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.

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.