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If you ask people working within food and farming what changes they would like to see, almost everyone will put “education” in their top three. Some say that young people need to understand the reality of farming, or that cooking needs to be in the curriculum; others say that we all need to understand the long term effects of cheap food.

The FFCC teamed up with Food For Life and BITC Scotland to arrange visits to four schools in England and Scotland. Speaking with over 100 students between the ages of 4 and 12, fourteen teachers, six catering staff and one procurement manager, I wanted to understand how we think about food, teach food and interact with food through school.

1. Our mental image of farming is formed young and doesn’t shift

People have an image about the reality of farming. It’s a picture lifted from a story book, or more cynically, a marketing image. Old MacDonald had a farm and had his picture taken for product packaging. In fact, a farmer I spoke to in Shropshire told me that the only time he wears dungarees is when the supermarket teams come to photograph him.

This image prevails as our cultural image of farming. I spoke with a group of nursery-aged children and images of farms with one male farmer, one pig, one cow and one chicken were clear in their heads. I spoke with primary school aged children and almost the same picture was in theirs, though the farms had a few more animals. And the same image prevailed with teachers, though specialisation was more recognised. For students and teachers alike, the image was romantic - a simple, rewarding life outdoors with animals and crops.

Students told me about farming as a way to be “outside in the wild”, “walking around the countryside working with animals”. None recognised the highly technical nature and depth of knowledge required. None recognised the administrative and marketing skills required. None of the children that I spoke to understood industrial farming systems such as intensively reared livestock. And some teachers were eager to protect children from this image, explaining the idea in a way that made it seem improbable.

2. Kids think their parents don’t want them to be farmers

Within this sample of students I observed a clear trend: as students grew older, they had less interest in farming as a career choice. Across the schools I visited, children of about 7 years old were quite evenly split when asked “Do you want to be a farmer when you grow up?”. When I asked students of 11-12 years of age the same question, the response was a resounding “No”, not a single student of this age that I met was interested in being a farmer. Most of the time, when asked why, a student would say “My parents don’t want me to be a farmer”. I asked if other students in the class thought this was true for them and over 80% of students raised their hands.

Whether students have literally had conversations at home with their parents that explore this idea or not, I cannot know. But this does speak to a deeper and shared cultural understanding that farming is not an occupation to be aspired to. Students said things like “I want to do something smarter” and “I want a job that pays well”. People within the industry know that “farming has an image problem” but it is interesting to observe the ways in which we internalise this image from a young age, at the very beginning of our transition from child to adult.

3. Young people eat more diverse diets than a few decades ago

A group at one primary school made a campaign to encourage kids to “eat more exotically”. This group clearly valued eating a wide range of unusual and interesting foods actually made life more fun and interesting, and they felt the importance of encouraging children to do exactly that. This attitude was even more evident in the kitchens.

It was interesting to see the range of foods on the school menu include burritos, samosas and curries. This is a very different menu from the time that I was at school and the teachers remarked on the dramatic change in the menu over the time they’d been teaching. “Diets have changed. Most kids will have Indian takeaway at home once a week. That’s normal now.” “Kids travel more and are more exposed to different foods. They all watch Bake-off and TV has made it more accessible.” “And supermarkets - food is so much cheaper now so it is less risky to try different things. This has made it easier for families to include more diverse foods.”

4. Lunch culture matters

I ate in two of the schools that I visited, and they were worlds apart in terms of experience. One school put a large and conscious effort into the experience at lunch times. Dinner halls were calm and relaxing. They replaced large clanky tables with quiet ones. They gave older students the responsibility to help younger students with cutlery. They offered a lunch that could be eaten outside, such that students had the flexibility to have school meals AND eat with their friends on a sunny day. They offered unusual dishes on a small spoon so that students could have a taste. “When choosing at the start of the day what you want for lunch there is a big incentive for children to choose things they know they like, rather than taking a risk on things they might not. So we offer foods on a spoon to try. Then if they like it they know for next time.”

This was in steep contrast to another school in which the lunch hall was full of loud sounds and clashes, and the students were separated depending on whether they had a school meal or not. This led to most students not taking school meals, which in turn led to a segregation between children on free school meals and those not. The lunchtime at this school was loud, stressful and chaotic. I left the hall feeling agitated.

The headteacher of the first school was very clear about the importance of a calm dinner environment. “I made a lot of changes when I arrived at this school to make lunch a calm experience, with good quality food. And it seems to have worked. When I arrived year two students would all eat school meals and by year six almost none were. Now almost all the students eat school meals right through until they leave.” “The teachers noticed when we first started making changes. The students’ concentration improved in the afternoons.”

It came through clearly in each of my visits that healthy food was already part of these children’s education. Students knew what foods were and were not healthy and teachers cared about ensuring this was part of their education. Teachers were doing amazing things with the resources and time available, but the nuance and complexity of food and farming was lost not just to students but to many of the teachers too. When it comes to education on food and farming, perhaps adults have as much to learn as young people.

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