Gardening and growing is the foundation of food education!
by Hans Wieland
Food education is on everyone’s agenda: From Jamie Oliver to Bord Bia’s Food Dudes programme, from the Irish Restaurants Association to Food on the Edge, from Weight Watchers to Slow Food, from the Taste Council to Tesco, from the Irish Food Writers Guild to GIY.
JP McMahon, curator of Food on the Edge says: “Food is as important as maths. We need a food subject that takes in agriculture, farming, science, geography and history.”
There are numerous initiatives to equip children with food and nutrition education in the kitchen and in the classroom to empower them with lifelong skills. Research on food education has proven that knowledge about food and nutrition increases children’s fruit and vegetable consumption.
The reach and effectiveness of these initiatives varies greatly. At primary level, food education happens through SPHE and includes a range of programmes. One of these, Bord Bia’s Food Dudes programme, which encourages children to try fruit and vegetables, now has a very wide reach.
In secondary schools, food education is primarily covered in home economics, biology, and SPHE, along with some transition year programmes.
What is very often missing in these initiatives is that food grows in soil and starts with a seed. I strongly believe that real food education starts with an edible school garden in every school. Only if we make the connection from healthy soil full of nutrients for vegetables to grow to healthy food full of nutrients for us to eat, real change will happen. Developing organic school gardens as living classrooms are an absolute necessity.
Benefits of gardening for children
Gardening can provide multi-faceted educational benefits for children including life skills, developing an understanding and appreciation of where our food comes from, working cooperatively with others as well as assisting in academic achievement. Best of all is that gardening activities can be integrated into all areas of the school curriculum, making learning more meaningful. The development of numeracy, literacy, languages and an understanding of natural science and the importance of biodiversity are all supported by a school garden.
In fact one of the reasons why organic gardens in schools have become more and more popular in recent years is it makes teaching interesting and fun. It gives children a different learning environment and allows teaching in a practical and inexpensive way.
Eat your greens made easy
The word is that participating children love the gardening sessions, while parents see the positive effect it has on the children. In light of recent debate on obesity in children and the effects of junk food in schools, gardening is one way of getting out of the classroom for some exercise and fresh air.
One parent whose children have helped to grow a school garden in Belleek in Co. Fermanagh told me: “As a father of four young children I know how difficult it can be to put something healthy on the table and I have noticed that my children are more inclined to eat what they have grown.”
This anecdotal evidence is backed up by numerous researches and studies providing overwhelming evidence that school gardening programmes are influencing healthy diet choices amongst children and result in a greater understanding of healthy eating. Statistics from Sweden show that children who were taught at least some of the time outdoors were healthier, better adjusted and performed an average of 25 per cent better academically than those taught solely indoors in conventional classrooms
Putting back the wild in the child
With his book “Go wild at school”, published in 1996, teacher and environmentalist Paddy Madden had set the foundation to school gardening in Ireland: “Even if you only have a scrap of outdoor space in an inner city school, there is scope for a wild garden.” Since then Paddy has overseen the return of traditional Irish hedgerows, woodland areas, ponds, vegetable gardens and other wild habitats to school yards.
“The trick is to make gardening fun and do interesting things”, says Ciara Barrett, who works as a school gardener with The Organic Centre. Children enjoy seeing the direct relationship between their actions and the final result. “Seed sowing is a great opportunity to combine theory and practical teaching about how plants grow. When they sow a bean and it germinates in ten days, then they follow the plant at each stage,” Ciara continues.
The Global context
An organic school garden directly links positive local action with global environmental issues. Carbon footprints, Fair Trade, sustainability, food security and food miles can all be examined through the medium school garden.
“The lessons to be learned in a ‘garden’ can provide us with a better understanding for what it takes to create a ‘paradise’. It may be the difference between living and surviving.” (A.G.Kawamura)
To move food education forward in 2018 we will offer free gardening classes for families at The Organic Centre on 4 Sunday afternoons, see www.theorganiccentre.ie for details.