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Tomorrow’s Food Skills

November 21, 2019

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around,” Mark Twain famously recalled. “But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

I was worse when it came to my own food knowledge and skills, because I was so much older than 14 or 21. I started taking food seriously when I was about 50 years old.

In 1995, I figured it would take me the rest of the decade to get a whole new take on the whole topic of food. I thought I was well on my way in 1999, when two friends and I wrote Real Food for a Change, published by the world’s biggest publisher of the day, Random House.

I felt some of the humility of  21 year-old Mark Twain about five years later. By then, I realized that it would take the rest of my career to master a tiny food nook of city food policy while keeping on top of all the things a food generalist had to stay on top of.

But it took me another five years, right up to my retirement, before I ate enough humble pie to know that modest goal was also way too high. Scratching the surface of a revolution in food knowledge intersecting with the information explosion of the Internet was going to  keep me plenty busy for the rest of my days.

The modern food movement took the shape it retains today during those 15 years from 1995 to 2010. Food movements were among the first to embrace the understanding that knowledge and wisdom  had to move from narrow fields of specialization to comprehensive and open-ended searching.

You can see that openness in the humble title most of the new university courses on food gave themselves – food studies, modeled on earlier disruptions such as labor studies, women’s studies, Black studies,  and equity studies.

Back in 1995, it was enough for a well-versed food specialist to know agriculture and rural sociology (because food was mainly about meeting production targets and that was a rural matter), topped up by knowledge of nutrition and chronic disease, because food consumption was mainly about preventing physical diseases. Those were the fields of knowledge. The fields of skills were housework and cooking skills passed from mother to daughter, trade skills passed from father to son, workaday how-to skills taught in trade schools, and specialized professional skills taught at university.

By 2010, well-versed food specialists had to know all the above,  plus a whole lot more. Food was no longer a specialty unto itself. It was a connection to almost everything.  The centripetal forces took over.

Food “specialists”  also had to know about food security and food sovereignty, local food and global trade deals, city planning and urban agriculture,  multiculturalism and culinary heritages, social determinants of health and social inequity, mental health and community development, political economy and geography, organic agriculture and green infrastructure, communication and adult education, environment and resources, sustainability and resilience, public policy and resilience, social marketing and content marketing, leadership and project management. Big enough for you?

Knowledge now had to be referred to in the plural – for Western, Eastern and Indigenous knowledges. Specialized expertise exploded into collaboration.  The how of food added on the who, what, where, and why of food. Who would’ve thunk all that could happen inside of 20 years?

Most food power brokers of today work from the knowledge world of the 1990s and earlier, raised on textbooks that held sway for entire generations. By contrast, the food jobs of the future – just like other jobs – will be based on these 21st century  transformations of skills and knowledges, updated daily on the Internet.

I refer to myself and others in the good food sector as food practitioners, in the same way that a doctor refers to medicine as a practice and a yogi  refers to yoga as a practice. You can learn skills but you never master knowledge – the same as you can learn spelling and grammar but never finish learning to write. You are always practicing but you never get there.

Food over the last 30 years has been the site of the most significant processes of creative destruction and disruptive innovation to be found anywhere at any time. Skills, knowledges and knowledge creation and diffusion are at the heart of this New Enlightenment. That is why it is timely to have a newsletter devoted to these obligations and opportunities.

“It seems that the more places I see and experience, the bigger I realize the world to be. The more I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I still have to go, the more there is to learn. Maybe that’s enlightenment enough; to know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom…is realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.” Anthony Bourdain

5 Top Skills for Future Food Jobs

I’ve adapted this schema from a Forbes Magazine article by Bernard Marr on the future’s top 5 job skills. Which shows to go you that  as soon as you add food to anything, you increase the number of things to consider.

  1. Marr puts emotional intelligence right at the top. EQ now beats IQ. People smarts beat book smarts. Because this is a world where every major project requires teams and partners. Because you can’t just bark orders to underlings, you have to understand them and bring them onside. Does this mean EQ will beat hierarchy and centralized power over at HQ? The parade of soft skills definitely doesn’t describe today’s commercial kitchens or civil service. But it does describe creative organizations that will have impact.
  2. Marr puts creativity second, rating it higher than innovation. I agree that innovation should not own the franchise on progress. It is a narrow and banal way to channel creativity, which is so much more…creative. We need to be creative about gardening, not just innovative about  hydroponics, about cooking from scratch, not just take-out deliveries by robots, about artisanal cheese, not just 3-D cheese printing. Creative is the habit and turn of mind that will produce smart, clever, useful, resource-respecting, and heritage-worthy ways of doing food.
  3. Marr puts flexibility and adaptability third because change is going to be the new normal. I would amend that by naming the virtue of tomorrow’s valued workers and citizens as resilient. People who are resilient have agency, and do more than simply fall into line with external changes. They are resilient because they are open and have multiple skills with which to make the best of changes. Being open and having many skills are the qualities we need, not go-along-to-get-along adaptability.
  4. Data literacy is Marr’s fourth valued quality of future employees, because “data is the fuel of the fourth industrial revolution.” Obviously, future food workers will need their equivalent- – food literacy. Knowing and understanding food holistically – its provenance, its heritage, its many impacts on the world – will be foundational for all food employees. Chefs, for example, can no longer get by with cooking skills. They need to be public educators. Policy wonks will no longer get by without social skills because the policy of the future will be based on collaboration, which puts a premium on street smarts and social skills.
  5. Marr says successful workers of the future must be tech-savvy. That’s undoubtedly true for food—savvy about hand tools, mechanized tools, artificially-intelligent computerized tools, and which ones are best for which job. We may no longer put down food skills as “manual skills,” rather than brain skills. They will all take equal amounts of savvy, and one set of skills will not necessarily be privileged.


Ed. note: This piece is excerpted from Wayne’s weekly newsletter. You can sign up for it here.

Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

Wayne Roberts

Dr. Wayne Roberts is best-known as the manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council from 2000 to 2010. But he did lots before (see his Wikipedia entry) and has done lots since. Wayne speaks, consults, coaches, tweetslinks inFacebooks, and Read more.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, cultural knowledge, food policy, knowledges, sustainable food movement