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Green fingers grow green minds

Camilla Scaramanga

Camilla Scaramanga takes a look at how growing food in schools is having a positive impact on children, teachers, parents and wider society.......

"If you listen to nature, you are so inspired; you don't have to listen - the garden encourages you to listen, to all of the wildlife ... the sounds of the birds" says Eloise, 13, who has returned to Pooles Park Primary School for its garden open day. Like a good secret, it's tucked behind the opening of a high wall in a Hackney street, with a profusion of natural beauty providing a startling relief from the urban sprawl - once inside, all of the brick, dust and tarmac are forgotten.

Food growing in schools has been shown to improve academic results and life skills, and looks set to become part of the curriculum starting from September 2014. It also improves health and well-being by encouraging children to eat the fruit and vegetables they're growing.

Advocates of learning outside the classroom believe it allows children to discover their own love for, and ensuing curiosity about, nature. It seems they all have the capacity to become its star pupils, and this improves their attitude to learning in general. Children I spoke to were striking in their environmental awareness and love for nature.

Pooles Park Primary School is a Food for Life Partnership school, and has just won the best School Community Initiative at this year's Soil Association Organic Foods Awards. It is one of the 4,500 schools enrolled on the Food for Life Partnership plan (FFLP), which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. In 2006, the FFLP obtained a £16.9 million Big Lottery Fund grant, with which they launched their healthy food programme, supplemented earlier this year by a further £3.6 million.

Twice as many schools received an OFSTED rating after working with the Food for Life partnership and, over a two year period of evaluation (2007/8-2009/10) free school meal intake in FFLP schools went up by an average of 13%. Unique in its whole school approach, it's been recommended by the School Food Plan, organised by Leon restaurant owners, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent. In July, the School Food Plan was awarded a £16.1m commission by the Government to increase school meal take-up over the next two years.

Libby Grundy, Director of Food For Life, says "Instead of seeing growing and gardening as something peripheral, actually what the School Food Plan recognises is that within the whole school approach, issues around food, cooking and growing can be at the heart of the school, and all areas of the curriculum can be taught in relation to food whether it's history, science, or geography. You can bring food and cooking and growing into all areas of teaching."

FFLP operates its own food standard scheme, awarding kitchens that meet its food procurement and sourcing criteria a silver, bronze or gold award. The Royal Horticultural Society runs a similar benchmark scheme for gardening. It launched its Campaign for School Gardening in 2007, through which it has involved 17,250 schools in the UK.

There are several food growing and healthy eating initiatives, all concurring in their positive results for children, and they have recently merged for a new London project, which has just been awarded £804,994 by the Big Lottery Fund. The new partnership led by Garden Organic includes the RHS, GLA, Sustains Capital Growth project, Food for Life Partnership and Morrison's ‘Let's Grow' campaign. The aim is to get every school in London growing food.

Sophia Ioannou, Head Gardening Educator at Pooles Park, has over ten years directed the transformation of a blank space into a veritable cornucopia. There is a global food garden with fruit and vegetables from all over the world, a greenhouse growing chilies, aubergines and okra, and a mini trained fruit orchard lining one wall. They have a chicken coop housing some ex battery hens, a mini-woodland, native hedgerows, wildflower meadows, and an earth oven that the children made themselves, in which they baked the potatoes they had grown in the garden. That day an adult Italian volunteer made pizza!

Sophia says "The children grow up with a respect for nature. It is a natural instinct in all human beings to nurture and cultivate, and most of us grow up in cities and we don't have that opportunity, so we grow up detached from that. Then we are less likely to have respect and to live in harmony with nature. If you introduce children to insects from a young age, they are never afraid of them. If they grow up to respect the tiniest creatures, they'll grow up to respect the bigger ones, and they will respect each other."

This is apt in the advent of cyber-bullying, as well as increased child on child violence and sexual violence. Many see the innocence of children under fire by online pornography, TV and film violence, and aggressive marketing techniques; others say that cyber games, in rewarding violence, incite it. If some aspects of the internet invoke the worst, it could be that the garden invites our better selves. The NSPCC's exhibition at the RHS Chelsea flower show this year was the "Garden of Magical Childhood", which aimed "to encourage the preciousness and potential of childhood and what we wish to leave as a legacy for all children."

All young children love nature, and are open and receptive to its magic in a way that is lost as we grow older. That natural openness and receptivity can be galvanized for good or ill. The Romantics believed that on a deeper level, nature serves as a reminder of children's essential innocence and beauty. If so, children need to connect to it now, more than ever. "There is a kind of magic; I don't know what kind of magic it is, but they'll just relax in a way that they don't feel they can with adults in a classroom situation" says Sara Ladkani, trainee gardening tutor at Pooles Park.

