Relocalizing the food system: could schools be the place to start?

This post was written for the Wales Food Manifesto (but I changed the title)

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.

Let’s not put food and farming on the curriculum

I’ve often wished I could have a fiver for every time someone says that we need to do more to teach children where their food comes from. And I’d like another fiver, please, for every time someone concludes the conversation by saying the government should ‘put cookery/gardening/farming on the curriculum’, as if that would put everything right.

Why? Because the absence of cookery and food production from the curriculum is a symptom of a wider social problem. Our entire society has lost touch with where food comes from, and what it really costs – so why should we expect schools to be any different? This is something we all need to do together.

Requiring schools to teach gardening will not be much use when we have a generation of adults who regard the soil with suspicion and have no idea how to grow food. Cookery teachers are in short supply. And farms tend to be out of sight and out of mind. It will take much more than an edict from above to turn this problem around.

In any case, Successful Futures, the new Welsh school curriculum, won’t be like that. As Prof Graham Donaldson explained at a conference in Cardiff last month, it will not be driven by content, or even skills.

It will be about the qualities that young people must have if they are to cope in an unpredictable future. Even computer programming, or coding, the latest exciting skill to hit the classroom, may not stand the test of time. And let’s not get started on handwriting.

Instead, schools will be given more powers to decide how they achieve the four principles of Successful Futures. They are to be ready for anything, as follows:

  • ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn throughout their lives;
  • enterprising, creative contributors, ready to play a full part in life and work;
  • ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world;
  • healthy, confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society.

After the constriction of the curriculum in recent years, this is a breath of fresh air, and food education delivers on all four points. But it won’t be easy. The plan relies on teachers stepping forward as leaders of culture change, when they work in a setting that is risk-averse and the school day is already crammed with duties.

School inspections are a prime source of pressure, and high expectations from government and a consumer mentality on the part of the public lie behind that. So how can we have ‘experimentation without anxiety’, as one teacher put it?

The hierarchy of the education system can be powerfully inhibiting for those who are inside it, affecting pupils and teachers alike. It is hard to see how it can change on its own. But if teachers can form alliances with outside providers who are free of those particular pressures, they might find fresh inspiration for their professional development.

This is perhaps the real significance of food education. Just as pupils who visit a farm or do some gardening enjoy release from the constraints of the classroom and learn in new ways, so teachers can benefit too. In the natural world, or even in a factory or other workplace, teachers can relate to their pupils in new ways.

Different values are engaged in these settings, where educational achievement in the narrow sense is not the primary focus and instead exploration and curiosity are encouraged. There is a natural democracy too in gardening, farming and cookery which cuts through the individualism of modern life and encourages a more collective response.

Meanwhile, if those of us who have things to offer schools can ourselves learn to work cooperatively with an eye to the bigger picture rather than our own particular enthusiasms, we might help a new model of education to emerge.

models of cooperation

The talk is of culture change. But that calls for new structures to prompt different ways of working, and there are some encouraging models we could build on. The Pembrokeshire Outdoor Schools Scheme, for instance, brings together a wide partnership to get children learning outdoors, including farm visits and school gardens.  It  actively works with teachers to develop new approaches.

The Dyfi Biosphere Education Group does a similar job in the Machynlleth area (though it is currently without funding) while at a national level, the Real World Learning Cymru partnership is another route through which the interests of food production can be supported in schools.

Then we have the Healthy Schools Schemes, Eco Schools and other agencies that give schools valuable specialist help. But perhaps the most important source of support for food education is going to have to come from outside the already over-stretched education world.

We need businesses and community volunteers to step in. The food industry could tackle its skills shortage as well as supporting education by working more closely with schools. Other businesses can sponsor activities as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility. Grandparents and retired people can be key to keeping a school garden going.

There is a crucial role here for government in convening discussions locally, and in funding training and support for such new approaches.  That will cost. But we have to make it work somehow, because there are few things more fundamental than food, and if we get that right, the benefits spread far and wide.

The new curriculum and the Well-being of Future Generations Act both provide opportunities for joined-up local action that makes a difference. Let’s make the most of them.

