Rising to the challenge: Re-imagining food and farming education in a time of crisis

By Dr Richard Kipling

We are all becoming acutely aware of the existential threats to humanity posed by climate change and biodiversity loss. Our unequal and divided societies breed short termism and waste, as people become ever more disconnected from nature and food production. This loss of connection and understanding puts food and farming education at the centre of attempts at transformation – but how can we create the education systems we need to drive change?

Last November the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference hosted a People’s Assembly. Our aim was to bring people together to re-imagine food and farming education in the face of current environmental crises. Held on Zoom, the assembly attracted around sixty participants from across the UK. The free event was advertised online to gain the views of as wide a group as possible.

Here, we share the perspectives voiced in the assembly. Their richness demonstrates the capacity of the approach to yield important insights. The assembly enabled a drawing together of diverse views into an overview that can help guide change in food and farming education.

Joining it up

At the heart of discussions was the importance of linking topics like food and farming, environment, and health to provide learners with holistic perspectives. This was exemplified by comments highlighting the need for “Greater connectivity between dietary choices, industrial farming, and impacts on health and the environment.”

Teaching methods were considered equally important. To stimulate critical thinking, active and experiential learning is essential. Few things are as hands-on and empowering as growing, preparing and sharing food. One example of how food and farming teaching can move beyond the classroom is the Forest School approach, which uses regular practical learning experiences in natural settings to develop children’s skills and confidence.

Food and farming teaching must also open up to different topics and approaches: “Use the wonderful mechanisms of play, creative theatre, storytelling and music-making natural to Early Years education to convey the message of Climate Emergency to all age groups.” This can mean drawing on the knowledge of practitioners and communities: “Teachers don’t have to be the only educators in schools – community engagement and ‘experts’ should be made use of.” This type of approach is exemplified by an initiative by Canton Community Gardens], in which an artist worked with children and adults to design recipe cards based on recipes gathered from local people. 

Practical skills

People commented on the issue of a lack of awareness of food and farming issues beyond the world of agriculture and conservation – including the need to “educate the educators.” There may also be some prejudice around more practical topics: “Gardening and horticulture may have traditionally been seen in schools as being options for problem children especially. This perpetuates the idea that they are not real careers.”

Even when people are aware of the issues, learning opportunities may be limited – practical teaching requires resources, equipment, and often, land: “Without a radical change in access to land for smallholders/ growers we will not have sufficient educational venues for skills training and forming communities around them to spread the word and practical skills about sustainable food systems.” Great examples show what can be achieved with resources, enthusiasm, and engagement: “Access to land and to the knowledge, skills and resources of the Community Supported Agriculture Network enables individuals and groups to ‘test the water’ and gain basic ‘hands-on’ experience of growing and the issues within the sector.”

Community links

The Tyddyn Teg cooperative in north Wales demonstrates the value of linking communities to food production and sharing skills and knowledge, growing and supplying organic vegetables to their local community while running education events and training courses.

Engagement was considered particularly important. Too often, delegates felt that discussions take place within the same groups: “How do we reach and connect with the majority of the citizens of Wales, especially those who live in deprived post-industrial areas, from our cosy rural echo chamber?” Involving all parts of society in food and farming education is essential to driving change. Contributions showed initiatives doing just that: “Community gardens are a great way to get more people involved in food production, encourage people to increase their knowledge about food and so help raise awareness of where and how food is or can be produced.” How can these examples be built upon?

Divisions and bridges

Division can often prevent change, arising from inequality: “There needs to be more education […] as to why these products [organic] are out of reach for some people”, difference of place: “There is an urban/rural disconnect between food and land and how these things are connected to all of our lives” and differences of culture: “Gap between permaculture people/agro-ecological ideas and traditional farming.” External constraints potentially stifle change before people even begin: “The situation can be overwhelming and can create frightening scenarios that produce feelings of disempowerment.”

Although divides are real, bridges can be built by increasing awareness of people’s inter-reliance at the global level: “Educating everyone on food systems and how their consumption affect global issues” and more locally: “Education for farmers and food industry to find different business models and ways of engaging with urban centres and making good food accessible to everyone.” By connecting across communities, generations, and parts of society, we can start to re-imagine the world, and open up to new values, perspectives and knowledge. Many suggested that food and farming can be what unites us: “Use ‘food’ as a focus for discussions with all communities of all ages to have hopeful creative conversations about the urgency of the Climate Emergency and the need for direct action on decision makers.”

Advocating for change

Facing external constraints, we must also learn to advocate for change: “How can we push government and councils to respect their commitments under the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, Environment Wales Act, and other directives?” This must be done at the right times, in the right places, and engage the right people: “Which members of the Senedd are our allies to support the urgent paradigm shift to a diversified agro-ecological production system across Wales?”

In that context, delegates discussed strategies for overcoming the challenges. One was to identify specific opportunities to make and influence change – like the advent of the new curriculum in Wales. This provides opportunities for food and farming education, including encouraging outdoor learning.

Opportunities don’t just arise from new policies – they might also be events or times in people’s lives when they are most in need of community – and when they may be most open to learning about food: “Young mums rediscover food and farming challenges when they have children – need resources to help engage this group.” People might be similarly open to engagement when they move to a new area or experience crises like the ongoing pandemic. At these times, community-based learning activities may be particularly attractive and valuable.

Bringing organizations together

Particular emphasis was placed on sharing ideas and knowledge, and on bringing together education providers like schools, colleges, and training organisations. Current initiatives need to be showcased and shared to demonstrate what can be achieved.

Engagement across organisations should aim to provide seamless provision throughout formal education: “Understanding the link between caring for the planet/healthy soils and growing/preparing-cooking/eating from Early Years, through all curriculum Key Stages” and beyond “Education is key across society, from the early years of childhood through into adulthood, incorporating nutrition, growing skills, cooking, farm-visits etc., to promote the benefits of healthy food and good dietary habits to both drive demand and raise awareness.”

Urgency was a strong theme – we face existential threats that require transformational change here and now: “Food is fundamental to everyone’s health and well-being! Time is of the essence – the ‘window of opportunity’ is closing.” The People’s Assembly provided a rich overview of issues around food and farming education. We hope the themes raised focus minds, driving action to create systems able to address the threats before us. Do get in touch via this website if you have any questions, comments or ideas.

Thanks to all who made the People’s Assembly possible, including LEAF Education, Black Mountains College, Bioinnovation Wales and Tyddyn Teg for presenting their ideas to the assembly – check the links to learn more about these organisations.

Richard Kipling was part of the People’s Assembly organising team, all of whom contributed to this piece (Jessie Buchanan, Steven Jacobs, Angie Polkey and Sarah Watson-Jones). He is a lecturer in Sustainable Systems at Aberystwyth University.

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