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Teaching Children Where Food Comes From

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Children absorb influences from their homes and social environments to good and ill effect. This is true for food as it is of everything else. Yet somehow, perhaps because food is so intrinsically at the core of everyday life, our assumptions and beliefs about it can seem invisible. Its foundational necessity to the health of individuals, families, communities, and the natural environment can give it an invisible quality. What we believe about food can be so deep-rooted and internal as to be hard to recognise, not to mention change. Food education is something that can elucidate and challenge ideas about what we eat and why.

To make good food choices children have to have practical access to healthy food – at home, school, and socially. Educating the individual child as consumer is also paramount. Alongside accessing healthy food children have to learn to battle wily advertising that has a vested interest in fostering unhealthy, even addictive, relationships with sugary and fatty processed foods. There are other factors to negotiate that operate beyond the direct agency of the child – alongside advertising, there is a proliferation of fast food outlets near schools, issues of food distribution networks and availability of fresh produce in certain urban areas – that children on their own have little or no power against. Education and reform needs to work on many levels. A number of recent initiatives are aiming to challenge the current obstacles for both children and their parents. Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution is an independent food campaign based on the assertion that access to healthy, fresh food is a human right. His project focusses on child obesity on a global scale, aiming to

inspire real, meaningful, positive change in the way our children access, consume and understand food.

Many food education approaches aim at developing a critical mindset in children. For Oliver this is

empowering them to make responsible, healthy, sustainable food choices.

The key pillars of his education programme are nutrition, waste, the planet, cooking, and ethical food buying.

These primary concerns are echoed through many food education programmes; indeed, questions over nutrition and what to eat are obvious topics. Obesity has been steadily increasing in Western countries in spite of a general nutritional consensus on what constitutes a healthy diet.1 There’s an entire industry of junk and diet food proponents who have a vested interest in consumers being confused about what’s healthy and easily tempted by those foods they know are not. Prevention of obesity and other illnesses requires trusted knowledge about healthy foods, as well as cooking skills. The environment is also a common topic, i.e. what foods are more sustainable (local, seasonal) and how to avoid food waste. Education often looks at the ethics of food, how it is produced and where it comes from; meat and animal products being one type of food that attracts strong ethical attention. Child-focussed food education aims to teach children what they need to know to make good choices about what to eat, and how to eat it, in order to produce better (healthier, more sustainable, more ethical) outcomes for themselves, producers, and for the environment.

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In Ireland, food education in Primary Schools runs throughout the curriculum, but it is not, on its own, a dedicated subject. Children learn about nutrition and healthy eating through the Social, Personal and Health Education curricular strand. The Educate Together (Ireland’s secular school movement) curriculum has a Learn Together strand which talks about sustainability and environmental stewardship. There are other, elective, programmes in schools, that educate about food. For instance Food Dudes, borrowed from Wales, encourages children to try new fruit and vegetables through play. They are rewarded for tasting and eating the produce, and they learn where food comes from. There’s also the Incredible Edibles programme which encourages children to learn about growing and eating fruit and vegetables, and the Moo Crew run by the Dairy Council. Many schools are also working – independently or with organisations like Grow It Yourself – to set up school gardens. They have the choice to engage (and many do) with private and independent education programmes like educational farms, mobile farms, cooking classes and all manner of other angles. For example, there are organisations and movements like Permaculture or Slow Food, that have clear, defined ideas about what children should learn about food, and run education programmes both within and outside of school activities.

So children certainly learn about food in Primary School in Ireland, but it is rather ad hoc and contingent on the school’s commitment or interest in food education. JP McMahon, chef and good food champion has worked with an Educate Together school in his local Galway to create a food education programme specifically for the primary school but he is passionate that it is a programme everybody should benefit from. He says,

I think we need to educate children about where food comes from. We can do this by involving them in the growing process with a school garden. But it's not enough just to have a garden. It needs to be programmed into the curriculum.

