School farms and how they’re helping food education

Can children bring themselves to eat animals they have reared themselves? One school is looking to confront its pupils with an often uncomfortable reality
22nd February 2019, 12:04am
Emma Seith


School farms and how they’re helping food education

The killing of animals for meat is a tricky topic to negotiate with children. The horror on their faces when they make the connection between their ham sandwich and the pigs they see in fields or know from fairy tales is enough to move even the most committed carnivore.

Such moments represent rich teaching potential, but they usually pass quickly unless children are encouraged to think more deeply about where their food comes from. And that is exactly what a small independent school on the north-east coast of Scotland is doing.

Early last year, Mr Piggy Wiggy Woo Woo and Ginger Snap - as the piglets were named by pupils - arrived at Lathallan, an all-through school just outside Montrose in Angus. The Oxford Sandy and Black breed of pigs were reared for five months by the same pupils who gave them their cutesy names. Then, during the summer, they made their final journey to a slaughterhouse in the Highland town of Grantown-on-Spey in a trailer towed by the school's vegetarian headmaster, Richard Toley.

After a brief spell at a butcher in Brechin, about half-an-hour away from the school, the pigs returned to Lathallan in the form of sausages, bacon and gammon, which were then served up for school meals by catering manager Chris Carter and his team.

When Education Scotland school inspectors called in September, they were served Lathallan gammon. And that same month, Lathallan sausages were dished up at the school's mini Highland games; later, a meal was presented in the school dining hall, for which nearly two-thirds of the ingredients were produced on site.

The ambition for the coming year is for a meal to be served that is made entirely with produce grown or reared in the school's grounds. As well as the pigs, the school - which stands within 60 acres of land just 100 metres from the icy waters of the North Sea - has created a potato field and has its own apple trees, four chickens and an industrial-sized polytunnel where blueberries, raspberries and strawberries are grown.

Now, two more piglets have been purchased and the project is set to run again. There is even talk of investing in some sheep and growing a wider range of vegetables.

Animals have provided unique learning opportunities, says Toley. He explains that lessons learned from the farm about sustainability are a logical development for the school, given its long-standing emphasis on outdoor education (see box) and environmental science. As the school is finding, having animals around can also lead to all sorts of educational benefits (see box).

The presence of the pigs also feels well-timed in light of the mounting pressure on governments to take collective action to prevent irreversible climate change. The consumption of less meat has been widely touted as the single biggest way for an individual to reduce their environmental impact, a point hammered home by the "Veganuary" campaign to persuade the public to go vegan for a month.

It may not be immediately apparent why this project, which ends with animals being killed for meat, would help push forward that agenda, but it arguably encourages the kind of deeper thinking about food that can lead people to change their habits.


Meat and greet

Lathallan science teacher Zoe Jordan is a case in point. As an environmental science specialist, she is steeped in the facts about the environmental impact of meat and dairy production, from the greenhouse gases produced to land and water use.

"Animal welfare is important, but trying to reduce my own impact on the environment was the deciding point for me," she explains of her decision to go vegan four years ago.

We interrupt Jordan in the middle of teaching a Higher biology class on selective breeding, farming techniques and food security. She notes that the school farm allows pupils to see on a small scale the things they are learning about in the classroom.

The polytunnel is an example of a typical farming technique and the pigs are a rare breed in danger of extinction. It is hard to fathom the notion that by rearing pigs for slaughter, the school is playing a key role in the conservation of an endangered breed, but that is what staff insist is happening.

The Lathallan pigs come from Inverness-based homegrown food company River Croft and, as they bluntly put it on their website, "The Oxford Sandy and Black is sadly at risk of extinction and the only way we can avoid this is for them to retain purpose, which means eating them."

Jordan also emphasises the more obvious benefit of the school farm: it teaches pupils where their food comes from.

The Scottish Food Commission - set up by the government in 2015 to produce advice on how to make Scotland a "good food nation" - recently called for cookery lessons to be made compulsory in schools. It found that many children could not identify common vegetables and did not know where meat, eggs or milk came from.

The commission's final report stated that "food culture in Scotland has become more detached from food production, and fast food is a dominant element".

Toley admits that the kind of basic misconceptions highlighted in the commission's report are not usually an issue at Lathallan. The school has a roll of about 200 pupils, most of whom are drawn from the local area, where one of the key industries is agriculture.

Many pupils hail from farming families or have relatives who farm. Fraser Dandie, who shows me around the grounds with head girl Phoebe Verstralen, is in S5 and will be off to agricultural college in Edinburgh at the end of the year. His family owns a 700-acre farm near Forfar that grows wheat and barley, and rears beef cattle and sheep; Fraser himself has responsibility for 50 hens.

