Thursday 23 November 2017

Sowing the seed of empathy in children

Growing sunflowers for children can be a joy
Growing sunflowers for children can be a joy

Growing sunflowers with young people is a joy. Not only do they reap great rewards, they also get a deeper understanding of sustainable living during the process.

I met a guy the other day who told me a story about the power of food growing to create an understanding in children about nutritious food and sustainable living. His children sowed sunflower seeds in planting cups in school, and then brought them home where they were planted down the end of the garden, against a south-facing wall.

In this hi-tech age, he's been astonished by the interest the children have shown in their sunflowers – there are daily trips to the end of the garden to measure progress, which with sunflowers is a satisfying thing indeed since they grow so rapidly (and up to 10ft tall eventually).

Then a miraculous thing happens – the plants produce enormous, beautiful sunflowers. The sunflower is one of the most animated, optimistic and downright cheery flowers you can have in your garden – the flower literally follows the sun across the horizon by day, only to turn back and face east by sunrise.

A joy to behold, but also the starting point in the sunflower's demise – the flower eventually bows down and looks rather sad as it starts to die. But there's time for one more miracle in which the dying plant suddenly becomes useful from a food perspective – the seeds in the flower head can be harvested for food. So from this strange plant, you get an unlikely abundance of seeds that can be nibbled on (wonderfully nutty) or sprinkled in to yoghurt or on top of porridge.

If this direct connection between the act of sowing a seed and the act of food-consumption wasn't eye-opening enough for his kids, consider what happened next. It occurred to them that the seeds they were about to eat looked the very same as the seeds sown in soil months back. And so, a lightbulb moment occurred, where the full food lifecycle from seed to plant, plant to flower, flower to food, food to seed – was laid out before them. They even suggested storing some seed to grow next year.

I like to call that lightbulb moment 'food empathy'. Food empathy is a deeper understanding of food, where it comes from, how it is produced, and the time and effort required. It is an understanding of seasonality and the lifecycle of 'growth-decay-growth' which is so central to life on this planet.

The dawning of food empathy is a hugely important development because it can have such a massive knock-on impact on all areas of our lives. It can make us physically and mentally healthy, and help us to live more sustainably.

Crucially, this means that to bring about change we don't have to try and get people to disengage from the food chain and grow ALL their own food. In fact, in the context of food empathy, even just growing a few sunflowers can be incredibly worthwhile. When a person who has food empathy engages with the food chain to buy food, they make different decisions – they buy more seasonal, local and organic food. Because they attach a real value to food and understand the effort and time involved in creating it, they aren't always looking for the cheapest food, which should be good news for local food producers too.

Food empathy was on my mind this week, when we got invited to the annual Garden Party at St Thomas' Senior School in Jobstown, Tallaght. The school won the 2012 Innocent GIY Sow & Grow schools programme, so it was great to go back one year on to see their progress. The Garden Party is a chance for the children to show off their great work and is celebrated by the whole community in Jobstown.

The Sow & Grow programme has food empathy at its core – because the growing is done in planting cups which are then brought home, it keeps things simple and accessible to all schools regardless of whether they have any space for growing or a teacher with food-growing expertise. An unexpected side effect of the campaign is that the kids, in their unbridled enthusiasm, become GIY ambassadors at home.

At St Thomas' school they have an impressive school veg garden, where there are colourful raised vegetable beds growing all manner of veg.

Teacher Maura Moloney told us about how food empathy can change the lives of even the most marginalised children. "We've seen their self esteem blossom as every child can succeed regardless of ability."

So, a big shout out to the 30,000 children in over 700 youth clubs and schools who took part in this year's innocent GIY Sow & Grow campaign, and congrats to our winning school, Miss Forde's First Class in St Kevin's GNS, Kilnamanagh. Looking forward to next year.

* Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY.

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