Soup and success: how food gives young people skills for the future

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.

ladling soup

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, 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.

courgetteThe 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.

 

 

 

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Can our young people shape the food system for the better? Let’s take more farmers into the classroom

By Jane Powell

We often hear how young people have become disconnected from food. They don’t know where it comes from and they can’t cook a meal. Of course that matters and we need to do something about it, but if we turn the problem around and ask how young people can help shape the food system, we have a much more interesting question.

Let’s visit a classroom in rural west Wales, where a class of 13- and 14-year-olds are studying local and global food as part of their geography course. They check over the menu from a local restaurant and discuss the arguments for regional food: it’s fresh, it boosts the rural economy and creates jobs, and it saves on transport and therefore carbon emissions. But it may be expensive, and going to the supermarket is so much easier.

Also in the classroom is a dairy farmer, we’ll call him Neil, here to talk about his work and help with their discussions. The pupils have been preparing for his visit with help from their teacher, who has helped them get a picture of what farmers do and think up some questions for him. She has also had to help them over a few prejudices absorbed from the media.

Although this is a rural area, most of the pupils have no direct experience of farming, and they are curious to meet someone from such a different walk of life.  The fact that Neil is an ex-pupil of the school, and that most of them presumably consume dairy products on a daily basis, only underlines the gulf in understanding that has grown up between farmers and the public.

Neil is apprehensive. He tweets: “About to talk to a classroom of year 9 pupils… #lambtotheslaughter”. It’s a while since he was last in a classroom and he is not sure what to expect, but he is interested to take the temperature of public opinion.

Standing in the front of the curious teenagers, he talks about the family farm where he produces milk, beef and animal feed. He explains the double impact of Brexit: the loss of European subsidies, without which (unless the UK government picks up the tab) many farmers might go under, and the change to our trading relationship with the EU, which could deprive farmers of a big chunk of their market.

One pupil ventures a question: has he diversified? Yes, he has converted farm buildings into holiday cottages. He has also looked into bottling his own milk, which would mean that he could sell it for £1 a litre instead of 24p. The trouble is that he would then have the job of marketing it himself which carries a high risk. You can’t stockpile milk till the price goes up.

So he goes for the simpler option of selling his milk to a big dairy, his animals to an abattoir, and grain to an animal feed mill. His produce therefore bypasses the high-end tourist restaurant with its venison and crabs and leaves the county, along with the profits from the various supermarkets where most people do their shopping.

As the discussion continues, it becomes clear that the pupils and the farmer have made the same deal: commodity farming and supermarkets, rather than the local diversified food chain so beloved of the tourists. It falls short of the ideals we have been discussing, but it’s easy to see why.

There are powerful forces of policy, convenience and lifestyle that have taken our food systems inexorably away from labour-intensive mixed farming, small herds, specialist shops and weekly markets, to the system we know today. And Britain has since the industrial revolution had a policy of cheap food for the cities, which has made it hard for us to develop a food system that is flourishing in its own right, and means that Brexit could produce a step change in the wrong direction.

Yet it doesn’t have to be like this. If there were the demand and the infrastructure – and of course the willingness to pay – farmers like Neil could grow at least some food for local markets, insulating themselves from the ups and downs of global trade and becoming less reliant on subsidies.

Research suggests that this might not be an impossible dream. As Amber Wheeler found with her 2013 study Could the St. Davids peninsula feed itself? local food self-sufficiency is theoretically feasible in at least one part of rural Wales (and see Simon Fairlie’s Can Britain feed itself). We might not aspire to such hard-core self-sufficiency, but it is surely worth exploring.

To reshape our food system so that farmers were supported by local markets would take concerted action by policy makers, government, business and the public. It would require a very strong motivation to reverse decades of urbanization and globalization.

But then, isn’t that sort of collaboration exactly what the Well-being of Future Generations Act is supposed to promote? And a recent report from the Wales Centre for Public Policy on the implications of Brexit for agriculture calls for long-term collaboration between government, business and others to build the agri-food sector and increase the resilience of rural communities.

We didn’t come up with any answers in that geography lesson, but the question hung in the air. Maybe our young people can change the world, given the right opportunities. Maybe our schools can be a crucible in which new visions can develop.

