Fruit of their own endeavours
When children grow and pick their own fruit and veg, they will eat it - some schools have found
DEVELOPING A vegetable plot at school to teach children about healthy eating may feel like a step too far for some people.
According to Ian McGrigor, project co-ordinator with Kerry Earth Education Project (Keep): "Most schools have a remarkably large amount of land. Schools tend to think they are resource poor, but this is a relatively cheap resource to tap into and expand the education process."
While some schools may have the space, what about motivating children to get out in the rain and cold for some serious weeding and digging?
"There is a skill to working with children," says McGrigor, "but they knuckle down and love it. I was recently working with a sixth class group, learning how to dig up sods. Next thing I knew, they were having a competition on who could dig up the biggest sod. Kids are highly imaginative and really throw themselves into the work."
The Keep project has been working with schools, developing edible gardens for the past eight years, and the interest is growing. "We participated in Bloom in the Phoenix Park last summer and a couple of hundred teachers came up to discuss their school gardens," says McGrigor. Keep is now working with An Bord Bia, producing a DVD on edible school gardens.
"I think there is generally an increased awareness of good food and food growing. An edible school garden has so many benefits for children: physical activity, learning to use their bodies in a functional way, and understanding healthy eating.
"Most of the children end up trying everything in the garden. We think nowadays children won't touch healthy food, but when they have grown and picked it themselves, they certainly do."
The fifth class pupils at St Anne's Primary School in Fettercairn, Tallaght, Co Dublin, is planning a feast made from the food they will grow over the course of this year. Tony Fegan, director of Tallaght Community Arts, will oversee this initiative.
"We are developing a fruit and vegetable garden with the children, which begins with us asking them what they know about food growing and how they imagine the garden should look in a year's time. As the year progresses, the children will start working with a chef, learning about nutrition and what foods go with what."
Fegan has been involved in similar projects in England. "The feast isn't exactly a five-course silver service meal," he smiles, "it's a bit more rustic than that." Nonetheless, the children will cook and serve the food they have grown to 300 people. "In my experience, there are numerous benefits for children who are involved in food-growing projects.
"Many seem to find an incredible stillness working in the garden. Working with the soil, they learn things about themselves and their world. As a child, time moves slowly, one birthday to the next is an eternity. Nature also moves slowly, but with nature, it is easier to see the changes."
The garden at St Anne's is on half an acre, but edible school gardens are also possible in more restricted spaces. At Gaelscoil Choláiste Mhuire, on Parnell Square in Dublin's inner city, the school yard is a tarmacadam car park.
"We desperately wanted to do something to brighten up the yard where the children play," says Margaret Ralph, chairwoman of the parents committee. "So we did a fundraiser, bought seeds and pots, and got started in spring."
As luck would have it, the school heating system changed, freeing up a large trough at the end of the yard.
"One day over the summer, we ordered in five tonnes of rubble and four tonnes of topsoil," says Ralph. "It was one of those situations where you haven't any choice about it, so we just got in there with shovels and rakes and filled the trough. A few days later, we transplanted the vegetables from the pots," she says.
Is it worth the trouble?
"Messing around with mud and water, watching their own seeds grow - the hassle is well worth the fun the children have," says Ralph.
All life stems from the earth
The impetus for the edible school garden at Coláiste Bride in Clondalkin in Dublin was a birthday gift. "Back in 1989, my daughter gave me a book called Turning the Tide, which literally turned my life around," says Pat Harrington, music and gardening teacher.
"When I finished that book, I swore that every girl who passed through the school would be able to make a choice about growing or eating organic."
Out in the heart of suburban west Dublin, Coláiste Bride is an all-girls, second-level school with 860 students. Realising Harrington's vision was a challenge. "I had my eye on an acre of wasteland by the sports field and asked for permission to set up an organic garden and to incorporate organic gardening into the curriculum.
"The school manager was concerned about vandalism. She felt it would have to be fenced in. But we had no money, and certainly no money for fencing. So we began small, planting flowers around the trees on the avenue."
But it wasn't for nothing that Harrington recently won the Runner Bean Award for most determined school gardener.
"At that time, the M50 was being bored out, and one day, as I sat on the bus into town, I noticed all this fencing up around the roads by a company called Irish Fencing. I wrote to the company director on a Tuesday and the following Thursday, along he comes to the school and asks me where do I want my fencing."
That was the first in a long line of letters looking for funding, sponsorship, labour, tools, horses for ploughing, even JCBs.
Help was usually forthcoming, but the going wasn't easy.
"It was back-breaking work," says Harrington. "I spent all my free time there digging, weeding and planting. For years there was no tap and I would lug across gallons of water in big plastic containers."
The relentless persistence paid off, and today the acre of land is laid out in 12 beds, growing all kinds of fruit and vegetables.
Organic gardening is on the curriculum for First Years, Transition Years, and Leaving Cert Applied.
"It is a wonderful experience for the girls," says Harrington. "They are out in the fresh air, learning how to work with the earth. They are introduced to the pleasure of healthy eating, and utterly surprise themselves by how much they enjoy vegetables they swear blind they hate.
"The difference between what they buy in the shops and the crunch of a juicy apple they have grown themselves in an organic garden amazes them," she says.
"Setting up something like this can be a tough uphill battle, you need fire in your belly to keep going. But it is nourishing in every way for the students: they come to understand how everything and everyone in this earth is deeply connected."