JUDE BARBACK looks at the steps some schools are taking to make food education part of their curriculum in an effort to fight both obesity and poor nutrition.

British chef Jamie Oliver’s #FoodRevolutionDay video is doing the rounds on social media at the moment. It’s a catchy and funny clip featuring celebrities Ed Sheeran, Hugh Jackman and others urging people to sign and share Oliver’s global petition urging all governments to offer food education.

Behind the humour is a serious message. Oliver believes humanity is facing a global obesity epidemic, with 42 million children under the age of five either overweight or obese across the world. He is petitioning the governments of G20 countries to introduce food education programmes in their nations’ schools.

In New Zealand there has been an increasing emphasis on food literacy lately. Various projects and studies in recent years have aimed to better understand young people’s approach to food and whether they have the knowledge, skills and behaviours required to achieve a healthy and environmentally friendly diet.

Recent research from The University of Auckland found that the greatest support among child-focused policies was for government rules to restrict unhealthy food marketing to young people, including the exclusion of unhealthy foods for sale at schools. While the New Zealand Government continues to rule out any suggestion of sugar and fat taxes, it has committed $10 million per year to the Healthy Families NZ scheme. It has also invested in green prescriptions, the Kiwisport school scheme, fruit in schools, and the voluntary star-rating scheme for packaged foods.

There are other good initiatives out there too. Sport Waikato’s Project Energize is a good example of an initiative aimed to improve children’s physical activity, nutrition and their overall health. A team of ‘energizers’ delivers the project across schools providing practical support to help encourage physical activity and healthy eating.

Garden to Table

The Garden to Table Trust is another organisation pushing the food literacy message in New Zealand schools. The trust wants New Zealanders to support Oliver’s petition. Garden to Table co-founder, food writer Catherine Bell, says New Zealand needs to take its place alongside England, Brazil, Mexico and Japan in implementing a curriculum-based food literacy programme.

Modelled on Australia’s Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Programme, the Garden to Table Trust was established in 2009 as a registered charity to facilitate a programme delivered in New Zealand primary schools, focused on food education for children aged between seven and 10. Seven years on, the Garden to Table programme now supports 33 schools across New Zealand, providing the opportunity for over 4,000 children every week to engage in the programme.

The Garden to Table Trust was recently able to expand its programme thanks to a $28,500 grant from the Medibank Community Fund. The funding boost has allowed the trust to keep pace with demand as more schools seek to join the programme, including the first schools in
Hawke’s Bay and Nelson.

Making food part of the curriculum

The Garden to Table programme is integrated with the curriculum and gives children the opportunity to learn about food, horticulture and their natural environment. Students work in small groups under the supervision of specialist staff, community volunteers and their teachers to participate in practical, hands-on, classes that teach them how to grow, harvest, prepare and share fresh, seasonal produce.

Executive officer of Garden to Table
Anne Barrowclough says a curriculum-integrated, in-school programme such as Garden to Table is more than just understanding how to make food choices.

“It’s actually about empowering children with a hands-on lesson, full of practical skill development focused on how to action those choices – what you need to grow your own tomatoes, how you follow a recipe, how to cook from fresh ingredients. It also adds immediacy and relevance to science and maths concepts.”

Barrowclough says schools offering the Garden to Table programme continually comment on the range of benefits an embedded food education programme provides.

“For example, we hear that attendance is always good on Garden to Table days, team work and problem solving skills are developed, and language skills improve, especially for those for whom English is a second language.

“We get feedback from volunteers about cooperation, depth of knowledge and interest in environment and fresh food; and from parents about practical skills that are coming home, the enthusiasm to try new vegetables, to suggest new recipes.”

Bringing Garden to Table to your school

The programme is currently open to all New Zealand primary schools, with a focus particularly on Year 4–6 classes.

It isn’t quite as easy as just signing up. There are a number of financial, logistical and philosophical requirements and commitments expected from a Garden to Table school and schools are required to complete an application form to assess readiness.

For starters, schools will need to have space for a garden that will be used to grow vegetables and fruit; have access to a kitchen space that can be used for cooking lessons; and implement and maintain sustainability initiatives. Along with appointing a teacher as a programme coordinator to ensure the programme is embedded in the school timetable, they will also need to recruit and support kitchen and garden specialists to lead the programme.

There is also an expectation for participating schools to document and promote Garden to Table within the school and across the wider community.

It costs schools $2,500 to join the programme and an annual fee of $550, which is waived for the first year of membership. The initial registration fee covers 10–15 hours with a Garden to Table school liaison coordinator, who will assist the set-up of the programme, and 12 hours training for each of the garden and kitchen specialists. It also gives schools access to the products and services of Garden to Table’s family of sponsors and partners.

Schools will also receive information on planning, budgeting, setting up the garden and kitchen, and practical advice of the ongoing running of the programme. They will gain access to an online community forum where staff from the Australian Kitchen Garden Foundation and
New Zealand Garden to Table schools can connect and share resources and learning tools such as lesson plans, recipes, cooking tips, and planting guides.

Barrowclough makes no apology for the cost and the requirements. She says they need schools to make a genuine commitment to including the Garden to Table programme into their school timetable. This includes full support from the principal and the Board of Trustees and an understanding of the costs and requirements involved. She doesn’t want this viewed as a fad project introduced by an enthusiastic teacher that peters out when the teacher leaves.

“The idea is that it is such a powerful tool in a school that the schools won’t want to let it go,” she says.