Afterwards, a relieved Neil tweets again. “Really enjoyed talking to the pupils this morning. Future’s bright”. There may be challenges, but if we face them together, who knows what we might achieve. I think we all felt the excitement of new possibilities.

Jane Powell is Wales Education Coordinator for FACE,  which works with schools to help children and young people understand the connection between farming and their daily lives. Last year FACE became part of LEAF. She writes at www.foodsociety.wales.  

Farming for biodiversity at the Botanic Garden – what local and national collaboration can achieve

By Bruce Langridge, National Botanic Garden of Wales

It’s surprising how quick you can make a difference.

I’ve been working at the National Botanic Garden of Wales since 2003 and have keenly observed some dramatic changes to meadows that we’ve been managing for hay. Formerly dull swathes of grass-dominated pasture now bloom with colourful waves of fascinating flowers that were once common in our countryside but which have declined dramatically since the intensification of agriculture.

How did we do this? Simples. We cut the meadow in the late summer, don’t add any fertiliser and occasionally graze a few cattle in the winter. We’ve not introduced any wildflower seeds or plugs, we’ve just let nature do what nature does.Yellow Rattle, Trawscoed North plants 19 June 2013 056

It’s a vital role of a national botanic garden like ours to conserve, educate and inspire. With over 300 acres of agricultural grassland to manage on our Waun Las National Nature Reserve, it’s vital that we can show our visitors how farming can work with, rather than against nature. With around 60 Welsh Black cattle and a new flock of local-breed Balwen sheep, we produce beef and lamb that we sell to our Garden members and supporters.

I’m no farmer myself. I’m the Garden’s Head of Interpretation but I used to be a field botanist in the 1980s and a natural history museum curator in the 1990s. As a very young charitable institution when I joined in 2003, the Garden was flexible enough to harness its staff’s knowledge and passions, even when they didn’t strictly adhere to job descriptions. That’s how I got to know this wonderful farmland. And luckily I’ve worked successively with two farmers, Tim Bevan and Huw Jones, who know their balers from their billhooks.

Our Head of Science, Dr. Natasha De Vere is also a national expert on rhos pastures, a hugely declined Welsh farming habitat which survives in fragments on the NNR – we’re working to join up these wet meadow gems. Wales is also blessed with plenty of people who have been happy to advise us whether it be the Freshwater Habitat Trust on our lakes and dipping ponds, PONT (Pori, Natur a Threftadaeth) on organically managing rush – we don’t use chemicals – and Plantlife Cymru on how to short-cut the creation of new species-rich meadows using our own green hay. I suspect most Welsh mycologists have helped us to record our internationally important waxcap fungi pastures whilst all manner of pollinator-friendly people have helped us become leading research institute with a specialism in DNA barcoding. Our half a million honeybees have been so well observed now that we’ve a pretty good idea of where and what they forage. This means we have a more tolerant view on what we now know is one of the honey bees’ favourite food source – the bramble. This is handy as we’ve recently discovered we’ve got dormice, a fact that requires us not to hack back bramble without looking for small mammals first.

Sharing these experiences with other small-scale farmers, such as those on the recently formed Carmarthenshire Meadows Group, is what helps me to find my job so rewarding. Inspired by the incredible efforts of the Monmouthshire Meadows Group, this new group is made up of people who want to farm with, rather than against, nature. Just by meeting with others, sharing experience and knowledge, then later tools and grazing livestock, these farmers are helping to either conserve or create new pockets of biodiversity which are so needed across our biodiversity-depleted countryside. Wouldn’t it be great to see this model of small scale co-operation working across all the counties of Wales?

I’m now all set for a new aspect to food production. The Garden has recently been tasked to run a five-year project called Growing the Future – this follows on from a pilot project run between 2012-15. This pan-Wales European funded project is aimed at raising interest and participation in horticulture. So if you want upskill your green fingers, keep an eye out for a whole range of upcoming hands-on, and online, courses which will be advertised via the Garden’s website botanicgarden.wales or garddfotaneg.cymru.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the events this will allow us to run. We’ll be expanding our Wales Wildflower Day to a weekend event, creating a brand new Wales Bee Weekend, creating a secular harvest festival in autumn featuring food grown in our Double Walled Garden, expanding our Apple Weekend and raising awareness of fungi in gardens as part of our UK Fungus Day event.

