I knew I was on the right track when a boy helping out in the garden with some broad beans said “Oh I get it now Miss, that one seed we put in the ground has given us all this food! I never knew that was how it worked.” It was from this moment that everything began to become clear: educating children about the importance of food and nature to our health and our planet needed to be at the heart of the curriculum.
The foundations for everything we have achieved so far at Greenside had been laid down gradually over a six year journey - but it happened almost by accident. Six years ago, we decided that we were not happy with the standard of the school lunches served by the local authority catering contract. They just weren’t good enough and it got us thinking about how the lunch hour had become such a devalued aspect of the school day. The lunch hour takes up a significant part of the school day, so why should the offering in that hour be something that isn’t considered? Why should that hour be seen as less important than the time spent on maths or reading? Rather than shutting the door on lunchtime, we decided to integrate it into the heart of the school - making that offer not only nutritionally better, but also better for education and even better for our community. We were committed to serving better food but also committed to making it a valuable learning opportunity.
So essentially we opened a brand new restaurant - overnight, and it needed to be good! As if this wasn’t enough pressure, we had also decided to make the menu 100% vegetarian. The reasons for this were threefold: to be inclusive, to educate our students about other ways of eating and to keep costs down. Cost was a huge factor. Most people do not realise that there is no funding for school lunches outside of what each student pays. We have to buy all the food, pay the kitchen staff wages and maintain all the kitchen equipment solely from the cost of a £2.20 school lunch. By only serving vegetarian meals and making sensible ordering choices we were able to show that we can showcase seasonality, serve produce at its peak and help to diversify the range of food our students are eating. It also means we have total control over our menu - if we want to serve a cheese board for pudding we can. We can and do make it exactly what we want it to be. It wasn’t plain sailing by any stretch of the imagination. Our first chef didn’t work out and that meant resorting to Plan B: me. I have always been interested in food but I am a teacher, not a trained chef. I cooked lunch everyday for three weeks but I also had to teach a class, so I ended up combining the two things. I taught the children through the cooking: they learnt maths through weighing the ingredients, scaling up recipes, doing the invoices, reading happened through recipes and they learnt world ready skills in the form of chopping, cooking and serving food to others. It was a eureka experience that showed what was possible. It showed us that you can use food as a vehicle for learning.
Community also became a key driving factor. The success of our lunchtimes depended on all of our students having a school lunch - this meant phasing out packed lunches altogether. To do this we had to make sure that what we were offering was consistently great: great variety, great experience, great flavour and great value for money. We invited parents in to eat with us so they could experience what we were trying to do and we also invited parents to cook with us. By doing this we made the whole lunchtime into a community event and extended our offer beyond just our students. Sofia, one of our parents, became our chef and the rest of the kitchen team all stem from our school community.
This same philosophy stretched out to our garden where we have a vegetable growing area. We had begun to grow some vegetables when we started the kitchen. After a couple of years, we realised that the garden and growing element of things had become really important for behaviour management and the wellbeing of the kids as well as for supplying veg to our kitchen. We began to use the garden space in more diverse ways. We are not a Forest School but we developed a version of nature based learning that works in our context: learning in nature - something as simple as going outside to read a book, through nature - using the outside space to facilitate the learning and with nature - actually using the natural world for learning.
We knew that working in the garden had a positive impact on mental wellbeing. We identified a group of students who were struggling with anxiety, wellbeing, emotional regulation — especially on the back of COVID. We used the garden as a way in for them to discuss issues that they were struggling with. This way of learning through nature means that we could meet the needs of our students, using our space and within our context. We also began to use the garden as a means of supporting class based learning. One class were learning through the film The Life of Pi and were inspired by the kind of food Pi would’ve had back at home, so they harvested the glut of veg we had in the garden and cooked lunch for the whole school. The children had grown the veg, harvested it and then turned it into something delicious they could share.
We had reached a good point with our kitchen and garden, with our nature based learning and it was during the summer when I thought about what we could do next to make what we’ve done even better. How can we make our growing program to support our kitchen better and our understanding of science and how the food system is entirely connected to climate change? I did a lot of reading: Albert Howard, Nicole Masters, Gabe Brown, Dan Brown and the whole school soil project came from that. So we began the new school year with a commitment to seeing how we could grow the most nutritionally rich products whilst harnessing the power or nature and regenerating our soil. The beauty of this science project is that it gets taught besides what already exists in the National Curriculum. Each year group takes responsibility for the project for a half term when they are learning about plants and living things. The essence of the project is rooted in the principles of regenerative agriculture. We started by baseline testing our soil then sowing a range of different cover crops designed to harness nitrogen and sequester carbon, we regularly count worms and carry out slake and water infiltration rates as well as studying the increase in the biodiversity of our site. Thanks to our family volunteers, we have implemented a composting system where all our kitchen waste - both cooked and raw, are put to good use and fed back into our soil - we are a long way from being a closed loop system but we are trying. The regenerative community is great at sharing knowledge and through the support of people like Tim Williams, Natoora, Wildfarmed and many others, we are able to show our kids that what we are doing has a real world context. Our soil project mirrors what is happening on large scale regenerative farms and shows that size or location is not a barrier to learning about the interconnectedness between the food system and the health of the planet. We have done all of this by integrating it into the curriculum - everyone does it, all the time, it’s not an additional bolt on, it has become an integral part of our school.
The power of what we’re doing here and how it goes beyond the classroom is further embodied in what I call ‘Breaducation’. We planted a regenerative wheat field (use the term loosely), got a bread oven and opened a micro-bakery within the school. We wanted to follow the breadmaking process from start to finish in an inner-city context, where most people don’t have a clue what a wheat seed looks like and how bread is made and to show that good bread is for everybody. The population wheat we planted is the same wheat that is in the Wildfarmed flour that we use. It has become a big community project as we had parent volunteers helping to plant the wheat seeds at the front of the school, people from the neighbourhood were walking past asking what was going on, so we opened up a conversation with the community. We bake a range of breads daily - including sourdough and focaccia, to serve along with our school lunch and we also bake extra to share with our community at the weekly ‘pay what you can’ Friday bread sales. All of our students from Nursery to Year 6 are baking as part of their learning experiences. We have shown that making bread can be as much a part of integrated curriculum learning as it is a World Ready skill.