Grainne Kelliher, the CEO of Airfield Estate and its educational farm in Dundrum, Co. Dublin sees less of a gap in current primary education and comments that the knowledge of the children who visit their farm school programmes is strong. Nonetheless, the provision for food education varies a lot between schools and the current piecemeal situation is not the same as creating  strategy to fully embed food education within the primary curriculum. To combat this inconsistency McMahon believes,

we need a systematic approach and a proper food subject at primary school level to educate our children.

Primary school teacher Fiona Feeney, who teaches at an Educate Together school in Tuam, comments that children love learning about food and get very excited by the subject, but the demands of the curriculum are huge –“there are so many initiatives, it can be hard to squeeze it all in”. The first step is an education on what’s healthy and second is putting it into practice on a daily basis. She wants her pupils to think about the question, “is there a better choice?” when it comes to food. This fostering of curiosity, an openness to foods and thinking about what is healthy is a thread running through all the education programmes I have been in contact with. Fiona admits it can be very difficult, particularly where there are issues of economic disadvantage which inhibit access to healthier food as well as the constant barrage of advertising encouraging sugary and processed goods.

Despite such struggles Grainne Kelliher from Airfield is similarly full of praise for the enthusiasm and aspirations of young people who come to the farm. She is a strong believer in the role of both schools and homelife in fostering a child’s curiosity and education on food. She notes that children who visit Airfield,

want to do the right thing. I find children now are so much more conscious socially and of the environment. They love their sweets, you’re not going to get past that, but they want to do the right thing. I find that more and more.

Airfield Estate is a 38 acre working farm right in the city suburbs of Dundrum, and the only large scale farm in the city that’s open to the public. Airfield was set up by the Overends family and is now a charitable organisation for educational and recreational purposes. Its aim is

to facilitate active learning focusing on food, farming and the land.

There’s a farm-supplied restaurant, Overends Kitchen, and their ethos emphasises seasons, locality, avoiding waste, and sustainability. Grainne explains that they thought long and hard about the ethics of what they are doing. They are very committed to a sustainable and environmentally friendly model and understand this can be hard work.

We haven’t chosen an easy route, and customers can struggle with that. There’s naturally a huge educational element involved.

Although the restaurant, given its location in leafy South Dublin, tends to attract a well-heeled clientele, Airfield’s programme of educational visits from schools across the country sees pupil from a range of socioeconomic levels – wealthy to disadvantaged, urban to rural. Last year alone they hosted 11,000 educational visits.

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The financial independence of Airfield, Grainne believes, is crucial to their integrity within the landscape of food education and sustainability. In terms of values, like in the kitchen, their overall ethos emphasises on the local for environmental reasons – “it’s all about adapting to what we grow in Ireland, and getting people to eat what grows here”.

Their focus is on showing the whole of the food chain, as Grainne puts it, “land to hand”. This big picture type of insight is what Grainne sees as key to good education on food,

we need to move away from looking at food in parts, like calories for instance. Here we look at it in a very holistic way. It is about growing. It’s about really understanding where food comes from, and enjoying food. If you work with the seasons, you’re going to have optimum flavour. We all know the challenge of food in the world is phenomenal. Populations are increasing, and we need to start looking at food in a more holistic way, and respecting it more than we are at the moment.

A need to understand the complexity of the whole picture and to connect with the environmental reality of food provenance is also the focus of Permaculture. A global movement that has many advocates in Ireland, Permaculture is a system for social and agricultural organisation using design principles similar to those observed in natural ecosystems. Permaculture teacher and designer Aaron Jewell calls it a “holistic approach aiming to work with nature and not against it”. Education has a big role,

children learn how to observe and interact with nature, how to design systems that become efficient systems for people and nature.  For example, teaching children the understanding of living soil and the relationship that soil has with plants sharing nutrients, water, information, and resources helps to truly create healthy nutrient rich food while providing the soil its need to do the work that it continues to do.

A similar holistic understanding of the interconnectivity of all elements within the food system runs through Airfield’s activities with children. They run a Breakfast Club with local DEIS (socioeconomically disadvantaged) schools which has proven to be hugely popular and champions the social aspect of food which Grainne sees as vitally important.