These events, and stands at various shows, give us the chance to meet and talk to new people, especially those who want to learn, just like I do.

Bruce Langridge is Head of Interpretation at the National Botanic Garden of Wales in Carmarthenshire.

Mae tim y Maniffesto Bwyd yn cynnal cyfarfod yn yr Ardd ar 9fed Chwefror er mwyn cychwyn rhwydwaith fwyd i Gymru. Cysylltwch â helo@maniffestobwyd.cymru i wybod mwy.

The Food Manifesto team are holding a meeting at the Garden on 9 February to build a food network for Wales. Please contact hello@foodmanifesto.wales to find out more.

 

Food Network Wales – working for a better food system

school kitchen counter

By Pamela Mason

Working for a better food system in Wales is something that few would argue with. We know the issues linked with food, from obesity to climate change, from poor remuneration for farmers to the demand for food banks. Many people and organisations across Wales including civil society groups, the private and public sectors and Welsh government are working on these things. Yet, despite Wales being a small country where people make good connections with one another, many people whose work is linked to food work don’t always know what others are doing. When that happens, we miss the opportunity to gain from each other’s knowledge and experience, and progress towards the better food system we all want to see is very slow.

With this in mind, during the past 12 months or so, a small group of us who live in Wales and are strongly engaged with food in academia, business, civil society, the public sector or as health professionals, have come together to discuss how we can help to make the food connections across Wales work better. To that end, we have developed the concept for a new network, Food Network Wales, in which we hope to work together with as many people and organisations as possible. We have produced a consultation document which summarises our thinking to date and how we, by joining together with what we hope will be a wide variety of civil society groups, farming and food businesses, academics, health professionals and public sector bodies, hope we can create a space for networking, thinking, knowledge exchange and research towards this better food system we want.

The problems linked with food are well known. In Wales almost a quarter of adults are obese and less than a third are eating their five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Climate change, associated with a greater risk of flooding, is already having an impact on food production. Poverty has increased in Wales during recent years making it difficult for people on low incomes to access a good healthy diet. Food bank use has increased. Small family farms, which make such a vital contribution to Welsh culture and Welsh language, as well as being producers of some of Wales’ best food, continue to decrease in number. Brexit could have a devastating effect on family farms and severely affect food resilience and food poverty.

The Well-Being of Future Generations Act creates a huge opportunity to focus on the improvement of the food system from increasing the availability of healthy, affordable food for all the people of Wales, reducing carbon emissions and biodiversity loss to supporting farmers in the strengthening of shorter supply chains and improving social cohesion around community food initiatives. The Act offers a particular opportunity to help children and young people learn more about food, how to grow it and how to cook it.

Food Network Wales wants to get people together who are concerned about the food system and want to work to improve things. We see Food Network Wales as being a dynamic, progressive organisation acting a hub for engagement and debate across a broad range of stakeholders in food and farming. We think that strengthening short supply chains and getting more local food on to the public plate will be key interests for many who join this network. We also think this new organisation will play an active role in raising awareness around food, sharing information with a wide range of people and collaborating on research. We are also developing a Food Manifesto for Wales, which we hope will be recognised by the general public and adopted by Welsh governmental and non-governmental organisations, businesses and health professionals.

We aim to provide an ‘umbrella’ under which everyone with an interest in the food system in Wales – farmers, growers, processors, retailers and consumers, as well as academics and healthcare professionals – can gather for the benefit of all. We hope you will share our vision, not to mention excitement, for the potential that Food Network Wales offers to make for a better food system in Wales today, tomorrow and for future generations of Wales. Let’s do this together.

You can download a short introduction here in Welsh and English. We’d love to hear your views and you can do this by responding to our on-line survey:

Cwblhewch yr arolwn yn y Gymraeg

Complete the survey in English

Pamela Mason is the author, with Tim Lang, of Sustainable Diets and is active in food projects in Monmouthshire. 

