By Jane Powell
It’s mid-morning at the Llandrindod Pupil Referral Unit. A sleepy-faced teenager shuffles through the main classroom, calling over her shoulder that she’s “off to water the plants”. We follow her outside, where a trough of parsley, basil, coriander and oregano stands against a sunny wall, together with neatly aligned pots of strawberries and some pea plants that are bearing their first pods. She picks one and tastes it.
“Every day they go out there, they water those plants, they care for them,” says Linda Gutierrez, one of the teachers at the Unit. She explains that the produce finds its way into the meals that staff and students share at the centre, but it’s clear that the benefits of gardening and cooking go far beyond producing a few herbs. It is about nurturing young people who are falling through the cracks and drawing them back into shared activity with others.
Food is an important part of life at the PRU, which takes young people who are not able to study in mainstream education because of emotional and behavioural problems. “Some of these children have never sat at a table to eat properly – they don’t have that interaction with their family,” says Linda, who works hard to improve their social skills. “They’re not very good at joining in, so we eat together, we cook together, so they’re getting that social interaction. You learn a lot about a person by having those sitting-down chats over a meal, and they learn a lot about you.”
Linda’s affection for her charges, and her pride in them, shines through as she shares stories of their quirks and breakthroughs. Life at the PRU however is not just about providing a substitute family life for vulnerable young people. Like anybody else, they need an education and preparation for employment. The staff therefore build on the role that food already plays in the Unit and teach a Food Technology GCSE. They also have their learners take part in a Welsh Baccalaureate Enterprise and Employability Challenge from LEAF Education, which involves developing and marketing a food product suitable for sale in a farm shop.
Linda explains the process. Working as a team – numbers fluctuate at the PRU, but for this challenge there were just three of them – they visited Penpont farm shop, Llandrindod Market and other places to research ingredients and choose recipes. They came up with Flash Soups – ‘a flash of energy’ – and designed a logo, packaging, a sell-by date, allergen information and an (imaginary) social media campaign. They held taste tests, tweaked the recipes and the shared the final results at a Young Carers’ social evening.
She shows me the videos they made as part of their Welsh Baccalaureate accreditation. One girl reflects on the tasting sessions, explaining with teenage clarity her rejection of all blended soups and weighing up the relationship between appearance and taste. Another has a more commercial eye, and is interested in how the team worked together: “The one thing that stood out doing this project was that if people were absent from a meeting we had to delay making important decisions…The business world is not as easy as I thought”.
As an add-on to the soup challenge, Linda arranged for them to take an online Food Hygiene certificate. This gave them extra confidence – it’s a qualification that not many teenagers have – and it even enabled some of them to find part-time work in local cafes. And of course, they learned a lot about nutrition and how to cook healthy food for themselves, the life skills which Linda and her team instill “by stealth”.
The plan is now to build on the challenge for next year by growing their own vegetables at their other site in Brecon. Through a skype link we talk to her colleague Terry Holmes, who takes us on a virtual tour of the new garden. Raised beds are planted with tomatoes, savoy cabbages, courgettes, snap peas, carrots, beetroot, radish, red onions and chives, and there’s a compost heap waiting for the peelings. The plants are still small and full of promise in the freshness of mid-June.
Here we meet a third student who has been working on a planting plan. He speaks in monosyllables but it’s clear how much he cares about the garden; he’s been googling to find out what’s in season and has his eye on some giant pumpkin seed, which Linda promises to help him find.
The PRU’s food activities also give it links with the wider community. Staff and pupils have visited various gardens in the Social Farms and Gardens network, including Ashfield Community Enterprise near Llandrindod, to learn new skills. Linda has also signed the garden up for the RHS school gardening scheme, which provides information sheets, teaching ideas and advice.
As she says, “That’s what’s so nice about working in a PRU. We can be really creative, because school doesn’t work for these children. We still have to educate them, but we can find other ways to get their interest”.
Terry sums it up, referring to the youngster we just met: “We said to him only this morning, ‘How does it feel when you’ve grown something from a seed?’ And he said, ‘it’s a nice feeling, to nurture something and keep watering it every day, to see something grow’ – and you can’t believe how much the courgettes have grown!”. The same could be said for the young people themselves.
Jane Powell is a freelance writer and education consultant based near Aberystwyth. She writes at www.foodsociety.wales.