Every time a conference is organized to talk about the future of food, somebody will say to vigorous approval, “we have to teach children where there food comes from” and trot out an anecdote about cows laying eggs, or oranges growing in the UK. Then they will lament the demise of school cookery, the rise of computer games, childhood obesity and the ubiquity of supermarkets. And very often there will be a heart warming tale of a child discovering the magic of growing their own potatoes or seeing a lamb being born or being tricked into eating broccoli for the first time.
Everyone seems to be agreed on this, so why don’t we have a mass movement to get our young people growing, cooking and eating? True, there are many excellent projects in Wales, working at all levels to reconnect the population with its food. But there would be so much to be gained by joining them up so that the many pieces of this big puzzle all fit together.
Take procurement, for example. It is notoriously difficult for small-scale food producers to sell their produce to schools, because of the paperwork, the problems of getting enough volume and year-round supply, and the poor financial incentives. But research by the New Economics Foundation shows that every £1 spent on local procurement results in a benefit of £3 to the local economy, chiefly in the form of jobs. Meanwhile serving local free-range eggs, say, in the school canteen reinforces the messages that are going out in the classroom about food miles and animal welfare. All of this builds food relationships and arguably encourages healthier food choices, with savings to the health service.
That’s before we’ve looked at how healthy unprocessed food, eaten as part of a relaxed and sociable meal in school, makes for happier children who learn better, and how involving parents and grandparents in gardening and cookery draws the whole community together. And how an understanding of food and farming links us to our history – think of the leek, Welsh cakes, and all those sheep.
In England, the Food for Life programme led by the Soil Association was started more than ten years ago to see how schools could be the starting point for a food revolution. It gained momentum with a multimillion Lottery programme which worked with flagship schools to bring together proper food at mealtimes, local and organic sourcing and an imaginative education programme involving gardening, cookery and farm visits. The programme has been showered with enthusiastic evaluations. Head teachers tell stories of children who are happier in school and therefore behave and learn better, of parents who are keen to be involved in the school. School meal uptake rates have gone up, making kitchens profitable again.
Now that the original programme has finished, the public health departments of local councils are commissioning Food for Life programmes themselves, and so the work goes on. Meanwhile further Lottery funding has been found to explore how the Food for Life concept could be applied in hospitals and the workplace.
So what about Wales? All the elements of Food for Life are here already. Appetite for Life, introduced by the Welsh Government in 2008, sets standards for school meals and encourages a whole school approach to food education. Most schools have gardens, many do cookery, some go on farm visits and there are plenty of imaginative projects to develop children’s understanding of food through links to their local communities. Community gardens – a valuable source of support for school gardens – are flourishing. Now Cardiff is embarking on an exciting journey to become a Sustainable Food City.
There has also been exciting progress with procurement. Last year, Flintshire County Council became the first in Wales to hold the Soil Association Food for Life Catering Mark for its in-house school meals. That means for instance that at least 75 per cent of dishes are freshly prepared from unprocessed ingredients. They use eggs from cage-free hens, fish is sustainably sourced and they tell customers where the food comes from. Many Welsh universities also hold the Catering Mark, which is becoming the industry standard for sustainable procurement, and allows for a progression from Bronze to Silver and Gold, where caterers are rewarded for ethical and environmentally friendly food (including organic produce), championing local food producers and making healthy eating easier.
But we could do so much more. How about a national programme for schools, modelled on Food for Life but adapted for Wales, backed by government and local authorities and drawing in the farming sector, the Women’s Institutes, rugby clubs and museums? How about a mass movement to make Wales a Sustainable Food Nation?
Organic Centre Wales has recently released a video, Organic and local food in schools and colleges, which features some of the work going on in education now. We have been developing food education in Wales for over ten years and in 2010 we worked with the National Botanic Garden of Wales, the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens and the organisation Farming and Countryside Education on a conference to ask teachers what they thought.
The message was clear: food and farming education provides pupils with excellent opportunities for engagement and personal development, but teachers need more support and a whole-school approach is vital. Where shall we start?