Cutout hen and wellies

Teaching children where their food comes from

By Jane Powell

“What’s good about being a farmer?” Potato grower Walter Simon is taking questions from a class of seven-year-olds at Narberth Primary School in Pembrokeshire, and this question comes up five or six times. Each child gets a fresh answer: Because I love being outside. Because growing potatoes is an exciting challenge. Because every day is different. Because I am my own boss. Because I’m producing food which people need, so I’m doing something useful and that feels good.

Without thinking about it, he is giving the children a lesson in values. For him, a good job doesn’t mean high pay, long holidays or prestige, nor is it about comfort and security. He shares his sense of enjoyment, adventure and the satisfaction of serving others and belonging to your local community, and the children are enthralled. They are meeting someone whose job it is to grow their food, and they are waking up to an important fact of life – our dependence on a complex food supply chain which starts with farmers and other primary producers, and eventually reaches their plates. They begin to see their own place in the world, and it inspires a certain wonder and respect, from which curiosity flows, and a desire to learn more.

This is why the charity Farming and Countryside Education (FACE) and community development organization Planed, in partnership with a range of farming and education partners including the NFU, the Healthy Schools Scheme and the National Park, are running a pilot project to reconnect Pembrokeshire children with the food chain. Children are engaging in an enquiry into the local food system, starting with food mapping workshops in the classroom and then taking them out into their local community to  survey food shops, interview shopkeepers and visit farms. They are also looking backwards and learning about a time when people didn’t get their food from large supermarkets, farms were mixed and people ate seasonally. That leads to a discussion about what the food chain of the future might look like – small-scale local production, large-scale intensive farms, or a mixture? What would they choose?

The potential of food education is huge. Farm visits, gardening, cookery, community meals, egg-hatching projects and so on give children an instant and powerful connection with the world outside the classroom and help them move outside the confines of a modern lifestyle which cuts them off from the natural world. Alongside all the science and geography that they learn in the context of exploring the food chain, they gain practical skills which bring confidence and self-respect, and which will serve them well in later life. They also meet people they otherwise wouldn’t, whether it’s a local retired person who comes in to help out with the garden or a business owner who has come to trade at a schoolyard farmers’ market.

The fundamental importance of food to our lives is hard to overstate, and yet all too often education about food and farming falls to the bottom of the list. When there is literacy and numeracy to fit into the school day besides all the usual demands of the academic curriculum, plus the Eisteddfod and a dozen other excitements on offer, it can be hard to persuade a school to cram yet another activity to into a crowded schedule. One way to do this is to show how so many curriculum requirements can be taught through food and farming, from art and global citizenship to geography and business. Another is to show the benefits of the outdoor classroom in engaging learners who might struggle in conventional settings, whether because they find it hard to sit still in a classroom, or because the natural environment opens up more sensory channels for learning.

It’s time for a more strategic approach. In England, the well regarded Food for Life scheme draws together home cooking in the kitchen, gardening, farm visits and community links into a single programme which runs across the whole school under the guidance of the school cook and the head teacher. It has been shown to  deliver many benefits, including increasing vegetable consumption for parents as well as children,  boosting the local economy through purchasing policies and starting to close the attainment gap for disadvantaged children. Originally Lottery-funded, the programme is now being commissioned by local authorities and even individual schools.

Could Wales do something like this? The Food and Fun programme developed by Food Cardiff and now extended to the rest of the country, where free school meals are provided over the summer holidays and linked to food education and physical activities, shows that there is a will to invest in children’s food. But it needs to go further, permeating the curriculum and the term-time ethos, and really engaging the younger generation in creating a better food system for the future, in partnership with their communities and business. It’s a particularly good time to do this now, as Wales is embarking on a major reform to the school curriculum, and has the new collaborative ethos of the Well-being of Future Generations Act.

Our Food Values project showed how deeply felt is the public concern for ‘teaching children where their food comes from’ and passing on the values and skills that will ensure a fair and healthy society. Food is ultimately not a commodity but an essential of life, connecting us to each other and the natural world. Let’s give children a thorough grounding in the interdependence of humans and nature, starting with the meals they eat three times a day.