Rescuing a generation of 'Concrete Kids'
I was frankly stunned when I first saw the results of the research we commissioned prior to the Year starting. I have been hosting visits from inner city schools on my farm for years and was well aware of the level of ignorance children (and parents & teachers) brought with them to the farm. It has always been immensely satisfying to send them home much better informed and with many of their urban myths unpicked. But as an individual farmer my experience was anecdotal and I had no real sense of the extent of the level of disconnection from the land.
The 'Concrete Kids' research, as it has become known, illustrates the stark reality of an almost complete lack of basic 'agricultural literacy':
- At least 1.1m children have never been to the countryside. That's equivalent to almost every child in London
- As many more have only ever been to the countryside 'once or twice' in their life
- This means children are twice as likely to go on a foreign holiday as they are to visit the countryside
- A quarter of all 8-9 year olds have never touched a farm animal
- 1 in 5 children have never picked fruit and eaten it. This rises to 1 in 3 in the North East, East Midlands and 1 in 4 in Yorkshire
- Nearly half of all children have never even visited an allotment
- 91% of all children have collected a takeaway, with nearly half having done so five or more times in the last year (this is as high as two thirds in the North East)
- 40% of all children visit 'virtual worlds' on the internet at least once a month
- A quarter of all children have gone late night shopping 5 or more times in the last year
- A quarter of all children have travelled on an underground tube 5 or more times in their life
- Nearly 30% have been in a building 10 storeys high 5 times or more
- Nearly all (96%) of all children visit supermarkets once a month or more (a third do so most days and over half do so most weeks)
- Over three quarters (78%) visit restaurants at least once a month (1 in 4 most weeks, 3% never)
This all points to increasingly sedentary, urban lifestyles with a declining level of interaction with nature and the countryside, and by extension, with food and farming. Most children's contact with food is entirely at the supermarket or restaurant end of the chain and this shows up in their level of ignorance about food production, as the following results show:
- 43% thought that horses were used in crop production
- 1 in 4 thought that lawnmowers were used in the harvest, with a further 18% being unsure
- 14% thought that bulldozers were used to harvest crops
- 1 in 5 don't know potatoes grow under the ground
- 53% think bananas are cultivated in this country
- 15% think lamb isn't produced in Britain
- Only half know that pumpkins grow out of the ground
This ignorance extends even to famous national food icons and knowledge of their origins:
- Over a third didn't know pork pies originate from Melton Mowbray (only 11% of Leicestershire children knew the answer)
- 1 in 4 don't know pasties come from Cornwall
- Only 1 in 5 knew hotpot was from Lancashire (even 13% of Northwest children thought it was from London)
- 20% of children in the Southwest believe that Cheddar originates from the Midlands
However, the ray of light that we must all cling onto is that we mustn't mistake this ignorance for apathy. There is real genuine interest from children to know more about their food, with over half of all children caring where it comes from, with children in the Southeast and East Midlands being particularly concerned. What's interesting is their reasoning:
- 52% want to know where it's been before they eat it
- 45% are concerned to know because it helps them decide whether it's healthy or not
- 43% want to be sure that animals have been well treated, this rises to 51% amongst 12-13 year olds
- 31% don't trust food from a factory, or that has been over-processed, this rises to 43% amongst 12-13 year olds
- 27% want to support people working in the countryside
- 22% want to eat food from near where they live
I'm certain that if we were to compare these results with the adult population, we would find that there is a much greater level of concern amongst children. Perhaps their idealism is yet to be eroded by the realities of having to make ends meet, running a household or the temptations of a BOGOF, but for now it gives me great cause for hope that we have something to work with.
That's why I'm so motivated to do something about it. I was at a local primary school giving a talk this morning and I was struck by the level of interest from children. What also amazed me was the lack of awareness that the adults had of the children's level of knowledge. The whole event has acted as a catalyst for the school to do something about it, and I fully expect an army of children, parents and teachers invading my farm on Open Farm Sunday on 1st June. I hope readers will think about open their farm gate too, or help a neighbour that already is, to do their bit too.
The evidence now clearly demonstrates that simple first-hand experiences such as visiting a farm, growing plants or cooking a meal are by far and away the most effective way of changing children's relationship with food. For example:
- Almost two thirds of children who regularly visit the countryside care where their food comes from, compared with 60% of those who don't who 'aren't bovvered'.
- Actually seeing food being grown creates 'visual reinforcement', which increases children's nutritional knowledge by 22%
- Furthermore, it increases their positive food preferences, making children much more likely to try broccoli (+20%), mangetout (+31%), courgette (+30%) and carrots (+9%)
- These food preferences even extend to foods which they don't see produced, indicating that exposure to outdoor agriculture has a general improvement effect on children's food choices
With such willing students and with such an opportunity to inform and influence the attitudes of the next generation of consumers, now is the time if ever there was one for joining together to rescue this generation of 'Concrete Kids'.