Children in Sussex are planting seeds, then helping them grow into food for their plates. Stephanie Northen finds them cooking up a treat
The boy has encountered one of the big questions of horticulture. It's clearly making him feel both foolish and perplexed. "Er," he says, "how do I get it out of here and into there?"
"It" is a garlic seedling. "Here" is the pot in which it was grown and "there" is a raised bed at Tangmere Primary School in West Sussex. Paul Kettell shows him how to turn the pot upside-down and catch the seedling and its compost in his fingers. The boy's face clears and he joins his Year 5 and 6 schoolmates enthusiastically planting garlic, radishes and lettuce on a steel-grey day back in March. They'll be sampling the Cherry Bell radishes about now, as well as watering their pea plants and banking up the soil to protect their first crop of Pentland Javelin potatoes.
Next month they'll cook them - and eat them. It's not far from their new vegetable garden to the school kitchen. The peas can be plucked and popped into a saucepan in about 10 minutes - guaranteeing, says Helen Alexander, maximum flavour and goodness. Paul and Helen work for Grow it! Cook it!, a project run by the Royal Horticultural Society and Focus on Food, the campaign to promote cooking in schools. Sponsored by the Helen Hamlyn Trust, the project is helping children at 10 primary schools on the south coast do exactly what its name suggests.
The basic ingredients are fresh air and fresh food. Understanding the seasons and what will grow in a patch of the school field are also on the menu. Along the way the children should get a taste for nutritious dishes, a stake in their local area, an awareness of sustainability, and an appreciation of teamwork. The core curriculum is easily accessed, via science, history, art, literacy and numeracy...
Planting a hedge in the pouring rain and learning to use kitchen equipment have already given Tangmere's pupils some experience of dirty hands and sticky fingers. "Children often say they 'don't get it' or 'what's the point'," says Hugh Parsons, Tangmere's deputy head. "Well, they get this."
"Grow it! Cook it! is not a bolt-on. It's absolutely integral to everything we are doing here," says headteacher Mary Pavard. "We wanted a more active curriculum, one that involved the pupils in its planning and execution. The children said they wanted to grow stuff. They wanted to leave their mark on the school and they needed a garden." That's what they've got - and here's how they did it.
September 2005: Grow it! Cook it! has started at Tangmere as part of a 10-year project to redesign the school grounds. Paul, an RHS project officer who will visit the primary for a day each week, begins by getting the two Year 5 and 6 classes to plan their vegetable garden. They discuss the best site in terms of light and shade, measure it up and create a huge floor plan in their classroom. They decide on raised beds which are easy to access without getting too muddy. Also, the Tangmere soil is stony - a little like digging a prehistoric flint beach, says Paul - so the extra depth will give root crops such as carrots and parsnips a chance to grow straight and true.
The children study seed catalogues to pick their top 10 veg. Sweet corn is a shoo-in, as are carrots, peas, cucumbers, and - surprisingly - cabbage.
Squashes win a place in the soil courtesy of their surreal shapes and sheer size. Brussels sprouts divide the class in what Paul calls a "Marmite moment", tomatoes get a mixed reaction but chillis are popular. Then comes the catch. Paul says they also have to select one vegetable they haven't tried before and one they think they won't like. They agree on kohl rabi and turnip.
It's not a good winter for gardeners, so Paul spends a lot of time in the classroom. He discusses nutrition with the children, asking them to keep food diaries. Then he links the ingredients of a healthy diet with their choice of veg, seasoning their dreams with a touch of realism about what will grow in England - have they considered the global consequences of wanting to eat strawberries all year round? So, fitting in with the term's theme of sustainability, the classes discuss air miles and environmental issues.
Paul, with the help of a parent, constructs eight beds measuring about 1m by 4m using railway sleepers, which, he says, will last until he claims his pension. The children then remove the grass, dig the soil and add mushroom compost and chicken manure. The beds will fill up gradually over the years, says Paul, reluctant to ship in a load of expensive topsoil from a garden centre. A little design and technology is dug in too, with the construction of mesh bins for the leaves the children have collected from the school field. But Paul knows it's important to see stuff grow. So he planted oriental salad leaves such as mizuna, giant red mustard and pak choi in August, at his RHS Wisley base. In September he brings them to Tangmere in plug pots for the children to plant in sheltered spots. The plants overwinter happily, supplying salad during the cold snaps. By late spring, in some schools, many are waist high.
March 2006: a group of children are topping up the manure in a bed and not complaining too loudly about the smell. Three others cling to stout hazel poles about 1m taller than they are. They are patiently waiting for Paul to tie the tops together to make a wigwam for their Painted Lady runner beans.
Hazel is a native plant, says Paul, and more attractive and authentic than a bundle of bamboo. Hazel twigs have also been inserted at the end of the bean bed for peas to scramble up.
