Opinion: Learning about food starts on the farm

Prue Leith of Great British Bake off fame recently called for packed lunches to be banned in schools “because parents could not be trusted to give their children healthy food”.

Like Prue Leith, but without the baking skills, I have procrastinated about ways of improving food and farming education for many years – so much so that we have built a school on our farm to deliver creative and interactive programmes for schoolchildren.

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Trying to implement change in this space is challenging. Most policymakers see themselves as an authority on the subject. Why? Because they too went to school and eat three times a day. If only it were that simple.

It recently dawned on me that, as a farming industry, we have been delivering our food and farming message back to front for the past 20 years. I am as culpable as anyone. I had an opportunity to influence change and failed to see the glaring error.

The average UK school-aged child is at least six generations removed from farming, more than any other nation in the world. They no longer understand its relevance to their lives. 

For example, a 14-year-old could visit a farm on a Monday and Tesco on a Tuesday, and see no link between the two. 

Hearing farmers trundle out the tale that “children think milk comes from Sainsbury’s” is years out of date.  I have had children visit our school who don’t know what a cow looks like.

So, here is my moment of inspiration. The future isn’t farm to fork. It is Fork to Farm. A simple nuance that places the young person at the centre of the piece and not the farm. 

Learning about farming needs to start in a place of familiarity for the child – the kitchen – and work backwards.

There is no connectivity with a farm. It is a foreign place of mud and smells. If you wanted to engage children about the latest iPhone, you would start by showing its new features, not where components are soldered together.

Ms Leith also wants schools to be made responsible for teaching children to eat good food as they do in Finland, and for lunchtime to “become a lesson” and “part of the curriculum”.  

She isn’t the first celeb to clamour for their specialist subject to be part of the curriculum.  

Recently BBC Countryfile’s Adam Henson and farmer/politician Bill Wiggin have called for farming to become a standalone GCSE. On the surface it sounds like a great ambition, but I couldn’t disagree more.

Farming is already stigmatised by too many teachers. A GCSE in farming would soon become a dumping ground for less able students.

I guarantee it would struggle to attract uptake and would quickly be dropped from the subject list, setting farming education back decades.  

The relatively new GCSE in food preparation and nutrition has significant parts of its syllabus committed to sustainability, provenance, and seasonality. It is a perfect platform for embedding farming.

There is also a new A level in food that offers enormous opportunity, as well as the existing footholds in science, economics and geography.

A school visit to a farm that is relevant to the curriculum will win over teachers. Make it relevant to the child and we will win over a future generation.

Farmers are notorious for growing produce in the hope that people buy it.  Education is no different. We must listen to what the market wants – and how they want it. Fork to farm.

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