Barrowclough says that in cases where the school is having difficulty meeting the costs, funding can usually be found. For example, the Tindall Foundation and The Warehouse Group Foundation have helped to fund four Wellington schools so that they can join the programme. The first of these schools was Cannon’s Creek Primary School, a decile 1 school in Porirua.

Barrowclough says the programme covers schools across a range of socio-economic areas. More than half are below decile 5.

“Schools cross all decile levels and each has its own challenges and successes. But all are united in their passion to bring the benefits of food education to their students.”

Small but significant steps

One of the most inspiring aspects of the programme is the way it is feeding back to the families and communities.

There appears to be a loss of knowledge about food – its origins and how to prepare it – as a generation that thrived on resilience and resourcefulness is replaced with a generation that has grown accustomed to packaged food.

“We’re seeing kids taking recipes home, introducing their parents to new foods,” says Barrowclough.

Garden to Table might seem a long way from Jamie Oliver and his posse rapping about changing the world, but one gets the feeling this initiative would certainly have the chef’s seal of approval. Barrowclough doesn’t expect Garden to Table to provide the solution to childhood obesity in New Zealand, rather she describes its programme as “a small piece in the jigsaw” to helping children make some informed food choices.

Food education in practice

East Tamaki School, Auckland

Over the past three years,East Tamaki School has increased the size of its vegetable gardens and with the help of a team of dedicated volunteers it has allowed the school to offer the Garden to Table programme to more of its students. The students enjoy planting, harvesting, cooking and eating the fruits and vegetables grown in the school gardens. They are becoming experts at indentifying different types of vegetables, which they may not have been exposed to at home, and really appreciate the opportunity to try something new. Children willingly give up their lunchtimes to sow seeds, thin out seedlings, weed the vegetable garden or just wander through to see what is growing.

The school’s disused swimming pool was removed and the hole was filled up with soil, allowing for a very large garden that has now been split up into smaller gardens with paths in between. It has a distinctly Pasifika theme to it, with banana trees and taro being planted in the middle. The old changing sheds now serve as a potting shed and extra storage space.

Edendale Primary School, Auckland

Edendale Primary School recently celebrated Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution Day 2015. The school’s Food Revolution Day celebrations last year were featured on One News with Room 28’s Pyjama Breakfast. This year a group of Year 5 and 6 students met in the kitchen to make their own bread rolls, roasted carrot and garlic hummus, grated fresh beetroot and beansprouts to construct simple, healthy and delicious sliders for lunch.

Oaklands School, Christchurch

Oaklands School recently received the Lions School Environment Award for its efforts in the garden. The school started planning and developing the garden last year and the produce has been used to make nutritious meals for students. The school has now started developing a food forest and have chickens, which are nurtured by the Year 4 pupils. A number of local businesses have supported the school’s campaign.

Garden to Table brings research opportunities

DR KERRY LEE says a new Masters cohort is allowing students to explore different ways the Garden to Table programme is benefiting New Zealand schools
and communities.

Obesity is a real problem in our society and researching some aspects of how kids can grow their own herbs, fruit and vegetables and then learn how to cook these so they taste good is exciting and empowering.

I first heard about Garden to Table in 2013 and quickly became excited about the opportunities the programme provided for teachers and children.

I met with many of the teachers and specialists in the programme and heard the diverse approaches they were utilising. They were sold on the programme. It quickly became apparent that the programme enabled teachers and schools to adapt and modify the teaching and learning to suit the needs of the children and community. New Zealand teachers are well known for their ability to maximise a teaching situation without prescribed step-by-step instructions.

Within the Garden to Table programme teachers found opportunities for maths, science, art, food technology, social sciences, health and of course English. The programme enables children to learn content from a variety of learning areas in an authentic situation.

I heard many amusing stories: one teacher told me about her dilemma of the children sneaking home plants they were growing for the school garden. “You can’t really complain when they are taking the plants home to grow and share with their families,” she laughed.

Inspired by what I saw, I met with the Auckland facilitators and the chief executive of the Garden to Table programme and considered ways that The University of Auckland could be involved.

In 2014, I started a Masters research cohort, which is allowing teachers to undertake their own research on a topic that interests them within the Garden to Table programme, whether it be related to leadership, assessment, pedagogy, curriculum content, delivery, investigating aspects of healthy eating, fruit selection, lunches, cooking, gardening, recycling, and so on.We led workshops with teachers from the programme as well as interested faculty graduates, to develop relevant support material for teachers.

Garden to Table will provide the vehicle and context for this research, enabling the Masters students to have commonality between research projects. Most students who undertake research feel they want to make a difference and researching within the Garden to Table programme offers this feel-good factor.

Obesity is a real problem in our society and researching some aspects of how kids can grow their own herbs, fruit and vegetables and then learn how to cook these so they taste good is exciting and empowering. It is a win-win, a real no-brainer.

We are developing shared folders in Google Drive to enable the sharing of literature and resources to help the students achieve the high standards they demand of themselves, and prevent them from reinventing the wheel. By having a cohort working together, it is anticipated that the research journey should be faster and less stressful.

The university has developed an innovation and entrepreneurship initiative. We are trying to think outside the square and do things differently. Our learners are different from those of decades ago and we need to make sure we are changing what and how we meet their needs. Working with the community is one of the best ways to start.

Dr Kerry Lee is director postgraduate (taught courses) in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at The University of Auckland.

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