Diba Asadi, Nina Maile and Yeo Qi

Students Diba Asadi, Nina Maile and Yeo Qi hard at work in the kitchen making apple and sage scones as part of the Project Chef program in Vancouver. (CBC)

Take the numbers six and 16, put them together and you have the formula for improving youth nutrition through education, improved food skills and better understanding of local food, one Ontario farm and food organization says.

Six by Sixteen is an initiative of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) and is part of the comprehensive national food strategy that has been created by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.

It is hoped that with some education, kids will be able to cook six dishes or meals by the time they are 16 years old.

The OFA developed the project after finding children did not understand local food and the basics of food preparation and cooking.

OFA general manager Neil Currie said the project drew on a number of commercial and social sectors.

"It included education, health and the economics of farming and food production," Currie said.

"One of the items that jumped out of it we actually stole from a Jamie Oliver TedTalk about teaching kids to cook five meals. We developed it into Six by Sixteen as a goal of the national food strategy for food literacy."

Youth less food literate

The members who wrote the strategy came to the conclusion that kids in particular are not learning food skills at home or at school.

Given that work on the strategy, Currie said it is safe to say that – despite what the popular media and food on television might have us think – "we are probably into our second generation of less than (food) literate" young people.

He is very likely correct.

Not learning it at home

Despite some marvelously talented youth cooks on baking and cooking challenge programming on television, most kids do not know about food, how to prepare it, how to plan a meal and what constitutes nutritious food.

They are not learning the skills at home, and very few are getting practical food education in elementary and high schools.

"We felt obliged to bring that out to the public and create some sort of forum where we could pass on food literacy skills to the youth," Currie said.

'We hope to get some form of food literacy included back in the curriculum.' - Neil Currie, OFA general manager

Six by Sixteen is supported by about two dozen food and agriculture organizations, from the Ontario Beekeepers' Association and Foodland Ontario to the Ontario Home Economics Association to Foodlink Waterloo Region.

Improved knowledge, improved health

Currie and his colleagues noted rising healthcare costs and Currie said they believe this food program will serve entire communities in the future.

"We know that food-related illness and food-related deaths are increasing, and we think we can make an investment in reducing future health-care costs by improving food literacy," Currie said.

Citing a U.S. study, the Ontario Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance (a group of nearly two dozen health organizations such as Cancer Ontario and the Canadian Diabetes Association) states that every dollar invested in promoting healthy eating and physical activity saves $6 in the cost of caring for people with chronic disease.

Get food back into school curriculum

Working with a restricted budget, the Six by Sixteen program currently has only a landing page, but content and resources will start being loaded onto the site in the next month or so. That content, targeted at youth and parents, will direct readers to existing resources on how to prepare food, food and kitchen safety, how to shop for proper food and general food literacy.

Currie makes presentations on food literacy to schools where there is limited teaching on the subject of food and cooking.

"We hope to get some form of food literacy included back in the curriculum at the school level at the 10 to 15 (age) range as our target," he says.

That is the right age, it seems to me, given kids growing into young adulthood and eventually leaving home for university or jobs as they exit their teens. The program will also help youth understand the presence and importance of local food and the agricultural sector in their communities, but Currie stresses that basic knowledge is the starting point.

"This is an education campaign to raise awareness about food preparation and how important that really is."