They come in and they pick up the eggs, they see the cows being milked and they have a glass of milk, they make their own butter from the cream. They’ve practically made their own breakfast. The social aspects of it are huge. They’ve met a gardener, a farmer, and a baker in a morning, careers they might not ordinarily have met. They sit down at a table, and are chatting to their peers, teachers, talking about what just happened, their day. The food is the starting point.

Permaculture believes the problems with our food system are intractable if we continue on our current path of overconsumption and ecologically unsound food production. It professes the need for a radically bigger and more comprehensive solution.   As Aaron comments,

educating children on how to fix the problems of the future is pivotal to their collective future. Future generations are going to have the hardest time in history to work towards trying to restore habitat loss, ecological damage. The future generations need to know the issues that they will inherit.

In spite of this, he is hopeful,

I’m very optimistic for the future. It is in all our best interest to create regenerative systems moving forward.

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Airfield’s approach to changing the system is, like Jamie Oliver, to educate and empower the individual. To learn about food, children must see where food comes from. Kirsty McAdoo, Head of Education and Research at Airfield agrees that showing children how things work in real life is the best way to impart a deeper knowledge of food systems and ultimately healthy eating choices. She echoes Fiona Feeney’s emphasis on fostering a critical and curious mind,

we use a methodology called Discovery learning, used in schools, all about making the person a questioner. It’s not enough to just receive information. We are really big advocates of that - making an impact, and ensuring people retain information.

They are firm believers in teaching “outdoors, outdoors” – a strong interactive and practical element to what they do.  Grainne agrees with Kirsty, that they say to the children,

just start asking questions. Stop taking things at face value, you’re all clever. Start asking clever questions.

Educating and empowering children and adults to make healthy food choices is clearly a powerful weapon in the battle for a better food system. But we are up against strong instinctive urges for ingredients like fat, sugar and even salt. We are genetically programmed to want calorie-rich foods. When you put those primal drives at work in an overflowing supermarket, for instance, you can understand why we end up over-buying and over-eating.  Grainne agrees that this is a big problem,

reports show you can educate children very well about how they’re manipulated by advertisements. But it makes zero difference when they’re in that realm, especially in social media. Kids don’t have that impulse control,

So clearly there is enormous value in educating children around food, but their vulnerability to advertising is a good example of how achieving the goal of healthy eating has structural elements beyond the control of the consumer.

As Grainne commented, we need to think holistically. Whether consumer focused or systemic, approaches to improve how and what we eat necessitate innovative and critical thinking and the ability to think big and work together for collective solutions.  There’s a vital role in teaching children to be more conscious consumers, to understand the food system, as well as to enjoy the wonderful pleasures of food. Food education has the powerful potential to show children what constitutes good food choices and the value of making those choices. But it’s a tough battle negotiating the often overriding influences of their local food environment, attitudes to food in their home, and junk food advertising.

As such the challenges facing food education are huge – changing children’s likes, dislikes and propensity to make good choices. Food activist JP McMahon believes embedding food education within the school curriculum is a great first step, but the power to enable good choices lies with a broad range of parties. Long-term solutions require cooperation of stakeholders and a multi-pronged approach. He comments,

We need legislation from the government to support small artisan producers, we need chefs and restaurants to put their money where their mouths are and invest in local on a large scale. Consumers also need to make more of an effort and not be so passive when purchasing their weekly food.

Only through a unified approach linking education with a structural reform of the food system, and questioning how we market to consumers alongside our deep genetic appetites for all things sweet and fatty will we succeed in securing a healthy, sustainable food future.

All images courtesy Airfield Estate.

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

Mark Bittman and David Katz, The Last Conversation You’ll Ever Need to Have About Eating Right http://www.grubstreet.com/2018/03/ultimate-conversation-on-healthy-eating-and-nutrition.html [accessed 05/04/2018]

Caitriona Devery

Caitriona is associate editor of FEAST.