The verdict of various research domains is unanimous. One of the largest was commissioned in 2012 by DEFRA, the Food Growing in Schools 25 member Taskforce chaired by Myles Bremner, Chief Executive of Garden Organic; it referenced research carried out by the RHS in 2010. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) looked at 1,300 primary and secondary schools, and found it to be beneficial in myriad ways, including better academic results, enhanced health and well being, a marked improvement in children's behaviour, and greater environmental awareness.

It has also been shown to give them a greater sense of responsibility. Sara says "Children live in situations where they have absolutely no impact on their space. To give them a space where they have practical involvement in changing, designing, maintaining, and developing, is a tremendous responsibility and can be really exciting."

At Pooles Park, an environmental weekly rota written in bright chalk on a board gave children different jobs to do, with such titles as "Sunflower square monitors, wildlife watching monitors, greenhouse monitors, recycling/landfill monitors." Former pupil, Christian, 13, tells me he was head chicken coop monitor, and speaks of them with pride. "Every Monday and Friday I really looked forward to looking after the hens. We took our eggs to be used in the school kitchen". He describes gardening as "a constructive way of spending time. You can stand back afterwards and say, yes I did that, I planted those potatoes, I grew those tomatoes, you can show all your friends, you can feel proud of it, and not only that, you can eat it afterwards."

Do you know what a cob oven is? Christian explains to me that it is made out of 100% recyclable material, that is, glass bottles, straw, sand, clay, metal, and fire bricks; "good for releasing heat" he informs me. Unlike a conventional oven or barbeque, the fire is lit before the food is put in. Once the fire has burnt out after an hour, the fire bricks would have absorbed its heat, and re-release it, making a very hot oven.

I was quite awed by these children's depth of knowledge and expertise of which I was so woefully bereft! Research has shown that gardening spurs environmental awareness in children. Sophia says "If they don't interact with nature, they don't know it. They hear on the news that we are destroying the planet but we don't actually know what they are destroying it for." 

Christian has become a keen environmentalist since he took up gardening, aged 5. As well as inspiring his mother to grow and eat vegetables, which she now does on their balcony, he has converted her to environmentalism. They both speak with eloquent vim of renewable energy sources, including hydroelectric, wind turbines and solar.

"If you use all the renewable energy sources in tandem, with nuclear on standby, we will have enough energy to sustain ourselves ..." Christian remarks, matter-of-factly. His mother, Trudi says; "When I was younger, I didn't think about the environment at all. It was coming here that really inspired us. Also, having a child makes you think about the future and what you are leaving on the planet for your children. You want them to be able to sit in the garden and eat fresh vegetables."

Research also shows that gardening improves the health and well being of children, as they are more inclined to eat the food that they tend, grow and harvest. Libby Grundy saw this in a little boy who came to a school lunch and sat down next to her. "The first thing he said to me was 'Have you ever smelled a celery, Miss?' When you are just eating out of packets and tins and processed foods, you never get the opportunity to taste or smell something as good as a freshly picked vegetable or fruit."

This addresses the growing epidemic of obesity in children, which has risen from 6% in 1980 to 27% today. Almost 20% of children are obese by the time they leave primary school (FAB). The government's obesity strategy found "overweight and obesity represent probably the most widespread threat to health and well being in this country"

Although FFLP saw an uptake in their school meals, across the UK, the general take up of school food remains low. 57% of children take packed lunches, or buy something outside, which is invariably unhealthy. Only 1% of packed lunches contain the required nutrition (Food and Behaviour research, 12 July 2013, Gov UK - The School Food Plan).

Jamie Oliver addressed this with his healthy school lunches, which resulted in a measurable improvement in children's academic results where the healthier food was eaten. A separate survey showed children spent on average more than a whole day a week on sofa-bound activities. Other studies found that children spent 10 times as long watching TV as playing outside.

In his book, Last Child in The Woods, Richard Louv pointed out that for thousands of years, children had played outdoors, and the sudden exchange for electronic screens and excessive time indoors has deprived them of essential nourishment. He cited the Biophilia hypothesis of entomologist, Edward O. Wilson, which asserts humans' innate affinity with nature. Louv noted a decline in the use of national parks in the US, corresponding to the increased use of computers.

In the UK, Margaret Morrisey of the lobby group, Parents Outloud, blamed the creation of new housing estates without green spaces for children to play in. Parents say that it's not safe to let children play in the streets, owing to increased traffic, as well as the danger of child abduction. Judging from the evidence of children's response to nature, it's green spaces rather than streets that they need.

