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.

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Giving young people growing skills for life

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 dborage flowersexterity, 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.