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Dublin: 1 °C Monday 21 October, 2019

'Kids are shocked to hold a warm egg': How one urban farm wants to reconnect us with our food

We need to be more aware where our food comes from, says Airfield’s Head of Education.

Image: Facebook/Airfield Estate

WHEN THE OVEREND family moved from Ely Place in Dublin 2 to a 38-acre farm in Dundrum in 1894, they were determined to do all that they could to help support the local community.

According to The Women’s Museum of Ireland, Lily Overend helped to provide milk for Dublin’s first ever “clean milk” depot for inner-city families. In 1909, she also set up a special branch of the ISPCC for the local children of Dundrum and in 1924, founded what would eventually come to be LauraLynn Children’s Hospice.

And 110 years later, the estate is still providing milk to kids across the city – albeit in a completely different way. Nowadays, the estate provides a breakfast club for kids in Dublin’s DEIS schools – they visit the farm, collect fresh ingredients and learn about how their food helps to build their growing bodies. 

Now that the majority of us live further and further away from the farms that produce the meat, dairy and eggs that Ireland is known globally for, it can sometimes be easy to lose touch with how exactly they get to our plate in the first place. 

When the Overends left the estate for the purpose of “education and recreation”, the team that took on the estate (which is defined as a charitable organisation), decided to combine both to teach kids in Ireland about their food using firsthand contact with nature.

Finding black holes

As Kirstie McAdoo, Head of Education and Research at Airfield Estate explains: “Education almost has to be recreational – it has to be fun for people to take it on board”.

Their education programme evolved from breakfast and ‘walk and talks’ around the grounds to working with UCD and the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute (INDI) to find “black holes of information” young people have about their food.

Visitor_Exp_LR-17 Source: Airfield

For example, thanks to initiatives like Moo Crew from the National Dairy Council. Research carried out by Airfield among 1,000 primary school students showed that two thirds drink milk everyday.

But when it came to eggs, students tended to know more about the animal welfare side of things than their nutritional value: “one third of students we talked to thought that eggs belonged to the ‘dairy’ level on the food pyramid”.

For this reason, Airfield’s hands-on activities include things like seeing how their chickens produce both brown and blue eggs, and holding them in their hands: “holding a warm egg tends to freak them out – feeling these foods at body temperature is alien to them”.

This research also extends to how kids in Ireland eat – their recent study with UCD’s nutrition department found that the habit of having breakfast drops significantly between primary school and secondary school. Worryingly, students who didn’t have breakfast explained that they either chose not to, didn’t have time or were on a diet.

Examining our food choices

This is precisely why initiatives such as Airfield’s breakfast clubs are so important, says McAdoo. Students go out and collect eggs, see the cows being milked (and the cooling process), cook everything, set the table and clean up afterwards. And it works: “If they see where their food comes from, they’re much more likely to eat breakfast regularly.”

While the programme started originally with the local DEIS school Queen of Angels in Dublin 16, thanks to the cross-city Luas, it has opened up to schools in the west and north sides of Dublin. Students meet farmers, gardeners and bakers who work on the estate, “sometimes jobs they may never get to hear about again”.

3357BF72-72A1-47F5-A20B-F7C8D73B658C Source: Airfield

Airfield also offers junior chef courses, where kids collect vegetables and prepare a quiche that many of their parents say that they wouldn’t eat at home. “The process of collecting the ingredients gives them a sense of ownership and understanding.”

Outside of the obvious importance of food in their own growth, kids’ tastes in food shapes the way families eat more than they may realise:

They’re powerhouses with regards to being consumers – they can dictate what goes into the trolley, so it’s really important that they understand from an early age where their food comes and how it helps their bodies.

“Our aim is to inspire and enable people to make better food choices” explains McAdoo. This choice can be better for their own pocket, their health, the environment or the local economy.

They look at differences between natural seasonal ingredients and processed foods, organic and non-organic farming methods and their impact on the environment and the importance of reducing the amount of processed foods that we eat. They are also taught that their buying decisions can eventually determine what ends up on the supermarket shelves.

Ideally, the aim is to start conversations at home – about food, where it’s coming from and how it’s produced, with a view to making more informed food choices, explains McAdoo:

You’re never going to be able to do the perfect shopping trip, but maybe you’ll make a decision to eat more veg, choose less plastic or buy locally-produced Irish produce. It’s about making that one change that can make a difference.

In this regard, McAdoo explains that if you spend €1 in local food supplies (butchers and farmers markets for example), 70c of that stays local. When we shop with a conglomerate, this figure falls to about 12c.

Eating local also helps to eat with the seasons. McAdoo notes that during Storm Emma, we quickly ran out of fresh food (even though the baking aisles to make your own bread stayed stocked): “People forget that we’re an island – we shouldn’t have things like courgettes all year round.”

She explains that eating with the seasons “makes your diet more interesting” and recommends the Bord Bia seasonal calendar as a starting point for finding which vegetable are best at particular times of the year. The UN prize-winning Evocco is an Irish founded app that will tell you from your receipt how sustainable your shop is.

Growing a generation

The response from kids? “They love it”, says McAdoo. “The younger they are the more receptive they are.” But some of the funniest responses have been from transition year students about farming terms, including pasteurisation:

We get kids to come up with what they think these words might mean. When they looked at me blankly, I said ‘what does it sound like’? One girl put up her hand and said, ‘when they lead the cows out onto the field?’

As many people in the local area are “two or three generations disconnected from a farm”, McAdoo shares that a lot of kids they meet can’t identify carrots or potatoes in the ground as they never get a chance to see their leaves when they’re growing.

It’s also important to McAdoo that they’re always honest about the abattoir process – they use a small one where animals are killed quickly and as respectfully as possible: “They’ve lived a good life here and we want it to end well”.

33844743_1620043544769973_2762543842623225856_o Source: Facebook/Airfield Estate

Airfield ensures that every part of the animal is used – at a recent food sustainability conference in Airfield, the menu included heart tartare, brain, kidneys and marshmallow made from animal bones. “We want to show people this stuff is very good, so that animals aren’t just killed for one small part”.

So, what can parents do to grow their little ones’ love of nature in 2019? “Grow something on the window sill like parsley.” This seemingly simple act can have a huge impact on your kids love of food, says McAdoo:

If they plant something, see it grow and then use it in food, it can be so powerful – it gives such a sense of pride. It also gives them an appreciation for food production and being more conscious of not wasting it.  

Source: Airfield Estate/YouTube

Airfield Estate is a working farm that seeks to help us understand the story how our food gets from pastures to plate. It offers school tours, education programmes for preschool, primary and secondary students using hands-on interactive activities on the farm. Here you can find out more about their education programmes and workshops

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