Teaching children where their food comes from and why it really matters

This article was originally published by the Sustainable Food Trust

A class of seven-year-olds are making maps to show where their food comes from. Choosing suitable symbols, they mark their homes, the school dining room, the local cafes, chip shops and the supermarkets where their parents shop. The weave of their daily lives is revealed: the Saturday shop at Tesco followed by football practice, Sunday lunch at the pub, the family meal in the evening or maybe chips on the way home from school. Then they go a bit further up the food chain: where do these shops and cafes get their food from? It’s time for a discussion about farms and whether you can grow oranges in the UK.

The children soon realize how much they don’t know. They plan an enquiry into the matter, using the internet and interviews. A farmer comes in to answer their questions, and it’s then that the magic happens. Children are enthralled to find out that it might actually be someone’s job to grow potatoes, milk cows and drive tractors. They lap up not just the fascinating details – like the existence of machines for scratching the backs of cows and how the potato farmer buys his potatoes back from the supermarket in the spring because he doesn’t have cold storage on the farm and his own potatoes have started to sprout by the end of the winter – but also the generalities of what it feels like on the inside of farming. “What’s good about being a farmer?” “If you hadn’t decided to be a farmer, what job would you have chosen?” they ask more than once. He talks about being in the fresh air, caring for animals, sharpening his skills and deriving satisfaction from producing food that people need.

Without thinking about it, he is giving the children a lesson in values. This matters, because children are growing up in a world that endlessly gives them the message that happiness comes from earning lots of money, having the latest gadgets and wearing the right brands of clothes. The education system, meanwhile, is increasingly based on the notion that academic achievement is all that really matters, leading to an emphasis on the things that can be measured – numeracy rather than creativity, literacy rather than self-expression. Qualities like kindness and courage, literally, don’t count. This can create a dichotomy between success, status, money and security on the one hand, and generosity, community and connection with nature on the other, and it is worth a closer look at what is going on.

Research from social psychology collated by the Common Cause project, which aims to make compassionate values central to public life, reveals a complex picture. It shows that we all hold a broad range of values, many of them apparently contradictory, but all corresponding to a genuine need. Thus, success is an important value (if you doubt that, consider failure), but so is humility, in the sense of appreciating our dependence on others. Our brains however find it hard to hold both these values at once, and so we seesaw between them, depending on where we are and what we are doing. In the garden, cutting lettuce for dinner, it is easy to feel close to nature, but in the bright lights of the supermarket we easily forget that and look for a tasty bargain. Similarly, talking about money makes us selfish, while the story of a refugee child drowning can inspire an upsurge of generosity.

What does this mean for education? A fascinating experiment carried out at Cardiff University shows how excessive enthusiasm for academic success might have unintended consequences. The experimenters asked one group of people to sort through cards bearing words like ‘capable’ and ‘successful’, so that they were tuned into their desire for achievement, while another group sorted words associated with altruism, like ‘forgiveness’ and ‘helpful’. They were then given a puzzle to solve, and asked to help the experimenter with a task. The result was that the group that had been primed for achievement did better at solving the puzzle than the other group, but they also turned out to be less likely to help the experimenter. Could it be that pushing young people to pass exams will make them selfish?

Fortunately, good teachers – left to themselves – know how to guide children towards a more rounded view of life, helping them to widen their circle of concern from themselves and their friends to humanity in general and to nature and the planet. They see how the security of belonging to a family or nation can nurture their curiosity and give them the confidence to explore new worlds, coming up with fresh solutions to the challenges that humanity faces. They know that success is a wonderful thing, but it needs to be contextualised. Achievement should help children to develop self-respect and confidence, and to share their gifts with others; it should not be about becoming ever richer and more powerful at the expense of the planet. And that is where food education comes in – as an antidote to consumerism, targets and competition.

There is something inherently democratic about food. We are all equal in our need for it. Sitting around the table for a meal reminds us that we all deserve to eat, and that we have an obligation to ensure that others can too. Studying the food chain cuts through the notion that we are self-made individuals, and reminds us of our interdependence. Not only do we rely on a vast worldwide network of farmers, growers, supermarket shelf-stackers, cooks, bakers, abattoirs, vets, food scientists and lorry drivers to feed us three times a day, but we are all ultimately dependent on healthy soils, rainfall, sunshine, bees, worms and the rest of the biosphere to keep us alive. We cannot separate ourselves from this.