Teaching children where their food comes from and why it really matters

This article was originally published by the Sustainable Food Trust

A class of seven-year-olds are making maps to show where their food comes from. Choosing suitable symbols, they mark their homes, the school dining room, the local cafes, chip shops and the supermarkets where their parents shop. The weave of their daily lives is revealed: the Saturday shop at Tesco followed by football practice, Sunday lunch at the pub, the family meal in the evening or maybe chips on the way home from school. Then they go a bit further up the food chain: where do these shops and cafes get their food from? It’s time for a discussion about farms and whether you can grow oranges in the UK.

The children soon realize how much they don’t know. They plan an enquiry into the matter, using the internet and interviews. A farmer comes in to answer their questions, and it’s then that the magic happens. Children are enthralled to find out that it might actually be someone’s job to grow potatoes, milk cows and drive tractors. They lap up not just the fascinating details – like the existence of machines for scratching the backs of cows and how the potato farmer buys his potatoes back from the supermarket in the spring because he doesn’t have cold storage on the farm and his own potatoes have started to sprout by the end of the winter – but also the generalities of what it feels like on the inside of farming. “What’s good about being a farmer?” “If you hadn’t decided to be a farmer, what job would you have chosen?” they ask more than once. He talks about being in the fresh air, caring for animals, sharpening his skills and deriving satisfaction from producing food that people need.

Without thinking about it, he is giving the children a lesson in values. This matters, because children are growing up in a world that endlessly gives them the message that happiness comes from earning lots of money, having the latest gadgets and wearing the right brands of clothes. The education system, meanwhile, is increasingly based on the notion that academic achievement is all that really matters, leading to an emphasis on the things that can be measured – numeracy rather than creativity, literacy rather than self-expression. Qualities like kindness and courage, literally, don’t count. This can create a dichotomy between success, status, money and security on the one hand, and generosity, community and connection with nature on the other, and it is worth a closer look at what is going on.

Research from social psychology collated by the Common Cause project, which aims to make compassionate values central to public life, reveals a complex picture. It shows that we all hold a broad range of values, many of them apparently contradictory, but all corresponding to a genuine need. Thus, success is an important value (if you doubt that, consider failure), but so is humility, in the sense of appreciating our dependence on others. Our brains however find it hard to hold both these values at once, and so we seesaw between them, depending on where we are and what we are doing. In the garden, cutting lettuce for dinner, it is easy to feel close to nature, but in the bright lights of the supermarket we easily forget that and look for a tasty bargain. Similarly, talking about money makes us selfish, while the story of a refugee child drowning can inspire an upsurge of generosity.

What does this mean for education? A fascinating experiment carried out at Cardiff University shows how excessive enthusiasm for academic success might have unintended consequences. The experimenters asked one group of people to sort through cards bearing words like ‘capable’ and ‘successful’, so that they were tuned into their desire for achievement, while another group sorted words associated with altruism, like ‘forgiveness’ and ‘helpful’. They were then given a puzzle to solve, and asked to help the experimenter with a task. The result was that the group that had been primed for achievement did better at solving the puzzle than the other group, but they also turned out to be less likely to help the experimenter. Could it be that pushing young people to pass exams will make them selfish?

Fortunately, good teachers – left to themselves – know how to guide children towards a more rounded view of life, helping them to widen their circle of concern from themselves and their friends to humanity in general and to nature and the planet. They see how the security of belonging to a family or nation can nurture their curiosity and give them the confidence to explore new worlds, coming up with fresh solutions to the challenges that humanity faces. They know that success is a wonderful thing, but it needs to be contextualised. Achievement should help children to develop self-respect and confidence, and to share their gifts with others; it should not be about becoming ever richer and more powerful at the expense of the planet. And that is where food education comes in – as an antidote to consumerism, targets and competition.

There is something inherently democratic about food. We are all equal in our need for it. Sitting around the table for a meal reminds us that we all deserve to eat, and that we have an obligation to ensure that others can too. Studying the food chain cuts through the notion that we are self-made individuals, and reminds us of our interdependence. Not only do we rely on a vast worldwide network of farmers, growers, supermarket shelf-stackers, cooks, bakers, abattoirs, vets, food scientists and lorry drivers to feed us three times a day, but we are all ultimately dependent on healthy soils, rainfall, sunshine, bees, worms and the rest of the biosphere to keep us alive. We cannot separate ourselves from this.

