Listening for a change

When we started the Food Values project it was because after many years of putting on educational events of one sort or another, all designed to increase public understanding of food and farming, it felt like time to stop and question what we were doing. What were we trying to tell people? What did they want to learn? What attitudes do people bring with them to a food festival, a farm visit, a community meal? It seemed like there were some fundamental questions that hadn’t been asked.

Thus at our recent food events, which have included serving soup to the public in inner city Cardiff, sitting schoolchildren and pensioners down to lunch together in north Wales and getting students and staff at Aberystwyth to discuss responsible food sourcing and reducing food waste, we’ve been concentrating on listening to the participants, trying to find out what they really think and care about.

We have gathered plenty of material in the form of sound recordings, video clips, post-it notes, pictures and our own observations. What I hadn’t expected though is how much the task of gathering data would transform my own experience of food education. Accustomed as I am to addressing groups of schoolchildren, engaging visitors at our stands in public events, leading farm visits and so on, I am good at telling people stuff, but less good at listening. After all, if you stop talking, you will lose your audience, won’t you? And what they really want is information, isn’t it?

Once the voice recorder is placed in the middle of a group of children, it’s a sign both to them and to me that what they are going to say matters. I’m after the thoughtful quote, the couple of coherent sentences that will say it all, and for that the recipe seems to be an attentive silence. Given the right sort of listening, children will dig deep inside themselves and try to express what food is about for them: growing up big and strong, enjoying treats with their friends, making sure that banana growers earn a fair wage, caring for animals and wildlife.

Adults too have plenty to say. I’ve met a Sudanese woman talking about breaking the Ramadan fast with soup, a student explaining how she would like to make compost but didn’t know where to start, a retired school cook remembering the joys of catering for the masses in school and then rustling up meals for farmworkers at home, a food bank volunteer describing how she likes to get out of the house and be involved with the local community, a homeless man asking for fruit to take away.

And I’ve been surprised to find how rewarding it is. When we listen to people properly, we enter their worlds and we find out a lot about how they live and what matters to them. Food is a subject which touches many areas of life, so a food conversation can end up being about family, religion, sport, homelessness, holidays, health – just about anything.

How does this help us design transformational food education events? That is something that is still emerging from the project but it does seem that listening to people talk about what they care about makes for a better connection than telling what we want them to know.

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