On a farm visit, children encounter the natural world, appreciating the compromise between human needs, animal welfare and wildlife. When they make the connection between farm animals and the food chain, or see the uncultivated margin around a cereal field where wildflowers and insects flourish, or learn how drought and flooding can destroy crops, they see the tough decisions that need to be made if we are to feed ourselves. Back in school, following crops such as broad beans and potatoes from seed to plate, they gain skills and confidence as they learn to partner with the rhythms of the seasons. The enthusiasm and earnestness with which some children will plant, weed and dig in the school garden suggests they are gaining something more necessary to them than exam results. Maybe it is because they sense their need for a deeper connection with nature, which according to the RSPB report Every Child in Nature is an important support for health, well-being and personal and social skills.

The school curriculum is notorious for its pendulum swings, from a prescriptive top-down approach to local autonomy, from narrow academic goals to a child-centred focus. Schools may yet be freed from the assumption that they exist to produce a skilled workforce that attracts inward investment, and instead be encouraged to embrace a wider more holistic vision of the education they provide. In Wales, a new curriculum arriving from 2018 balances academic achievement with ethical citizenship, creative expression and confidence, and offers hope of a fresh start in our schools. Until that time, food education should be embraced not just because of the contribution it can make to attainment but also for its moral basis. It’s time to give children a proper grounding in the interdependence of humans and nature, starting with the meals they eat three times a day.

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Food Values: going deeper

rspb tent.jpg

Dr Sophie Wynne-Jones of Bangor University, at the Royal Welsh Show

We’ve just finished another round of Food Values, this time supported by Bangor University under the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account. This time we wanted to explore how food values play out in different settings, and to see how a focus on values can stimulate new approaches to the food system. We ran four events in the spring and summer: a training for Welsh Government civil servants, with an exploration of how food works across departments and the possibilities under the Well-being of Future Generations Act; an event in Aberystwyth to support the distribution of surplus food by supermarkets and community groups; another at the Royal Welsh Show working with the RSPB to find out what farmers care about; and one in Cardiff to look at equalities and social care. You can read about some of these events on the Food Values blog or on Twitter under #foodvalues.

We have also been to other people’s events, and we have had many conversations during the course of the project. From this, some themes have emerged. One is how inspiring it can be to get in touch with our own values. Often we find ourselves working or studying in settings which do not entirely reflect what we care about, for instance being focused on money and achievement, rather than kindness or care for the environment. This mismatch leads to a sense of struggle and uncertainty about what we are supposed to be doing, but once we have seen the contradictions it is possible to work with them more skilfully, and several of the food activists we have worked with have told us how transformative the values approach has been for them. Knowledge is power!

Another is how shared values can help us find common ground across divides of sector or ideology. Farming and wildlife are often pitted against each other, for instance, and yet producing food while maintaining a flourishing ecosystem is in everyone’s interests. Once we get down to the fundamentals of care for the land and care for people, it turns out that there is much that we can agree on, which gives us a better basis for sorting out the details. As we come to terms with Brexit, we need approaches like this which will give us the confidence to face our divisions, knowing that we can find common ground through shared values, if we are able to go deep enough.

A third theme has to do with balance. The values research shows how we tend to seesaw between caring about our own security and wanting the well-being of others. We live in society where we are exposed to constant advertising, shopping opportunities and celebrity culture, and where concerns about the economy and national security dominate public debate, making it hard to talk about compassion, care for the environment and traditional values. Food education has a role in bringing us all around the table, literally, for an experience of our shared humanity. It is a way into culture, health, social justice, care for the environment and global citizenship, counterbalancing the dominant story of the profit motive  and individual success.

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Soup made from surplus food at Aberystwyth

More than that, we can aspire to go beyond the binary view of the seesaw, which is only a limitation of our psychology and not a fact about the real world. It is perfectly possible – though maybe not easy – to be wealthy and powerful and at the same time to be actively working towards human happiness. Businesses have a huge contribution to make in creating a better world, if only we can see them in terms of the work they do rather than the money they make. Similarly, it is possible to value our traditional culture, seeking to understand the contribution of earlier generations, and to be forward-thinking and creative at the same time. We need more stories that will lift us out of our either/or mindset and show us what’s possible.