Louv coined the condition "nature deficit disorder" (NDD), and claimed that "Kids who don't get nature time seem more prone to anxiety, depression and attention deficit problems." Research on ADD at the University of Illinois showed that a small amount of exposure to nature reduced ADD symptoms - even in children as young as five. Food for Life cited similar findings in Faber Taylor et al. (2001) which found outdoor activities improved symptoms of ADD by 30%. While Sara Ladkani describes herself as a huge advocate of technology and its positive impact on society and human lives, she says "I also find it sad that children don't have enough access to the outdoors, and don't have involvement with or awareness of what is real."

The benefits of working in the garden concur, whatever the school's particular ethos. Steiner schools emphasise the environment in their teaching. Eden Russell, now in his first year at secondary school, went to Lancaster Steiner School in the city. His mother, Julia says it had a big impact on her son. "He is very aware of nature at many different levels, especially the seasons, weather and different environmental habitats. He shows a great interest in the wider natural worlds and expresses concern about projects that threaten habitats and such. From the gardening experience, he is very aware of where food comes from, of how long different plants take to grow, which food plants grow easily, which ones need a lot of attention, and how much hard work it can be weeding etc."

With its changing weather patterns, failed crops or insect damage, the garden requires flexibility. Children are compelled to think on the spot and use their initiative - which, the RHS points out, is very good preparation for the pressures of modern working life. It also shows that hard work leads to later blossoming.

Julia says, ‘Gardening is certainly a lesson in delayed gratification (as opposed to so much else in our ‘immediate' society) and this is a lesson which transfers back into the classroom and can be applied to all learning. They learn that things take time. They put roots in over the winter, and wait for it to grow, then don't harvest it until Spring. They also see that it takes hard work to get something. And you can't force it - you can water it, and put compost on it, and hope that helps, but nature has its own timescale.'

Gardening in schools has been shown to foster entrepreneurship in children, and there are several thriving Farmers Market schemes already taking place. The Soil Association's London Farm Academy programme is a 3 year project concerning 15 London schools, involving local farmers and the community. The RHS schools set up a scheme with Waitrose, which opens its car park for schools to set up stalls, at which they sell the vegetables they have been growing. Charlton Manor School started a small business selling the food it grew. It also has a beehive and sells its own honey, and a small tuck shop that sells vegetables it has grown to the parents and communities. At Orford Primary School children sold their lettuces to the local pub, and made £200 for the school.

Sara Ladkani says "These children become entrepreneurs in a way that is beneficial to the environment and their community. They are not making money off selling plastic toys made in China. They are realising you can make money by doing good, by doing something of value that not only feeds the community that you are in, and embellishes your environment and the area that you live in, but that feeds you and nurtures you - your tummy and your soul!"

This way of working feeds into social entrepreneurship and corporate social responsibility (CSR), a way of doing business sustainably. CSR has taken off in a lot of organisations. Sara has seen a lot of creative methods of CSR out there, and believes the changing business environment is happening because of initiatives such as these in schools. She believes that children are more aware of doing good, and that gardening encourages the part of them which is empathetic, sensitive and altruistic.

School gardening can serve to embrace members of the community estranged by their age. Age UK are doing a pilot with the Soil Association in which elderly members of the community are brought in to share their often extensive gardening knowledge with children.

Libby Grundy says "This is addressing social isolation issues of many older people in the community, and they are community assets, with the ability to cook, and years of food growing experience and running allotments, many have fabulous vegetable gardens - so it's a match made in heaven, really. It addresses what we know of the older disconnection from society."

Gardening is evidently a subject much-loved by pupils. The garden is filled during the lunch break with children carrying out tasks they had volunteered to do, such as cleaning out the hens, watering the greenhouse, or even registering readings from the solar panels on the roof. As well as children, schools involve the community through volunteering days over the holidays, and the uptake is phenomenal.

So what are the tools that a school needs in order to succeed in promoting healthy eating and food growing? All agree that it is vital to have head teachers and teachers supporting the project. The garden school needs a trained horticulturalist, who will also be in charge of project management. It needs non-teaching staff, such as the site manager (caretaker) who will help out with construction, and give access to the garden at any time.

Garden Organic, the Soil Association and the RHS emphasise the need to make food growing part of the whole school ethos, and to integrate it into the lessons. Resources are required in the form of support from community, voluntary and business organisations. Many schools do not pay their gardening teachers. Sara and Sophia are paid by one of the schools they work with out of the school budget, and garner funding for teaching hours at other schools by applying to various charities, such as Awards for All, or the Ernest Cook Trust. 

If you want to start your own food growing, or get involved with gardening, you could look at the training courses available at Capital Growth, the RHS, or Kew Gardens. Pooles Park School opens up the garden to the community over the holidays, and has volunteer days. Community Service Volunteers, (CSV) organise regular events in tandem with schools.

Camilla Scaramanga is a freelance journalist and has worked as a teacher in schools, and as a gardener.

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