Teaching children about food is critical

Food and Biodiversity are now on the Education menu, after the Green Schools programme was awarded funding by Rethink Ireland, writes KATE RYAN, of Flavour.ie
Teaching children about food is critical

Michelle Darmody. 5/11/2018

RETHINK Ireland’s Innovate Together Fund announced €3 million in Awards for 51 Covid-19 Community Response Projects responding to the need for new solutions in the ‘new normal’ recently.

An Taisce’s Green-Schools programme received €45,000 for their new Food and Biodiversity theme.

Green-Schools Biodiversity Officer, Dr Meabh Boylan said: “Food education is critical. Some of the more obvious elements to consider from the environmental perspective include food miles, packaging and food waste. The benefits of food education, however, go far beyond reducing the environmental impact.”

Food: how it is made, where it is made, and how we consume it is becoming ever more important. The value of short and local food chains; making space, however small, for growing some of our food, and learning new tricks in the kitchen are important life skills as we continue to learn to live with Covid-19. These are issues which are no longer reserved for theoretical debate, instead proven to be essential and deserving a place on the educational curriculum for every child in the country.

And yet, while a child’s formative education focuses on learning to read, write, accomplish basic arithmetic and scientific theory, learning about food from plot to plate is not included on the standard curriculum. The irony is that food encompasses all of those skills, but unless children learn at the apron-strings of a parent or grandparent, they leave school with limited knowledge of the importance of food, how to grow it and how to cook it.

Michelle Darmody is a food-writer, chef, activist and researcher based in Dublin and originally from Cork. Driven by a sense of the importance of food as a social glue, environmental marker and educational tool, Michelle has been involved in progressive social movements where food is at the core, for example, Our Table which sought to end Direct Provision in Ireland facilitating “change through conversations over food.”

Michelle developed the Green-Schools Food and Biodiversity Flag as part of her PhD on Food Literacy, having a keen interest in improving the relationships Irish schools have with food.

“93% of schools nationwide participate in the Green-Flag programme,” says Michelle. “There are different themes, such as recycling, marine life, water etc, and each school completes each theme incrementally, so most schools will get to complete the two-year Food and Biodiversity Flag over the coming years in Cork and nationwide.”

The theme has completed a two-year pilot project prior to receiving funding news which will enable An Taisce to deliver the new theme through its Green-Schools programme for years to come.

“The pilot began with eight schools in Dublin. 45 schools came on board in 2020 and a further 65 will onboard by the end of October 2020 as part of a nationwide rollout,” explains Michelle.

“The programme is wide-ranging taking an expansive, hands-on approach to education. The first year of the programme focuses on local actions, including growing and eating food that is produced on the school grounds. Each school develops an edible garden with different class group cultivating different crops.

“The whole school creates a Food Habitat Map, and soil health and seed workshops are held by Green-Schools staff. The first year culminates with tasting and cooking workshops using the produce from the garden.

“The second year of the theme focuses more closely on global impacts of food while the growing aspect continues. Students explore the environmental problems associated with the global food system, investigating such topics as air miles and food packaging.

“A group of schools come together at the end of the year to share the ideas that have been generated by their global food projects and also to share the produce they grew and cooked in their school.”

The need to couch the learning experience of food with biodiversity is drawing on an ever-growing body of scientific research demonstrating the worrying rate of top soil waste and nutrient depletion, accompanied by projections of less than 100 harvests left to go before the soil is unable to keep up with a growing global population and concurrent demand for food production.

When our knowledge of where food comes from and how it is made is divorced from the everyday experience of the food we eat and the perceived abundance of it, such doomsday predictions seem coldly detached from our reality.

Linking the connected issues of food, environment and biodiversity in a constructive learning environment makes those issues real while equipping children with the knowledge, skills and tools to create a positive change.

“The funding we have received will allow us to provide cooking kits to participating schools. The kits contain chopping boards, graters, knives, a hotplate amongst other equipment.

“Children can use the equipment to practice skills during the cooking workshops, such as peeling, grating, knife safety and different chopping techniques. The award also allows for the continuous development of the Food and Biodiversity theme through the Green-Schools programme, as well as more funding for support workshops.”

Funding is an ongoing challenge. As part of the programme, schools must create an edible garden – if they don’t already have one. At Scoil Ursula N.S in Sligo, this meant fundraising through the Parents Association to purchase a polytunnel and connecting with the local Men’s Shed who built and painted the raised beds. There are challenges, but underpins the effort that goes in to producing food, whether at home or further afield.

So, what drives Michelle to do this work? Writing in Image magazine (September, 2019) about the Food and Biodiversity Flag in the first stage of the pilot scheme, it’s clear to see why; and anyone who has experienced lifting potatoes out of the soil only to eat them a few moments later will too.

“Digging into the earth with a group of junior infants, levering the fork to reveal the smooth pale potatoes underneath, elicits screams of excitement [from the children]. Watching the school children clamber to pick out the potatoes, counting them as they drop them into their buckets, shows how participating in creating our food influences how we see it and react to it.

“The teacher cooked the potatoes on a stove in the classroom and every one of them was eaten with glee. I have been involved in food education projects throughout my adult life; it has given me a sense of how important it is to instil this enjoyment and pleasure in eating at a young age.”

To find out more about the Global Citizen Food and Biodiversity Flag, Green-Schools and An Taisce, visit: www.greenschoolsireland.org

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