A school kitchen garden is an excellent way to teach students where their food comes from and provides them with an opportunity to connect with nature. Students can become part of the whole process from selecting seeds, growing and harvesting crops and selling them at school fairs or farmers’ markets. The food can be used within school meals or students can make jams and chutneys to be sold and raise funds for the school.

As Kathy d’Apice, gardener with charity School Food Matters says, “Getting students involved in a school garden may inspire them to pursue careers in the food industry, practise gardening at home, and cook and eat produce that contributes to their long-term health.”

The ethos of School Food Matters is to educate children about food, how it’s grown and cooked as well as improving children’s access to healthy, sustainable food. It works with schools offering support through local and national projects, as well as a variety of growing and enterprise programmes.

It encourages schools to involve children in all stages of the gardening process. Kathy says, “At the initial stage, schools can invite students to conduct baseline surveys to evaluate the gardening site and soil to determine if they have an appropriate space for growing. Teachers can connect this process to the school curriculum on plant biology. Every stage of gardening is an opportunity for learning. Take a cross-curricular approach to school garden development by inviting students into every phase of the growing process and spanning across departments.”

How to get started

Daniela Jamois, assistant head of Charles Dickens Primary School in London’s Southwark, who has
worked with School Food Matters for several years and is now an expert gardener, recommends the best way
to get started is to “Make sure you have at least two members of staff who have some growing experience to pass onto other staff. Depending on your budget or time, either install raised beds or use containers as planters. Even a bag for life can be filled with soil and house a huge pumpkin or courgette plant. Tomatoes can be grown straight out of a bag of compost and potatoes grow well in old bins with a couple of drainage holes at the bottom. Start with easy germinators such as beans, nasturtiums, sunflowers and courgettes. Broad beans can even go in as early as October for those really keen to start early.”

At Charles Dickens Primary School, children are keen to grow fruit, so the school has introduced raspberry canes, strawberries, currants, apples, and cherries. Beans are a staple at the school, says Daniela, as the children find these easy to germinate. Another popular crop is rocket. “Our children love to nibble on a rocket leaf, comparing the spiciness each month and noticing the changes in flavour over the year,” she says. “Nasturtiums are also grown for salad as the children are excited to learn about edible flowers, so we make sure this easy plant is grown every year. Our Early Years classes visit the kitchen garden regularly which gives them a wonderful sense of the changing seasons.”

The school participates every year in the Young Marketeers programme, run by School Food Matters, which teaches primary schoolchildren about growing their own vegetables and selling their harvests. “The children are taught about growing produce from seed at nearby Borough Market. They’re given a tour of the market to pick up tricks of the trade on how to set up a successful stall. At harvest time in October, they set up their own stall and sell to the public,” says Daniela.

Katie Worth, Food For Life programme officer, Leicestershire, works with schools to help them start and maintain kitchen gardens. “Get pupils involved in what they’re growing. Talk to them about what they like or dislike but would like to try, and get them to write a seed shopping list. You can start with micro-greens on a windowsill – pea shoots or cress that can be put into a sandwich or taken home for salads.”

Sowing seeds and saving costs

Washingborough Academy in Lincolnshire has a 300sqm organic kitchen garden and a 15m long polytunnel, bee hives, and Lincolnshire Heritage orchard. It only grows heritage and heirloom seeds which promote biodiversity. Dr Jason O’Rourke, headteacher, says, “If you stick to manufactured seeds, you can’t save them – you have to buy them again year on year. For example, if you take a tomato at the end of the season and squeeze the seeds out into a jar of water, after 72 hours there will be new seeds which sink to the bottom and can be used next year.” The other advantage is the broad spectrum of species such as black tomatoes, purple carrots and tromboncino squash. “It opens children’s eyes to the range of vegetables and the concept that if you don’t like one apple, it doesn’t necessarily mean you dislike all apples,” he says.

Every week Learning Support Assistants take groups of children to do weeding, planting, saving seeds and harvesting. Classes take responsibility for growing individual species. “Having lessons in the school kitchen garden gives children the connection to nature and highlights where their food comes from, making them more inclined to include vegetables and fruit in their diets,” says Jason.

A considerable amount of food produced in the kitchen garden at Washingborough Academy is used in the school kitchen. Chef Pern Smart is involved in the choice of crops grown in the garden for use in the kitchen and during TasteEd lessons.

Branching out

Encouraging children to grow their own fruit and veg is a key part of the Food For Life Awards scheme, run by the Soil Association. Every year the organisation runs a Plant and Share Month in the spring with the aim of growing and sharing produce within local communities. This is followed by Cook and Share Month in November where pupils, families and staff get together and cook a dish from scratch, often from produce grown in the school garden.

In June, Katie suggests growing produce that grows quickly such as peas, lettuce or radishes. “Children don’t traditionally like radishes, but want to try something new. Have a radish “race” for students. Put pots outside the school door and see which radish grows fastest.”

Encouraging schools to work with school caterers is part of the Food For Life Awards scheme. “It’s important to let the catering team know which produce will be ready and when so they can plan to include it in meals,” says Katie. “Spinach, carrots, potatoes and tomatoes can be expensive to buy. One farmer has a beekeeper going into schools to help them build their own hives, keep bees and produce honey. We’ve encouraged others to get their own chickens.”

The benefits of kitchen gardens in schools are numerous, but what is exciting is that we are seeing how schools are creating a movement that is bigger than a simple veg patch. Children are connecting with nature and their communities, learning new skills, improving health and broadening their outlook on life, and it all starts with a single seed.

Visit https://www.schoolfoodmatters.org/ and https://www.foodforlife.org.uk/schools-and-early-years/schools for more information.