthy African food through colleges and schools

Many colleges and boarding schools have meal plans whose choices of food reflect the extent to which indigenous African food features on what students consume for breakfast, lunch and supper.

ALTHOUGH foreign food continues to find its way into African cities and rural communities, colleges and schools can be effective avenues for reviving and promoting indigenous African food.

As knowledge centres, colleges and schools can be huge sources of ideas on how African countries can collectively promote healthy and culturally-appropriate food. This can start by rewriting African food stories through seeking answers to a series of questions as explained below.

What do you understand by African food?

This opening question is critical for surfacing how communities, academic institutions like colleges or schools, policymakers and many other sources define and understand African food.

Some foreign food has become part of African food systems such that people may be confused when such food is not considered African. For instance, young people who grew up consuming apples and oranges may not understand when elders say those fruits are foreign food.

Harvesting diverse definitions and meaning of African food is important in contextualising the food and continuously refine the African food policy.

How can you describe your college or school meal plan?

Many colleges and boarding schools have meal plans whose choices of food reflect the extent to which indigenous African food features on what students consume for breakfast, lunch and supper. Examining meal plans for learning institutions can inform a comparative analysis of the food composition from diverse institutions. That can open pathways for promoting indigenous African food if such food is missing on meal plans.

What are the sources of food for your college or school?

Learning institutions have diverse sources of food including their own farms, agricultural projects, supermarkets, mass markets and processed food companies, among others.

Answers to this question will reveal the relationship between learning institutions and different markets such as mass markets which sell indigenous food.

If imported food is crowding out African food like indigenous rice, advocacy messages can then be developed to address the situation.

How do you rate the health and nutrition of your college or school’s meal plan?

This question seeks to find out the extent to which college or school menus are informed by health and nutrition. The feedback can be used to increase awareness among parents or guardians about how, for instance, inflation and budgetary issues have an impact on children’s access to healthy menus. Such information can open opportunities for exploring alternative and affordable menus found in African communities.

For instance, if there is appetite for indigenous fruits, which ones would substitute apples and oranges? If the need to substitute cereals or cornflakes is discovered, what would be the substitutes in African food? In colleges or schools where ice cream or yoghurt is part of the menu, how far can such institutions accept baobab ice cream or yoghurt?

To what extent is your meal plan guided by government policy?  

This question seeks to figure out the extent to which school menus are guided by government policy. When a government is promoting industrial agriculture and processed food, chances are that the government will also promote industrial or processed meals in colleges and schools.

What do you think of the existing policy in relation to African food? 

If the policy exists, how specific is it about the composition of food in the sense of, say, 30% of school menus should comprise African food?  Some schools may be interested in African food but choices may be limited when governments insist on consistent supplies and standards from commercial suppliers.

How do you rate your college/school’s curriculum in relation to knowledge on African food?

The way African food is reflected in college or school curriculum can be very instructive. Answers to the above question can reveal the extent to which African food is embedded in subjects like agriculture, English, Shona, Science, Food and Nutrition, among others.

For those students studying food and nutrition, are there lessons on how to cook or prepare indigenous African food? While colleges and schools may be interested in African food, they may have no control over curriculum which is often designed from the top by selected experts. 

In case a college or school is interested in teaching African food, would it make sense to have it taught as a stand-alone subject or mainstreamed in other subjects like food and nutrition?

This is mainly a knowledge retention question. Since academic institutions like colleges and schools are increasingly used for retaining knowledge, the right policies can enable indigenous food knowledge retention.

The right knowledge retention approach will correct current cases where one starts doing a PhD on indigenous food like small grains or indigenous vegetables at university when there are no studies about small grains or indigenous vegetables at primary and secondary school levels.

What role should colleges and schools play in promoting African food?

In addition to influencing learners to consume African food, colleges and schools can play a key role in influencing communities and the whole society to embrace African food.

The fact that colleges and schools spend most of the time with learners who are the future generations gives these institutions enormous power to influence future consumption patterns than parents or households.

What obstacles can colleges and schools face in promoting African food through menus, curriculum and practical subjects?

In most African countries, rigid academic systems are slowing the adoption of African food due to long processes through which educational policies are approved.

For instance, complying with government procurement policies that insist on three quotations and receipts can force colleges and schools to buy food from formal supermarkets even if nutritious food may be found in local communities and mass markets.

Policies may also dictate the extent to which practical subjects like agriculture shift to teaching indigenous food like small grains, indigenous chickens and others as part of agriculture lessons.

Increasing awareness and intentional efforts are critical in lowering barriers to the adoption of indigenous African food across African communities and entire countries.

Behavior change on consumption is not an overnight achievement but can start with people’s alertness to what is happening to their food system.

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