By Jane Powell, formerly of Organic Centre Wales and now working on the Food Manifesto
Being able to grow something which we can then eat is a skill which leads to many things: an understanding of where food comes from, a way of connecting to the natural world, an outdoor activity which develops fitness and dexterity, a motivation to eat more healthily, and an activity that lends itself to sharing with others, giving a sense of belonging.
Last year, Organic Centre Wales ran an action research project to investigate the growing of food in schools and colleges. We worked a with a rural primary school that makes bread from its own wheat, lotions from its own herbs and sells produce to parents, an urban secondary school that started to grow herbs for the kitchen and planted an orchard, a further education college where Vocational Access and catering students grow salads, micro leaves and edible flowers for their own demonstration café, and a university where a community garden is bringing together staff and students to grow food together for their own use and for sale. We also worked with a number of primary schools as part of a project to support school meals in Flintshire.
There are so many benefits from these inspirational projects that it is never a problem to make the case for them. Their appeal is universal. However, getting a garden going is hard work, and our project showed some of the ways that outside agencies can help. One school wanted an automatic watering system so that they could make use of an internal courtyard. Several schools needed cash for a few extra raised beds. The further education college needed some advice on herb growing, and said what a boost it had been for their learners to get an outside person with real depth of knowledge. The university wanted a noticeboard so that they could explain the project to passers-by and start to engage more people.
In the Flintshire schools, we worked with Garden Organic to hold two community engagement days where local parents, grandparents and others were invited into school to help with the garden. The benefits go both ways: the school gets some help, and the volunteers learn new skills and develop their confidence. As one of them said, “I nearly didn’t come this morning, as I didn’t think it was for me and now I am so glad I did.”
It’s really important that we develop school and college gardens in future. Primary schools are already well on the way, but there is a big gap at secondary level, and more could be done through the Welsh Baccalaureate to encourage young people to engage properly with horticulture, so long seen as a career for the less able. What’s needed is a coordinated approach that works with all the pieces of the horticultural puzzle, including schools, local government, housing associations, careers advisers, the commercial sector, research, community development and health.
Food touches all areas of our lives, and giving young people the skills to grow and cook it helps them to find a place in society.
Our report, Growing Food in Schools and Colleges, plus a range of other materials including a leaflet for schools and colleges, a leaflet for volunteers and case studies, is available here: http://www.organiccentrewales.org.uk/schools-gardens.php.