The Food Values project has not so far engaged much with food in schools, but maybe it’s time to bring this work to the classroom. What values are young people absorbing through the food system as it is now, and how might that change? What would food education look like, if it reflected the full range of human values and intelligence?

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Food Values: the conclusion

On 3 June in Cardiff we held the final conference of the Food Values project. At the conference, which drew together some 50 people from health, education and other food backgrounds and presented our findings, drawn from analysis of five food events held around Wales. We also used the conference to launch a conversation about food in Wales, by inviting people to contribute to a Food Manifesto. There’s a report of the day here.

The message of the project was that food has a lot of meaning for people, and especially that in ordinary life we see it as a source of pleasure and connection with others, with strong links to family and culture. We do not ultimately see it as merely a commodity that can be traded like any other, and yet that is the way our food system tends to work, treating us as consumers who respond to low prices and pretty packaging.

intergenerational learning in north Wales

intergenerational learning in north Wales

The idea of the Food Manifesto conversation is to ask people what they really want, and not to be afraid to challenge the notion that it’s all about prices and profit. In fact, people are concerned that everyone should have access to good food, and that we should know where our food comes from, and that food skills such as cooking and growing should be transmitted down the generations – they told us this again and again.

So how have we ended up with a food system which is so different from the one many of us want, and that is so far from being sustainable? There are many reasons for that, but one way of looking at it is that our wish for community, equality and balance with nature is very easily drowned out by our craving for individual security and status, expressed as the profit motive, the consumer society and so on.

This is where education comes in, as a means of widening our perspective and putting us back in touch with those universalist values which lead us to set our individual concerns aside and think of others. A shared meal, over which people can talk about food, their communities, their lives and hopes, does seem to be a powerful means of transforming consciousness, engaging and strengthening values of benevolence, kindness and equality while also carrying out a very practical and necessary activity – eating.

The Food Values report, policy analysis, case studies and other materials are available here and the Food Manifesto is at foodmanifesto.wales or maniffestobwyd.cymru.

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Food Values: the first seminar

By Sophie Wynne-Jonessquash

On the 17th September 2014 we held the first in a series of seminars as part of a nine-month action-research project on Values and Food Education, which is a collaboration between myself in DGES and Jane Powell from the Organic Centre Wales (OCW). The seminar was intended as an interactive, ideas generating session to inform future educational events, asking:

How can a values approach inform the delivery of successful food education events?

At the end of the year we intend to produce a ‘tool-kit’ of good-practice for educationalists working in food sustainability, including useful and meaningful metrics to measure the success of events and education programmes. Today we started that journey by sharing some exemplars of good practice, and considered the educational and social psychology behind these different approaches.

Previous approaches to OCW food events have been grounded in educational theory: emphasising experiential approaches to learning and acknowledging the different dimensions of learning from the individual to the collective, subjective to objective (see the approach described here). Through this project we hope to augment this basis for our work by considering the implications of a values-based approach to education and social change.

To do this, we are working with the Public Interest Research Centre to draw on their experience of values through the Common Cause approach. Their positioning paper sets out some key starting points for our project and the discussion of the seminar.

What Next?
Over the next nine months we will host a series of food education events working with partners across Wales. These events will run in an action learning cycle with academic seminars designed to evaluate and inform the educational approach taken at the events. Our next seminar will be held in January; please contact me (Sophie Wynne-Jones) if you would like to be involved.

See a report of the seminar.

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The value of food

porridge

Credit: Anthony Pugh

What does food mean to us? Is it fuel for the engine, a fashion item, an export commodity, a sensual temptation, a vehicle for culture and celebration, a badge of religious and political identity, or a vital connection with the natural world? It can be all of these things and more, and the stories we tell about food will have consequences for what we choose to eat, and ultimately the food systems that we end up with.

So for instance if we wander the aisles of a supermarket we may see food presented as an attractive consumer item, and we may be happy to pay not just for the food we buy, but for the packaging, the processing and the waste associated with our expectations of unblemished produce. If we lift new potatoes from our garden on the other hand, we are more likely to think of the work that went into growing them and the miracle of nature by which sunshine, soil and rain can turn a seed potato into a tasty meal for four, and to eat them with reverence.

