The age of home economics classes – included in the core curriculum of schools that taught children the basics of ‘keeping house’ – has come and gone. Complementary gardening, cooking and even some nutrition programmes have replaced them, but food is much more than home gardens and what’s for dinner. Food is political. Food can be degrading, and it can be regenerative. Food is a leading driver of our planetary crisis, from greenhouse gas emissions to biodiversity loss, and it also offers a powerful solution. How can food education programmes help children understand the relationship between food and planetary health? And how can we help today’s youngest citizens become tomorrow’s food system leaders?

Drawing a connection between farming and food is an important place to start. Today’s youngest generations will likely be leaders in a world experiencing crop failures from climatic and meteorological changes, such as irregular weather patterns, droughts, frosts and floods, exacerbated by poor soil resilience. They will reckon with freshwater pollution from fertiliser run-off and loss of essential pollinators from pesticide overuse. In the coming decades, communities will be pressed to regenerate and recover land through food production. It’s time to situate the food crisis within childhood education, not only to help young people better understand where their food comes from, but to build the leaders the 21st century’s food system will so desperately need.

A great place to begin teaching kids about the food system is from square one – arguably the most environmentally deleterious (or regenerative) stages of them all: food production.

Ian Wilkinson and Heidi Gibbs of FarmED see the significance of teaching kids of all ages about food, starting with the farm. The organisation, based in Oxfordshire and comprised of a demonstration farm and education centre, welcomes hundreds of students every year for activities around their crop fields and orchards, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) centre, micro-dairy and experimental plots. By showing children how an agroecological farm functions, rather than simply immersing children in a school garden, the team hopes to instil an awareness and curiosity about the farming process.

“We walk around the soils, we compare the heritage grains and the organic matter within that. We’re getting them to touch it and smell it,” says Gibbs, FarmEd’s Food and Farm Discovery Coordinator, adding that visiting school groups have the opportunity to learn things that simply aren’t talked about in school. Gibbs and Wilkinson believe that helping children “get back to the soil, back to the land, back to the heritage,” even if for just a day, can get the conversation going around how the land provides the food on their tables.

Extra-curricular food education

While farm and agricultural education is absent from school curriculum, there are many programmes trying to bring an understanding of food production to young people. London-based School Food Matters hopes to help kids connect the dots between farming and food with their Schools to Market programme, which helps students see the lifecycle of food, “from seed to supermarket”. LEAF Education takes it a step further, training educators to deliver curriculum through on-farm or in-class programmes and teaching farmers how to develop learning experiences on their farm.

Programmes like these are abundant across the country. They are important complements to childhood education, but they are falling short in helping today’s youth understand the environmental implications of food production and how farming across the globe is affecting climate change, biodiversity loss, public health decline, food insecurity, and labour and welfare issues.

First, many of these programmes are auxiliary to the core curriculum in schools, so participation depends on the willingness and availability of schools to delay regular programming for an extra-curricular activity. Many also focus on small-scale food production, such as gardens or smallholdings, instead of discussing the large-scale industrial reality of the farms that produce most of this country’s food. Additionally, many of these initiatives are non-profits or foundation-based, so they rely heavily on sufficient funding to continue or expand their missions. And because they’re not part of school curricula, the food and farming issues they teach are seen as supplementary, not essential, and they are not contextualised within the core subjects that students learn in school, like maths, history or science, despite the strong overlaps.

School farms

One valuable way to integrate the food system into childhood education is through school farms – farms at schools that allow children to grow food, care for animals and begin to consider farming as a genuine career option. Throughout the UK, the School Farms Network claims that these farms can help involve young people in the realities of producing their own food. But at the moment, there are only 120 school farms across Britain – that’s just 0.4% of UK schools.

At FarmEd, children are brought from nearby schools to an off-site farm. Gibbs and Wilkinson admit that while a day at the farm is time well spent, it’s not hardly enough. Ideally, they say, this programming would be made available to children throughout the year, across the country, by other farmers doing similar work. It would also be integrated into school curriculum. “There’s a massive gap with teacher’s knowledge and how they’re directing and explaining things,” Gibbs says, calling into question how to better educate teachers as well as children about the food system. Wilkinson, a farmer and FarmED’s founder, echoes this sentiment, expressing a need to bring farming and food education into teacher training colleges.

He also proposes that food education through farming is a necessary way for farms and farmers to reclaim how conceptions about food develop as children mature. “At the moment, we are dependent on the supply chains to provide us with all the information as to where our food comes from,” says Wilkinson, citing food companies and supermarkets that, while increasingly transparent, don’t provide sufficient information about all their sourcing practices. Farming education initiatives can help children understand the resources, from labour and energy to water and fertilisers, that go into their food. But they should also help kids understand the impact of producing food on our land, our natural resources and our communities.

Creating change in food education

Trying to bring the behemoth that is the food system into childhood education is understandably a challenge, especially in a world that doesn’t value ecological wellbeing. So how do we fix it? How do we convey to children the importance of a sustainable food system so that they can make wiser decisions than past generations, and help to mitigate and reverse climate change?

That’s a huge question and I’ll leave the technicalities up to the pedagogues. But it’s clear that we need food and farming topics woven into school curriculum, even if that means integrating lessons into existing core studies, such as addressing the Green Revolution and the environmental impact of industrialisation in history classes. Wilkinson also advocates for community-based education projects, such as FarmED, to expand across communities and offer immersive learning experiences accessible to all. Outside the realm of formal education, governments and corporations may be an unexpected education source, with their immense power in changing public perceptions of food. Recent regulations have succeeded in limiting how food is advertised to children, but perhaps these efforts can evolve from ‘do no harm’ to ‘do some good’, and start to promote foods and products produced sustainably.

Ultimately, farming education programmes hold great potential to allow children to be inquisitive and find joy in exploring food. Gibbs notes that the visiting school groups love to run around the orchard and find the funniest named apple trees. Yet they also ask important questions like ’Should we all be vegan?’ And they find it mad, she says, that the foods exported from the UK are sometimes the very same ones grown here on British soil.

The food system “needs to be deconstructed somehow. And the way to do that is with knowledge and information,” says Wilkinson, insisting that education is key to making more sustainable food choices. As these choices become an increasingly powerful way to combat climate change and biodiversity loss, we need to help today’s youngest citizens understand how to cultivate a food system that can heal our planet.