Food Literacy

As some of you know, in 2016 my husband and I quit out jobs and relocated our family to South America to document the food culture and history of Chile. We spent the following year and a half traveling the entire length of this long and narrow country, bounded by the imposing Andes Mountains to the East, the Atacama Desert to the North, the Pacific Ocean to the West, and the snaking inlets and frozen fjords of Patagonia to the Far South. We were invited into the homes and kitchens of Chileans throughout the country as we documented the food, culinary rituals, and family meals. For the full story, you can visit our website devoted to our travels:

But long before this, both my husband, Mark Dodge, and I had a passion for food and travel. We satisfied our curiosity for world cuisine through books, television, restaurants, travel, and for Mark, Culinary School. Over time, we found ourselves evolving into passionate food literacy advocates.

So what is Food Literacy?

Courtesy of the Food Literacy Center in Sacramento, CA.

Because of food’s varied role in different cultures and countries of the world, there has been some debate about the meaning of the term “food literacy.” Surprisingly, the first time the term was used, in a research paper, it wasn’t even properly defined!* In fact, the term wasn’t given a definition on paper until 11 years following the first use of the term.** Not long after that first definition, a plethora of definitions began to be published, agreeing on some points and differing on others.

To understand the meaning of “Food” or “Culinary Literacy,” you need to consider the role of food in society. In any given culture, food potentially plays many roles: sustenance, religious tradition, socioeconomic symbolism, group socialization, etc. Because food plays many roles, there are many ways to look at what it means to be literate in food or culinary skills.

Being food literate could mean:

  • understanding where your food comes from
  • knowing how to read and follow recipes
  • being knowledgeable on food policy and activism
  • being able to play a role in your community that is related to food
  • being skilled at cooking healthy meals at a low cost for your family

Having reviewed the literature and consulted the experts, one of my favorite definitions reads as follows:

“Food literacy is the scaffolding that empowers individuals, households, communities or nations to protect diet quality through change and strengthen dietary resilience over time. It is composed of a collection of inter-related knowledge, skills and behaviors required to plan, manage, select, prepare and eat food to meet needs and determine intake.”***

So what does this have to do with Libraries?

Culinary Literacy Center in Philadelphia, PA.  (Source)

It is my firm belief that libraries have the opportunity to play a valuable role in the promotion and acquisition of food literacy within their communities. Libraries have long been centers of information and information access. In the past, if you wanted to know how to bake a cake, you might go down to your local library to check out a cookbook on baking.

But today, with the advent of libraries as community forums and places to make, food literacy is the next great thing we can do for and with our communities. Not only can we offer cookbooks for all types of food and styles of preparation, but we can also offer practical skills, community connectedness, and even hands-on tools.

Take for example, the Culinary Literacy Center at the Philadelphia Free Public Library. Every week they offer classes and workshops on every type of culinary skill imaginable, from English-language acquisition classes (Edible Alphabet) to cultural food exposure (A Children’s Taste of African Heritage).

Another powerful example of libraries taking the food literacy initiative would include Baltimarket’s Virtual Supermarket. In 2014, Baltimore’s public library system partnered with the Baltimore City Health Department to launch a unique city health initiative that allowed city residents to order and pick-up food at their local library. The purpose of the program was three-fold; providing solutions for food deserts (places in urban areas that don’t have easy access to fresh produce or foods), providing solutions for low-income families that can’t normally afford farmers’ market prices (families can pay with cash, credit/debit, or EBT/SNAP for lower cost fresh produce), and supporting local growers and producers.

So how can libraries get involved?

First off, you can take my survey, available here from 4/1 – 4/14 of 2018.


I’m collecting data on library programming involving food for a book I’m writing with ALA Editions. ALA Editions is the publishing arm of the American Library Association. The book, tentatively called Culinary Literacy for Libraries: Program, Resources, Tools, will serve as an all-in-one resource for libraries and library professionals. It will feature a dual approach to incorporating culinary literacy in libraries.

The first part of the book is built around reference. It will explain the meaning of culinary literacy, define key components, and discuss community impact of food-related issues. Additionally, part one will provide information and resources about the culinary world and related publications, respectively. The second part of the book will be devoted to practical guidelines and case studies featuring innovative libraries that have successfully implemented culinary literacy programs.

And this is where you come in. I need information. I need leads. I want to know about the amazing programs and services you’ve seen, participated in, planned and led, in libraries or other public institutions around the world. Beyond the survey, I encourage anyone interested and/or passionate in the topic to reach out and say hello. I would love to hear about your best food education experiences!



*Committee on Labor and Human Resources 1990, Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1989: Hearing Before the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, United States Senate.

**Kolasa, K. et al. 2001, ‘Food literacy partners program: a strategy to increase community food literacy,” Topics in Clinical Nutrition, vol.16, no.4, pp.1-10.

***Vidgen, H.A. and Gallegos, D. 2014, ‘Defining food literacy and its components,” Appetite, vol. 76, pp. 50-59.

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