The children plant the beds roughly in food groups. Potatoes go in one, brassicas such as cabbage and broccoli in another, courgettes and cucumbers in a third. One bed is destined for sweet corn with an underplanting of squashes and pumpkins. Armed with measuring rods, they dig in their seedlings and hone their numeracy simultaneously. They're also mugging up on their history as this term's theme is Dig for Victory, commemorating Tangmere's past as an RAFbase during the Second World War. Crimson-flowered broad beans, Stoke lettuces and Kent Blue peas are being planted, just as they were in their grandparents' time in the 1940s.
Paul wants to garden organically as far as possible. So "sacrificial" marigolds will be planted among the cabbages to deter nematodes, and carrots and onions will be grown together to confuse their respective flies. Also on the agenda for spring is a field maple hedge round the plot to create a good microclimate for pollinators, and a gooseberry bed at the back.
Late April: sage, lavender and rosemary are planted out, and the greenhouse is filled with plug pots of tomato, courgette, cucumber and French beans.
Once the seeds are in the children will have the pleasant task of tending them until they are ready to harvest - then take them to the kitchen to cook.
An Italian aroma is easing its way round the school hall. The source is a small kitchen where Helen Alexander of Focus on Food and eight children in white aprons have prepared their lunch. Today they're dining on garlic bread with potato and parsley pesto soup. It's generally agreed to be delicious.
"We often find peer pressure works in reverse when the children have cooked food themselves," says Ann Kerry, senior advisory teacher of Focus on Food.
"The others encourage the reluctant ones at least to have a go." Helen and Ann have a mission. "We've lost two generations. Most people aged between 10 and 35 have no experience of cooking," says Ann. "Many children have only a limited understanding of where their food comes from. They don't make links, for example, between crisps and potatoes. We want to change that."
A young generation able to cook good food is clearly the main aim, but it's not the only one. For some children, growing a radish or preparing a simple but tasty meal are their first tangible achievements at school. The benefits for these pupils in terms of self-esteem and better behaviour have already been noted by teachers at the Grow it! Cook it! primaries. At Tangmere, Helen and the children have already cooked vegetable samosas with winter salad, a winter vegetable soup with carrots, purple sprouting broccoli and potatoes, and apple muffins. In the summer she plans bruschetta, fresh tomato pizza toppings, broad bean salads and gooseberry fool. The more raw produce the better, as none of the nutrients are lost by cooking.
So far, most of the vegetables have had to be bought in, but the parsley in today's soup is homegrown - and next year the children will cook from their own garden even in the middle of winter. Helen, aside from teaching the children culinary skills and some basic physics, explains that they are in charge of what they eat. If they don't like something in a recipe, they can change it. "Shall I put all the pesto sauce in?" she asks. Yes, they shout.
"They've learnt to trust me, she says, "they've realised I'm not going to poison them."
Veg across the curriculum
The core curriculum can be accessed in many ways enabling schools such as Tangmere to let pupils spend an hour a week on the project. Ideas include: NumeracyJMapping out the garden area; measuring the spacing of seedlings; studying their rate of growth; discussing symmetry within the garden.
LiteracyJEach Grow it! Cook it! school keeps a journal of their work, reflecting the changes through the season. It can include not just their achievements in the garden or the kitchen, but also, for example, letters to local firms asking for help or thanking them for donations.
ScienceJStudying what plants need to grow; plant life cycles; plants in the local environment; rocks and soils; teeth and eating; reversible and irreversible processes in cooking.
CitizenshipPSHEJDeveloping skills of communication and participation, a key area. Tangmere has seen improvements in pupils' behaviour, in their ability to communicate and in their teamwork. Also: healthy eating; developing school grounds; people and the environment.
HistoryJAt Tangmere the Dig for Victory project is a commemoration of local history. Another school cooked a Tudor soup to tie in with its work on Henry VIII.
DTJConstructing leaf mesh bins and studying different types of compost bins.
Potato and parsley pesto soup Serves 8 Ingredients For the soup: 2 onions -finely chopped, 15ml (1 tbsp) sunflower oil, 9 new potatoes - diced, 750ml - 1 litre stock, 800ml conchigliette pasta shells.
For the parsley pesto: 45ml (3 tbsp) fresh parsley, 2 basil leaves - torn, 30ml (2 tbsp) Parmesan cheese - grated, 15ml (1 tbsp) pinenuts, 1 clove garlic -crushed, 30ml (2 tbsp) olive oil.
Sharp knife, chopping board, tablespoon, teaspoon, grater, measuring jug, large saucepan with lid, mini blender.
How to make it
1 Place the finely chopped onions in a large saucepan with the sunflower oil. Sweat over a low-medium heat with the lid on for 5-7 minutes or until softened.
2 Add the diced potatoes and the stock. Bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer for 8-10 minutes.
3 Add the pasta shells and cook for a further 8 minutes or until the conchigliette is al dente.
4 While the pasta is cooking make the parsley pesto. Place all pesto ingredients into a mini blender and blitz until the required consistency, adding the olive oil to taste.
5 Spoon the parsley pesto into the cooked soup to serve.