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Monday 11 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C

'We need to educate children about food that doesn’t come from a packet'

The battle in Marino over pear trees is an example of how we need to think outside the box when it comes to food education, writes Ross Golden-Bannon.

THE INNOCENT LOOKING pear trees lining the residential streets of Marino in Dublin may not look like they’re at the coal-face of a battle for our children’s health and food education but they are.

Dublin City Council find themselves in the extraordinary position of being heavily lobbied to fell the trees which line the residential streets of Marino.

Some residents consider the fruiting trees a litter hazard in the autumn. Meanwhile as consumers we are buying pears, which have been shipped or flown into Ireland from across the planet to our local supermarkets.

To be fair to Dublin City Council, they’re only responding to the demands of local residents, some of whom are infirm or elderly and find the rotting fruit on the pavement a genuine hazard. Other local voices have joined the fray too opposing the tree fell and a stay of execution for the fruit trees is in place. But how did we get here?

shutterstock_187055042 Shutterstock / Yankee Shutterstock / Yankee / Yankee

Using our local produce

Why don’t we see this annual crop for the full potential it could be: from a potential revenue stream of harvesting, preserving and selling the pears to a teaching tool for local schools. If modern adults look at fruit trees and see a litter hazard how do we persuade children to value fresh produce?

The children who walk past these fruit trees on the way to school have been educated away from food that doesn’t come from a packet.

Wholesome, local food is now a rarity in many parts of the country for the same reason we have one of the lowest uptakes of breast milk in western Europe: there’s no immediate or serious profits in producing your own, local food.

There is, however, a huge cost. There’s the cost to people’s grocery bills in the short term, the loss of local social capital and the cost to the national health service, in the short and long term.

Education around food is a process. Habits and social norms do not change overnight yet the need for change has never been more urgent. Some of the children walking past those fruit trees have already been doomed to shorter, illness-ridden lives.

Research by Dr Cora Doherty, an Irish neonatal consultant working in University Hospital of Wales, shows that a new generation of children are being born who have already been malnourished in the womb. The mother’s diets are calorically high but nutritionally low so more and more children are being born with permanently compromised health.

Overweight and obese children

In fact one in four Irish children are either overweight or obese and obese children are more likely to become obese adults. The answer to this health time-bomb rests in schools rather than the home. Research carried out by Safefood Ireland suggests that parents have a blind spot when it comes to recognising their children’s weight, whereas messages about healthy eating coming from school programmes is having a positive impact on the diet of entire families.

Some children are lucky enough to be part of one of two impressive government schemes called Incredible Edibles and Food Dudes. Incredible Edibles encourages children to grow their own vegetable garden and Food Dudes focuses on encouraging children to eat more fruit and vegetables.

Amongst the cleverest aspects of Food Dudes is the flipping of pester-power, getting children to pester parents to give them the correct fruit or vegetables for each day, thus helping to educate parents around nutrition and tackling blind-spots at home.

Some 36% of primary schools signed up for the Incredible Edibles scheme in 2016, a 52% increase on uptake from 2015. This is partly due to the long awaited endorsement of the Department of Education.

food dudes Screengrab / Food Dudes Screengrab / Food Dudes / Food Dudes

The Food Dudes programme has an intensive 16-day initial intervention built on three pillars of positive role models, repeated tastings and rewards. The results have been, for the most part, impressive.

A year later Food Dudes still has a retention level of 80%.

There are some problems which reflect our centralised tendering system which favour big food businesses winning national contracts while local produce struggles to get heard. Like say, a local pear tree. Quality can be an issue too. Some of the fruits and vegetables used are questionable, with several cases reported to me of an abundance of sweet corn and bell peppers rather than native and dark fruit and vegetables to reflect the Incredible Edibles’ ‘Eat a rainbow every day’ message. The rainbows can sometimes be rather washed.

That said, the positive statistics in schools on take up is matched by impressive statistics in the home too with 94% of parents reporting that their children were eating more fruit and vegetables.

Better still 88% of parents said they were eating more fruit and vegetables themselves.

shutterstock_110932541 Shutterstock / bikeriderlondon Shutterstock / bikeriderlondon / bikeriderlondon

If the statistics are so good, where’s the problem?

The problem is that the programmes are not compulsory. Schools must voluntarily engage with the campaigns and although the Department of Education has finally, after much lobbying, got behind the concepts they have been laggards in this area.

Education on food and nutrition directed at all pupils in the secondary cycle is in a far worse state and in need of reform too. Whatever gains might be made in the early years through the select schools using Food Dudes and Incredible Edibles, this will be quickly lost in the secondary cycle.

The Department of Education are still teaching a home economics curriculum that includes margarine as an ingredient. There have been considerable reforms away from the Stepford wife model of Home Economics but we are a long way from equipping young adults with vital food life skills.

Radical change in our education curriculum could see many more subjects stitched into a school garden, no matter how small that may be.

We already know from urban schools in London that this can work. Even if we have the simple goal of ‘just grow one thing’ this can be woven into science classes, home economics and even a school canteen.

Joined-up planting schemes with local authorities could create a renaissance in local food production and urban foraging as well as an ark of local agri-knowledge, which we are in danger of losing forever. In the long term this will help us tackle our ballooning health costs as well as creating virtuous circles of community capital.

Ultimately, any school in Marino deciding to take part in a healthy eating scheme will not get any national support in using local suppliers as the fruit and vegetables supplied are big food business contracts. They aren’t so interested in schools harvesting local pears and you won’t find them tied to any pear trees in Marino any time soon.

Yet, a simple change in procurement could see a proviso that 5% of all the food and plants in these school programmes had to come from local farmers, foraged food or local businesses, ensuring that better local health outcomes were matched by fertile local economies.

Ross Golden-Bannon is a member of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild and rapporteur of the Guild’s White Paper, The Health of the Nation. Follow him on Twitter @Goldenshots.

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