On a farm visit, children encounter the natural world, appreciating the compromise between human needs, animal welfare and wildlife. When they make the connection between farm animals and the food chain, or see the uncultivated margin around a cereal field where wildflowers and insects flourish, or learn how drought and flooding can destroy crops, they see the tough decisions that need to be made if we are to feed ourselves. Back in school, following crops such as broad beans and potatoes from seed to plate, they gain skills and confidence as they learn to partner with the rhythms of the seasons. The enthusiasm and earnestness with which some children will plant, weed and dig in the school garden suggests they are gaining something more necessary to them than exam results. Maybe it is because they sense their need for a deeper connection with nature, which according to the RSPB report Every Child in Nature is an important support for health, well-being and personal and social skills.

The school curriculum is notorious for its pendulum swings, from a prescriptive top-down approach to local autonomy, from narrow academic goals to a child-centred focus. Schools may yet be freed from the assumption that they exist to produce a skilled workforce that attracts inward investment, and instead be encouraged to embrace a wider more holistic vision of the education they provide. In Wales, a new curriculum arriving from 2018 balances academic achievement with ethical citizenship, creative expression and confidence, and offers hope of a fresh start in our schools. Until that time, food education should be embraced not just because of the contribution it can make to attainment but also for its moral basis. It’s time to give children a proper grounding in the interdependence of humans and nature, starting with the meals they eat three times a day.

Teaching children where their food comes from – A Pembrokeshire view

“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.

This article originally appeared on the Food Manifesto Wales website.

Schoolchildren, organic artichokes and soup

March 2015

Our Food Values project has been an opportunity to look in depth at how we get organic food messages across, and to find out what really resonates with people who, unlike us, don’t talk about it all day. What do they really care about? How can organic food meet those needs, and how do we communicate that?

In February we worked with two communities, one in Cardiff’s inner city districts of Adamsdown and Splott, and one in rural Gwynedd, around Penrhyndeudraeth. As you might expect, there were some striking differences in the sort of conversations that come up in those two areas, but there were many common experiences too, and the general theme of food as a means of building or maintaining community came across as a strong concern in both of them, whether we were talking Sudanese soup recipes, lobscows or school meals.

Both events involved the local primary schools. It’s interesting how a primary school draws a community together and becomes the focus of change and of hope for the future. This is where the next generation is being formed – so what do they think?

Cardiff soup twoIn Moorland School, Splott, I visited the school’s Eco Committee who were busy making soup to be served to the public the following day. A key ingredient was organic artichokes, sourced from Riverside Market Garden in the Vale of Glamorgan, and they excited a lot of comment, particularly for being hard to peel.

The next day I interviewed a group of 10-year-olds to find out what they thought was important when choosing foods. It was clear that the children had got the message about healthy eating, as most of them put that near the top. As one said, “If you are not really healthy you grow up really weak and tired and doing nothing, you have a really bad life”. But they had other concerns too, especially for fair trade and wildlife.

As another one put it: “We can’t only think about us. We need to think about other people as well or it won’t be fair because we’ve already got all the food and enough money to live,” and she went on to express a concern for wildlife and the need to be kind to animals.soup on the table

I think it’s fair to say that organic food was not something that they knew much about. It was clear though that they knew that some foods were better for them than others, and that they cared about doing good in the world and had some idea of what difference their food choices would make. It was encouraging to hear how seriously they were discussing their food, and with a hatching project and maybe a farm visit to come, they will be well on the way to being well informed food citizens.

After school, we met again outside St German’s Church in Adamsdown and local volunteers served the soup the children had made, alongside contributions from the church itself and a nearby synagogue. It was a cold day but the children were happy to sit outside, sharing soup with their parents and other visitors and drawing pictures. Among that cosmopolitan group, which included recent and not so recent immigrants from several continents, homeless people, long-term Cardiff residents and professional groups, the primary school and their soup, with its organic artichokes, were very much at home.