How food is framed, or presented, affects us because it engages our values, something of which the advertising industry is well aware. Values are the things we care about, for instance honesty, authenticity, security, pleasure, beauty, status and power. Some of them are about having a better life for ourselves, and are behind the modern rise of individualism and consumerism, which also of course in turn perpetuates them. Others are more about living happily with others and with the natural world, without regard for our personal gain.

In 2010 a group of UK charities including WWF and Oxfam came together to commission the Common Cause report, which describes how values are engaged by education and marketing campaigns, showing how progressive social movements often shoot themselves in the foot by appealing to people’s concerns about financial gain and status. The use of celebrity endorsements for organic food springs to mind here, as well as the offer of free gifts in return for participation in surveys. Instead, author Tom Crompton argues, groups who are working towards a better world should not be embarrassed to talk of altruism and compassion, and should scrutinize their literature for covert appeals to self-interest rather than self-transcendence. The report struck a chord, and now we have a Common Cause network serviced by the Public Interest Research Centre in Machynlleth, who have produced a handbook and provide training courses in this approach.

The idea is catching on in educational circles. The Real World Learning Network (an EU project, not to be confused with the Real World Learning Cymru Partnership for Wales) has written a paper describing how thinking in terms of values and frames can bring depth to outdoor learning in the natural world. It’s time to think what it might bring to food education, as well. What values are we engaging when we organize a food event, talk about food miles, or take children on a farm visit? How could we do it better?

That will be the focus of a new project, Food Values, which will be starting in September 2014. We’ll be publishing more details as soon as we have them.

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Talking over a meal

Aberystwyth University Food Event

Aberystwyth University Food Event

The Food Group was involved in a series of food events in 2013, funded by OCW’s Better Organic Business Links project and run with local partners. All of them involved getting a group of people together to discuss some aspect of food, and providing them with a meal. The purposes of the events differed, but each aimed to get people thinking about food, or to get people to find new ways of working together, or both. The Food Group will be evaluating the events to see how effective they really were, and come up with some suggestions.

The first was a miniconference organized in April with the Cardiff Food Council as part of its journey towards becoming a Sustainable Food City. The purpose was to bring together key players in Cardiff’s food system (food producers, commercial companies, researchers, health practitioners and activists) to work on an action plan for the city. We used a World Café format to take delegates through the five areas of their Food Charter, ending with a locally sourced organic meal. See Cardiff miniconference 5 April 2013.

Next, in May, was a meal at the University of South Wales, Newport, where staff organized a farmers market and then a locally sourced meal to which staff, students and members of the local community were invited. Food discussions were held over the meal – one question per course – and the aim was to get people talking about food and encourage support for various food initiatives on the campus.

In June, staff at Bangor University organized a half-day miniconference to support work on the Gwynedd Food Charter. Delegates represented local farms, the health service, catering and community development, and a member of the Cardiff Food Council gave a presentation by Skype. Discussions were held on local sustainability, access to food, heritage, healthy eating and community development, generating ideas for submission to the Local Services Board. This was followed by a locally sourced lunch.

In August a food event at Aberystwyth University drew in 70 guests, mainly staff and students together with food suppliers, local sixth-formers and others, for a lunch to promote the catering service which was recently awarded the Soil Association’s Food for Life Catering Mark. Academic staff shared perspectives on food in science, geography, politics and literature, and students introduced the Food Coop and a gardening project. The event is documented here.

Finally in November, Deri View Primary School in Abergavenny held a community meal for parents and children one evening after school. The school cooks did a roast dinner with local food, and Abergavenny Transition Group produced a light-hearted quiz on food sustainability for each table to discuss.

What did these events achieve? All were enjoyable and educational, but can they help bring lasting change? We will be evaluating them and getting some pointers for the future.

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Wales as an environmental leader

cropped-wales-image3Does Wales have a role in leading the world on environmental politics? Can it through its environmental practices generate an international response to shared environmental problems?

The RCE Food Working Group was invited to present a paper in February at the Wales Environmental Leadership Conference organized by the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University.

The conference was a very interesting mix of people from science, politics, art, geography, law and other areas, sometimes connecting with each other and other times talking quite different languages. Everything of course had some bearing on food, whether it was the diversion of land into biofuel production or adaptation to climate change, cutting edge agricultural research or public engagement through the arts, so it was a happy hunting ground for the food group.

Our paper was a handy summary of what the food group has done so far, and you can read it here.

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