Michelle Darmody's food mission: Why we need to teach our kids to cook at school

Michelle Darmody's food mission: Why we need to teach our kids to cook at school
Michelle Darmody, with pupils, planting crops in the vegetable garden of Edmonstown National School in Rathfarnham. Pictures: Moya Nolan

We’ve all gone back to basics in recent months, and Covid-19 has really exposed how many of us are missing vital life skills — like cooking. 

Chef, cookery writer, and food campaigner Michelle Darmody is on a mission to make food part of our school system. Here, she writes why it’s never been so important.

Even on a cold, crisp spring day, the students in Edmondstown were excited to be going outside into the school garden. 

They were starting to plant edible crops for the year ahead. 

The school is part of a pilot initiative that I have been developing alongside staff in the environmental education programme, Green-Schools. 

The students are working towards getting another green flag for their school, but this one is a little different: It is a food and biodiversity flag.

That sunny day I enjoyed with the young students was before the global pandemic was announced by the WHO, before our schools shut down abruptly, and before we all became more aware of the precarity of our food system. 

That morning in Edmundstown school seems more important now. 

None of us knows how the cards will fall once we start to piece our society back together after the virus, but one thing we do all know is that food, how it is made, where it is made, and how we consume it will be redefined. 

Having worked with the food sector most of my life, setting up The Cake Café and Slice, both of which have links with local food suppliers, and then a social enterprise, called Our Table, to raise awareness of direct provision, I know how food can create change and bring people together. 

I have been an advocate for expanding food education in Ireland for many years. 

Our current mode of telling children what is good and bad food is not sufficient. 

We need to build skills and engender a sense of enjoyment in food.

Back to Edmondstown. In year one of the programme, the children focus on food sources close to home. 

They create a food habitat map of their school and its grounds, labelling all the places where food or drinking water are available, as well as locating the sunniest spots to grow their vegetables and fruit, or noting how food waste is disposed. 

A number of workshops were hosted in the schools by Green-Schools staff, including one about soil health and another on how seeds grow. 

Later in the year, the students begin to plant, with each class choosing a different crop to nurture. 

At harvest time, the children pick the fruit and vegetables and prepare food with them.

The cooking session can be adapted to whatever facilities the school might have. 

Last year, one school simply made delicious bowls of salads with mixed green leaves and lots of herbs and sliced carrots; others made spring rolls and dips; while others created tasty meals with their potato crop. 

Michelle Darmody's food mission: Why we need to teach our kids to cook at school

The foods were eaten with glee, creating a connection between the garden and the kitchen. 

Throughout the session, the taste, flavour, and texture of the food is discussed, linking everything back to the children using their senses and creating enjoyment in the making and eating of the food.

In the second year of the programme, the focus turns further afield, to how food impacts the world. 

The school comes together to concentrate on topics as diverse as food miles, food packaging, or pollinators. 

They delve deep into these subjects, presenting the results on the walls of the school corridors. 

The edible school garden is tended again, and a garden day is hosted among the schools, so they can share what they have learnt from the global food projects and show each other what they have grown and what edible treats were made with it.

Projects like the food and biodiversity flag will help shape brighter futures for Irish children and the skills they develop from this, and from other food education projects, will mould the future of our food system.

We have a chance, at this strange and sad moment in time, during the coronavirus outbreak, to look to a brighter future, one where local food is valued, cooking within the home from the ingredients to hand is not a skill of yesteryear, and where farm workers are respected and paid a reasonable living wage. 

In fact, we may not have a choice on any of these issues, and it is best to put in place systems, and a form of education, that equip us, as a country, to create a sustainable food future.

But there also needs to be a change within government, a recognition that food should be addressed seriously within our education system.

 

At present, food is not mentioned too often in schools, and if it is, it tends to be within a health framework rather than focusing on building skills, sustainability, or enjoyment.

In Australia, the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Programme creates positive food habits through fun and hands-on learning. 

The initiative links the garden and kitchen. 

On a trip to Australia, I visited a number of cooking classes and was impressed with the intricacy of what was being made.

One enthusiastic eight-year-old was telling me the history of corn, as I helped him set the table for the tortillas his class had just made. 

Within minutes, our beautifully laid table was filled with tomato salads and roasted squash. 

The children ate enthusiastically, sharing among themselves, and then cleared the tables and washed up after lunch.

In another school, I watched as a class of six- and seven-year olds made sheets of pasta and then shaped them into raviolis, stuffed with a mix of herbs from their garden.

Their classmates were carefully sautéing an onion for the accompanying pasta sauce. 

They waited with excitement for the small cubes to turn translucent, explaining to me that this made them nice and sweet.

Michelle Darmody's food mission: Why we need to teach our kids to cook at school

There was a real enjoyment in the school kitchens, while the children were also developing valuable food skills, such as how to use a knife or how to intuitively sense when something is cooked.

Inspirational food education projects are happening throughout Ireland. 

For example, the HSE is starting to run six-week cooking modules within schools, Grow It Yourself Ireland (GIY) have a number of excellent food-growing projects, while Airfield Trust, in Dublin, run food courses, as well as training days for teachers. 

But, when food is not embedded within the school day, as it is in other countries, projects rely on an interested party to sustain them.

Chef Darina Allen has been campaigning for a number of years, not only for a more sustained approach to food education, but also for decisive government action.

The oversight of food in Irish schools can be a bit mind-boggling.

The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection funds the school meals programme, the Department of Children advocates for the children within the schools, the Department of Agriculture funds food-tasting initiatives, the Department of Health develops healthy-eating policy, and the Department of Education and Skills works on strategy, buildings, and curriculum. 

While people are doing good work within each department, it is hard for everyone to align when there are so many different actors involved. 

In other countries, cross-government working groups have been connecting conversations and joining the dots.

In Ireland, we need one minister to see that there is a problem and then to champion it. 

Michelle Darmody's food mission: Why we need to teach our kids to cook at school

The first step could be a cross-government working group, addressing food in schools, ideally followed by a wider, cross-departmental initiative within the community. 

For example, an initiative like Creative Ireland or Healthy Ireland, but focused on addressing a whole-of-society approach to appreciating and enjoying the food we eat and focused on securing a food system that will feed us well in the future.

Many things need to change for Ireland to have a better relationship with food. 

We need to look at the dominance of companies who create ultra-processed, high-fat, high-salt foods and who sell them at huge profits, hence having large budgets for clever marketing, which is often focused at children.

We need to look at the distribution of this advertising, and its proximity to schools.

We need to look at regions where it is difficult to buy fresh fruit and vegetables; these are often where people have least access to transport.

Education can be a starting point, but food education would have to be manageable and realistic, taking the lead from those working within schools.

We teach language with which to communicate, we teach maths with which to problem solve, yet we do not teach the very crucial skills associated with making food. 

Building a sense of pleasure and enjoyment in food, as well as hands-on cooking skills, may be the best way to remedy the stark warnings about the diet-related ill-health of Ireland’s children and to build a solid food future.

Schools are certainly not the only answer, but they could be a place to start. 

As any teacher will tell you, the school day is very busy and that is why some joined-up thinking from government would benefit all.

  • After a successful pilot project, the food and biodiversity flag will be rolled out to 45 schools next year.

    Michelle Darmody, as well as writing for the Irish Examiner, is a researcher in TU Dublin, focusing on Irish food education. She is also a member of the Food in Schools Policy Network. Michelle opened The Cake Cafe, in Dublin, and was co-creator of Our Table, a food project highlighting the need to end direct provision in Ireland.

    (Michelle’s make-up courtesy of Bobbi Brown)

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