Helping kids to grow their own food - Sow, Grow, Munch.

As someone who grows vegetables and helps others to grow them for their own restaurants I still get really excited by the freshness and flavour that comes from something that’s just picked, that can’t be bought.

Not only is it sustainable in terms of food miles, lowering our carbon footprint and encouraging biodiversity - it connects people to the land, their environment and more importantly where their food comes from. Our food system, and the ingredients that we use do not have to be as complicated as they have become.

Michael Kelly from GIY Ireland has a name for this – “food empathy” - a deeper understanding of food, where it comes from, how it is produced, and the time and effort required.

When a person who grows their own food engages with the food chain, they make different buying decisions as a result of their food empathy – they buy more seasonal, local and organic food - which can only be a good thing for our whole agri-food sector.

My guide to growing food in schools, Sow, Grow, Munch began as an idea following on from my work in developing a Restaurant Growing toolkit, commissioned by Belfast Food Network. I didn’t have much experience of working with children but, with hindsight, I’ve discovered that chefs and children are very similar, except that children don’t pretend to know everything and do ask lots more questions. I speak from experience, of course, as the wife of a chef!

I researched what resources were available online, I spoke to teachers, I saw lots of schools with raised beds and growing areas, many of them unused, unproductive and weed-ridden. Worse maybe, some were used, with the grown produce ending up on the compost heap.

I now know that lots of primary schools do not have kitchens, and that there are many really interested teachers who would love to grow veg with the children but didn’t know where to start. I know that time is an issue, that resources are very limited, and that gardening needed to be simplified and demystified, and linked back to diet and local food. To be given a value within the school, notwithstanding very committed teachers, growing food also needs to be relevant to the curriculum or an environmental initiative.

The school growing season is completely different. The things which chefs would want to grow are different from what a family might grow. They’re both different from what school children would be able to see – the tangible results from a season interrupted by two months of summer holidays. However, that is the challenge and the wonder of nature – there is so much that can fit, that will appeal to this target market.

2016 is the designated Year of Food and Drink in Northern Ireland and yet food poverty is a huge issue. Food poverty is not only about a shortage of food but about having the right things to eat; some children have an abundance of highly processed and nutritionally bereft food and suffer the effects of a poor diet..

I’ve tried to address this issue with simple recipes recipes; most of the ingredients can be bought in a corner shop, convenience store or supermarket. Cooking from scratch simply and quickly with raw ingredients and minimum effort can be very empowering for both parents and children. It can also save a lot of money. It’s about natural eating with basic ingredients which are grown locally, and are cheap, particularly in season. I make no apology for the use of butter, milk and cream, and never margarine!

I am completely indebted to my “magnificent seven” sponsors, local food industry companies and organisations who believed that food education was important enough to pay for design, print and some promotion. I am also grateful for the help, support and advice I received and continue to receive from people within the Belfast Food Network, including members of the Food in Schools Forum, ESDF, and CCEA.

I hope that Sow, Grow, Munch achieves its aim of being a how-to guide for schools, children, teachers, parents, educators and community groups - for anyone who ever thought that they might like to grow their own fruit and vegetables. It’s a starting point for what could be a fantastic and fun food journey.

As it says in Sow, Grow, Munch, we owe it to our children to at least inform them in simple terms where their food comes from, who produces it, how it is produced and give them enough knowledge to inform their food choices through life.

To download a copy of Sow, Grow, Munch, click here.

Jilly Dougan