Food and Health in Primary School

child's hand picks a broad bean from plant

Conversation with a Learning Mentor

Normally when I visit a food place, I prepare for a blog, take snaps, make notes, but today I put my smartphone down to listen up.

Kirsty Ollerenshaw is a teaching mentor and a mother.

Gunthorpe Primary School’s solar dome learning space

When I first “met” her, on an online Incredible Edible event, she was asking questions about restoring abandoned raised beds at Gunthorpe Primary School in Peterborough, where she had just started working.

I sighed inwardly, in gloomy recognition of the abandoned school garden situation, as the participants exchanged helpful tips and words of encouragement. 

So when I arrived at the school this morning, I knew with my own eyes that Kirsty’s determination had shone right through that daunting circumstance.

But as we sat down to talk in the solar dome, the stories behind her passion and dedication took precedence over guided tours.

Family, food & learning

Kirsty spoke of her own family’s food journey with a child with autism, and how the family’s diet had changed radically – and for the better – as they realised the profound impact that food had on his behaviour and experience of life.

We talked about how our own children’s health and happiness matter most to us as parents – how we pack them off to school in the morning, and maybe they will be academic, and maybe they’ll be sporty, maybe they’ll be arty, or maybe not.

Gunthorpe Primary School – children’s salad veg box

But if they’re happy and healthy, everything else can all follow.

We talked about why it might be that schools are twice as likely to be rated OFSTED outstanding following their participation in the Soil Association’s Food for Life programme:

Perhaps inspectors (like any of us) are in a better mood when they’re surrounded by healthy plants and cared-for growing environments.

Perhaps the type of school leadership who choose to join the Food for Life scheme are already pretty on it.

And maybe eating more fresh fruit and veg is really good for children’s health, attention, concentration, behaviour and … they just get more out of their education.

Opportunities to grow in school

The scale of the multiple problems we face – from the obesity epidemic and addiction to cheap, processed food, to schools’ tight budgets, ingrained habits and heavy workloads – can seem daunting, and Kirsty is clear-eyed about those realities.

But she is also very alert to the opportunities available at a school with a decent playing field, a supportive leadership, and the legacy of a former teacher with a passion for growing, in the form of raised beds, conveniently installed water butts and a small polytunnel. 

The polytunnel, she points out, is not within the school fence, so it is perfectly sited for a community growing space: families can continue, during the summer holidays, to weed, water and – hallelujah! – harvest the fruits of their term-time labours. (Summer holiday wasted harvests and six weeks of neglect are behind many a school garden falling to ruin).

It is obvious to me how much Kirsty and the children have done since she arrived just months ago – the raised beds are topped up with fresh compost, the compost bays are stacked high with green waste, flowers and food crops of every kind are growing healthily, and the peas are looking ready to pick.

Gunthorpe Primary School’s garden peas

Kirsty is modest:

“Rough, rough, good enough!” she says with a laugh. It’s the kind of motto to start making things possible in the face of problems that seem un-scaleable.

 “That’s a saying I learned in New Zealand and I’m glad I did because now I live by it! I used to spend a lot of time on little details with teaching, but the kids really don’t care about that. But they do care about this -” she gestures around her.

“Sometimes the children learn about plants in the classroom, they draw diagrams in their books, but they’re not out here in the garden, or in the polytunnel. Sometimes it’s as if we’re not putting two and two together.”

Enthusiasm is contagious!

I ask Kirsty what is the best thing about what she has done so far – there’s plenty to choose from, and she is quick to answer: 

“The children’s engagement. It makes me certain that we’re onto something here.”

“They love it when they get to take plants home with them. We did this experiment, planting several sorts of bean, and they kept on wanting to come back and talk about which ones grew the fastest or the biggest. 

“If one of the children asks to take something home from the polytunnel, I try and make sure they can.”

If you’re a teacher, a parent or you are involved with your local school in Lincolnshire, and you’d like to be part of a movement for better food in schools, please get in touch; or if you are already part of a school healthy food network or community, we are keen to hear about it.

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