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Food for thought

The Government's 'Five a Day' programme gets a tasty endorsement at Wisley Gardens, writes Sarah Jewell

As she gazes at the succulent green rocket leaf she has just plucked from the vegetable allotment at Wisley Gardens in Surrey, Naila Alonso, 11, says: "I didn't know you could eat leaves. It tastes sort of peppery; I didn't know that salad leaves could taste so strong."

Naila is part of a group of 60 children from Surrey primary schools who were chosen to be part of a "Fruit and Vegetable Discovery Day" at the Royal Horticultural Society's showcase gardens at Wisley in Woking.

The aim of the day is to teach children the importance of eating fruit and vegetables. It is timely, given the publicity that celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has stirred up on the lack of fruit and fibre in school dinners. The day focuses on cultivating and cooking food, and starts with a tour of the vegetable garden where the children are asked to spot vegetables they recognise.

Standing in front of the potato plants, many are surprised to learn that potatoes grow underground. They recognise cabbages, but are puzzled by the spiky looking artichokes and the salad leaves. The spicy hot mustard leaves are an eye-watering surprise. Sadie-Louise Rawlings, 11, says they taste "just like hot mustard".

The children are given a tour of the fruit-growing area. Claire Dudley, one of the RHS education team, intrigues the children with fruity historical facts, such as how, in the Middle Ages, brambles were pleated around coffins to stop ghosts from escaping; and how celery was given as a prize by the Ancient Greeks to Olympic athletes. During the tomato tasting, the tomatoes grown on the vine are definite winners over the supermarket ones.

Next stop is the education hall where the children watch a lively young chef cook up a healthy meal of "super veggie noodles" and fruit kebabs.

Olly Dawson is the community chef for the East Sussex food and health partnership and he shows the children how to stir fry vegetables and noodles in a huge wok. The children are excited by the sizzling sounds and the orange flames licking out from under the wok. "It's like a bonfire", says Ellie Smith, seven.

Olly adds spices such as ginger, soy sauce and sesame seed oil, which many of the children have never tasted before, and serves up the food. Lauren Price, nine, says: "I'm not used to burnt vegetables; I'm used to eating my carrots straight from the fridge."

But most of the children think the veggie noodles are delicious. Naila says: "I loved all the food. I thought it would be disgusting, but it tasted nice." And Daisy Jade, eight, who had never tasted sti-fried food before, says: "I didn't think I would like it - I liked the hot and spicy taste."

Olly is pleased with the reaction: "I chose to do a stir fry because Jamie Oliver did super veg noodles for his school dinners and it went down well.

Children know about noodles because of Pot Noodle, and this is a way of introducing fresh vegetables and tasty new flavours."

The children are given a talk by Juliette Harmer, a public health dietician at East Surrey primary care trust, about healthy eating. She puts up a big poster of a plate divided into the five food groups - bread and cereal; fruit and veg; meat; fish; fats and sugars; milk and dairy products. She talks about each food group and then puts the poster on the floor and asks the children to choose from a selection of boxes, tins and plastic food models and place them in the right section. The aim of the exercise, she says, is to "give an overall idea of what a balanced diet is and why we need to eat a balanced diet".

The children are knowledgeable and have a discussion about whether fruit juice with sweeteners should go in the fruit and vegetable section or the sugar and fats section.

By the end of the day the children have seen and learnt a lot and, as Juliette says: "This is a way for children to have a hands-on experience of what the Government means by their 'Five A Day' programme. It is a way of incorporating learning about food into the national curriculum."

Lauren Price, nine, fully endorses this when she sums up her day by saying:

"I learnt about how food helps you grow and what it can do for you, and I want to eat more fruit and vegetables now." Fruit and Vegetable Discovery Days are planned at Wisley. The RHS also offers a free schools membership scheme and schools can book guided visits with an education officer in any of its four gardens. Topics covered include literacymathsart activities in the garden, PHSE, science investigations, and healthy eating (incorporating a tour of the vegetable garden)

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