Young people with practical education and sustainable food

Carlijn de Kok, student International Development Studies, wrote her MSc thesis on young people studying cooking, baking or food studies and their engagement with sustainable food. I ask her to share some of her findings.

Why did you choose this topic?

“The literature tends to argue that it is mainly highly educated people who buy sustainable food. It remains unclear, however, to what extent people with a practical education are interested in sustainable food (as well) and if and to what extent they consume sustainable food. Following Karl Marx and his thoughts about the alienation of labour, it can be assumed that people who are engaged with food in their daily lives are more likely to be critical regarding food – and thus to consume sustainably. This is why I decided to focus on people studying cooking, baking or food studies: I expected that their engagement with food in general would lead to more interest in sustainable food.”

What was your theoretical starting point?

“Studies on consumption often use rationalist approaches whereby the individual is taken as a starting point to understand consumption. However, we also know that there is a difference between caring for the environment and changing consumption: this is explained by the ‘attitude-behaviour gap’. This is why I wanted to take a more contextual approach, using Social Practice Theory. This theory puts everyday social practices at the centre of analysis, and considers consumption in terms of its practical, contextual and everyday nature, leaving room for both agency and structure.”

So what practices did you study?

“I defined the general practice of food consumption as a range of sub-practices, including acquisition practices (buying and growing food) and use(r) practices (food preparation-, eating-, and disposal practices), following the work of Sargant (2014). I also made a distinction between how respondents view sustainable food (their cognitive engagement), what they are doing in practice (their practical engagement), and the underlying motivations and reasons for participating in these practices (I called this the narrative behind their engagement).”

Ok, that sounds interesting. But how did you study this?

“In order to understand students’ cognitive engagement with sustainable food and the narrative behind their engagement, I used interviews, a focus group and questionnaires. I interviewed fifteen students following a practical education: five bakery students, five cooking students and five students of food studies. Fifteen cooking students participated in the focus group, and seventy-five students filled out the questionnaire. In order to better understand people’s actual engagement with sustainable food I complemented these methods with food diaries: six of the students interviewed recorded for one to three days what they bought and consumed, where they bought that, and whether there were any sustainability labels on those products.”

And? What did you find?

“There were a few interesting findings. First of all, my respondents are in fact rather knowledgeable about sustainability, the issues in the food system and sustainable food, and they see urgency in acting sustainably. Especially animal welfare, environmental friendliness, a fair price for farmers and naturalness are considered important. All respondents participate in at least some sustainable forms of food consumption. Second, part of the respondents is rather interested in and knowledgeable about sustainable food. This group often performs sustainable food acquisition practices, mostly out of sustainability motivations (for respondents who only occasionally buy sustainable produce, sustainability is less often a motivation). Students of food studies are most often interested in sustainability, followed by the cooking students – for whom sustainability mostly relates to quality.

Thirdly, the extent to which respondents perform food consumption practices sustainably differs per locale. In general, respondents more often act sustainably when they are grocery shopping. They much less do so while eating out, on-the-go or at school or work. In these places sustainable food is less accessible and available, and students feel that their choices have less impact. Finally, I found that respondents’ cognitive and practical engagement with sustainable food does not always align. While some respondents stated to act more sustainably than their food diaries showed, in some cases it was the other way around. These students did not connect much to the concept of sustainability, but they were motivated by certain elements of sustainability such as animal welfare, and so they did make sustainable choices.”

Taking all of these findings into account, what is your main conclusion?

“Young adults who are following a practical educational programme related to food are to a certain extent interested and engaged in sustainable food. Sustainable food plays a role in their daily lives: respondents perform certain food consumption practices sustainably, mostly out of sustainability motivations. The extent to which respondents manage to do so, however, depends on the locale.”