Meanwhile, the school's polytunnel was donated by the family that owns Angus Soft Fruits, two of whose children attend the junior school.

It seems unlikely that these pupils would not know where meat or milk came from - but there are degrees of knowing.

Andy Martin, who teaches P6 (or Junior 6, as it is at Lathallan) says there is a real mixture of meat eaters, vegans, vegetarians and at least one flexitarian among the school's teaching staff. Having the pigs allows the pupils to "think deeply" about the lifestyle they want to pursue, he says.

"Knowing and having the chance to think about this is really beneficial," adds Martin. "One in eight of us are vegetarian or vegan and that number is ever increasing. But do children get that say?"


Piggies in the middle

Martin says that teachers were concerned when the farm was first mooted that they would have to shoehorn it into lessons, and that it might be somewhat contrived. But they have since been won over and the farm has "settled itself in a wonderful way".

The pigs - and the school's rich outdoor spaces more generally - are a great stimulus for lessons, he believes. Of course, the farm works particularly well in certain subjects. P3-4 teacher Derek Jamieson is going to do a topic on the Scottish larder next term and plans to use it extensively, but Martin says it has also been used as a spark for poetry writing and research.

He even used the presence of the pigs to introduce some philosophy into his classroom: the "pig that wants to be eaten" thought experiment sparked a discussion about whether it was morally wrong to eat such an animal.

The idea is based on Douglas Adams' talking cow in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, a beast that wants to be eaten and is "actually capable of saying so clearly and distinctly". It presents itself to diners as the dish of the day before parting with "A very wise choice, sir, if I may say so…I'll just nip off and shoot myself."

It is easy to eat meat when it is presented on a plastic tray and no longer looks like the animal it once was, says Rachel Richards, a home economics teacher at Kingussie High in the Highlands; presenting meat in this way "almost removes all humanity from the process", she adds.

By introducing animals to schools, staff and pupils are forced into making informed decisions and are "unable to be blinkered", says Richards, who received death threats last year after helping her pupils butcher game animals to make "bunny burgers" and "pheasant jalfrezi".

Now, Richards says she eats less meat than she used to and buys it from a local croft or the village butcher so that she can be confident that each animal has been cared for prior to its slaughter.

But when you are asking children to rear an animal for slaughter, it has to be carefully handled, she warns.

The biggest issue is students will "grow attached to the piglets and will bond with them over time", says Richards. "Guidance will need to be prepared to deal with very upset and possibly hysterical students when they realise where they have gone and what they're about to eat."

Lathallan is clearly still feeling its way in this regard. When you ask staff, pupils and teachers what the reaction was to the return of the pigs as sausages, bacon and gammon, the typical response is "mixed"; some P6s report that they were only told after they had eaten the meat that it had come from the pigs they had reared.

Head chef Chris Carter says he is living the dream, as he is increasingly able to do what top chefs do: use homegrown and reared produce. The school's potato crop fed about 220 people every day from September through to December, he estimates, and the meal with 60 per cent of ingredients from the school grounds included red lentil soup made with the ham hocks from the school's pigs, Lathallan gammon and potatoes, and a crumble made from apples plucked nearby.


Chop and change

Carter questions, though, whether or not it was a good idea to name the pigs, but this might be beyond the school's control. The new pigs that arrived in December have yet to be officially named but, according to P6 - the class responsible for feeding them during the week in which I visit - they are called Poppet and Pipsqueak.

In Martin's class of 14 P6 pupils, all bar two say they are comfortable with the idea that the pigs will ultimately be slaughtered. But they are clearly conflicted.

Robbie, along with Alexia, a pescatarian, says he is not at one with the idea of eating the pigs. He says: "I find it kind of sad because we bond with them a lot of the time, but then you eat them."

Gesturing to the boy next to him, he adds: "It's like me and Corin are friends, and the next day I'm eating him."

Toley - who has been vegetarian for 15 years and whose wife is vegan - believes a recent conversation he had with a primary pupil is reflective of the attitude of most of the Lathallan students. As they were feeding the pigs together, the girl, who is due to move to another school soon, commented: "Aww, it's such a shame I won't get to eat them."

Irrespective of whether the Lathallan pupils see the pigs as a bacon sandwich or a loyal friend, they have been given the opportunity and the space to think about their food in a way that goes well beyond simply considering what constitutes a healthy choice.

Lathallan, you might say, really has gone the whole hog.

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland. She tweets @Emma_Seith

This article originally appeared in the 22 February 2019 issue under the headline "Don't mince your words"

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