Green shoots – can we get kids growing food?

As a child, the main contact I had with growing food was when I was dispatched from Dublin to my Grandmother’s family farm in Tipperary each summer. Apart from terrorising the hens, riding the carthorse Paddy wildly through the fields, my quieter moments were spent in the walled kitchen garden , next to the long low thatched house, helping my aunt tending and harvesting the veg.

City children today rarely get that opportunity. I’ve taught in many inner city schools in England and elsewhere, and the disconnection between these children and where their food comes from was shocking. Of course, schools will be expected to step into the breach, provide practical growing sessions, and I’ve seen some truly wonderful initiatives. But inner city schools often have the least amount of available land to do anything significant.

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In the shadow of Dublin’s 13th century city walls, towered over by the medieval parish church of St Audoen’s lies St Audoen’s school, in the heart of the old city.

Instead of the usual unwelcome strip of tarmac fronting the school, is an orderly array of raised timber beds. Now, in February, the remains of past crops await clearance before the Spring sowing, but the scope for growing is immense.

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Large scale sacks are ranged along the front of the school for growing potatoes.

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This is the initiative of Tony from Dublin Community Growers. He bought the timber, built the beds and tends the crops. And makes and supplies all the rich compost for growing.

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And how does he fund it? Small grants are available but he hopes to make it sustainable by collecting aluminium cans in bulk, aided by the local Art College, which he then exchanges for his garden requirements.

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Some of the classrooms overlook these raised beds – I wonder how many opportunities there are in the school day for children to become involved?  Tending a vegetable garden teaches children responsibility, a connection with nature, an understanding of agriculture and life processes, and, importantly, a skill for life. How easy is it for the garden to be integrated into the core curriculum and are there teachers qualified/experienced to lead this? How practical is it for the food grown to be served in the school?

Fortunately, there are hopeful signs. Last October SEED (School Earth Education) held Ireland’s first School Garden Conference in Dublin. 125 delegates, including many teachers, attended and useful suggestions were made as to how school gardens could be advanced and supportive networking opportunities set up. Bord Bia produces a Teachers’ Resource Pack on Organic Gardening for Primary Schools and An Taisce’s Green Schools encourages environmental awareness. These are just some examples of the progress being made.

But back to inner city schools and their lack of facilities. The raised beds at St Audoen’s School are an excellent response to growing on tarmacked surfaces on otherwise redundant strips of land, and raised beds are an excellent height for young hands to get involved.

Community Gardens are also springing up across the inner city; what we need now is Councils getting on board and sponsorship on a wider scale.

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Schools can do their bit but I’m a firm believer in the importance of active parenting in stimulating lifelong passions. Mick Kelly’s Grow It Yourself (GIY) movement, Green Communities, as well as the network of inner city Community Gardens, are providing that hands-on experience for parents living in cities.

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Green shoots indeed which need to be nurtured.

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