Rooted in food education: Taking our mission to the Chelsea Flower Show

11 May 2023
In just 10 days, around 170,000 visitors will descend on the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, along with journalists and TV cameras. Oh, and in case you haven’t heard, we’ll be there too with our special show garden, spreading awareness of our mission to ensure every child is able to explore, learn and enjoy nature.

We sat down with Stephanie Slater, Founder and Chief Executive of School Food Matters, to discuss the importance of food education in schools and children’s access to nature as well as what we’re aiming to get out of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Where did the vision for a School Food Matters Garden begin? What was the inspiration?

It all started with designer Harry Holding, who came to us about two years ago with the idea of doing a Chelsea Flower Show Garden as part of our 15th birthday celebration. We thought it was a great idea, not least because it’s a fantastic opportunity to take our message to a wider audience - probably one that wouldn't know about us unless they're particularly interested in education or food growing.

And we knew Harry would be the perfect project partner because he's worked with schools and shares our commitment to outdoor learning. The problem was, he didn't have any funding. So we paused, as it's not the sort of thing School Food Matters could raise money for. Any funding that comes to us goes towards our charitable mission, which is increasing children's access to nature and focusing on school food.

We thought it wasn't going to happen but Harry then found funding for the garden in the form of Project Giving Back. We were back on. He went away to design this beautiful garden, which aligns with everything we do. And really, the only thing he needed help with was describing the garden in the context of our charitable mission, so we worked very closely together on that.

The School Food Matters Garden designed by Harry Holding for RHS Chelsea 2023

What’s the core message you want to get out there with the garden?

That access to nature is the right of every child. Lots of children are lucky enough to have gardens at home, but many do not have that privilege. We want to make sure that even if they don't have a garden at home, children get access to nature. And the best way to ensure this is through a school garden.

We want to inspire curiosity in nature. We want to demonstrate what is available to them if they go outside. Over and over again, our school programmes show us that if you get children out of the classroom to explore nature, they'll go from spider and worm-phobic to champions of biodiversity. You just need to let them get out there and get their hands dirty.

Why is it important for children to learn about food and how it grows from a young age?

Fundamentally, we want children to experience the joy of food, we want to improve their relationship with food and we want to move it from something they simply do to get through the day to something that is truly pleasurable and inspires curiosity. The best way to do that is to get them involved in food. That means growing it, cooking it, tasting it, sharing it - all the things we do through our programmes.

With teenagers, often the way in is through enterprise - teaching them that food is a marketable commodity and that they can make a buck out of selling their own food products. That is really exciting and opens up a whole world of career pathways.

I keep on saying, come the revolution, we'll have a subject called food education that goes all the way from reception, with sensory learning, all the way through to A-level, teaching geopolitics, global conflict around food and so on. It's a fundamental right of children to learn how to keep themselves healthy. And schools are a great place to start that journey, especially if there are limited resources or no space at home.

  • Schoolchildren gardening
    Schoolchildren gardening
  • Young Marketeers cooking session
    Young Marketeers cooking session
  • Students selling food at Borough Market
    Students selling food at Borough Market

What are the benefits of children getting their hands dirty in the garden compared to learning about food from a textbook?

It’s about engagement. Benjamin Franklin is famous for saying, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn”. When educating children about food, involving them means giving them the opportunity to grow their own. Rather than colouring in vegetables on a sheet of paper, let’s get children outside, planting seeds and watching nature do her thing!

Is school food and food education more on the agenda now compared to when School Food Matters started 15 years ago?

I’d say yes. That’s mainly because, over that time, we’ve experienced huge changes and world events, including Covid-19, the cost-of-living crisis and growing food poverty. I originally set up the charity to improve the quality of school food, not about access to food. Today, we find ourselves campaigning to ensure all children have the good nutrition they need at school to thrive.

As a society, we’re also talking a lot more about food, children’s health and health inequalities. Because it’s more in the public eye, I think a lot of schools are doing more about it and seeing the value of it.

There’s been a massive spike in mental health challenges amongst young people in recent years. I think more schools are understanding outdoor learning is a real route to happiness for their children. During lockdown, outdoor learning was one of the few things schools could do within the Covid restrictions, so we saw increased demand for our programmes. And I think once schools have a go at food education and see the benefits, they keep it going.

What difference would it make if all schools had a garden?

Every child would understand that a carrot comes from the ground, not magically from a supermarket. They would see that there is no food without pollinators or soil. If you can get these messages in really early, we might even develop environmental stewards who can help us tackle the climate and environmental challenges we’re facing. One of the lessons we teach with our Young Marketeers programme is around food insecurity - what it means not to be able to access food and the absurdity of food waste. If we can raise awareness and get young people to value food more and not take it for granted - that’s also good for their health and their precious planet.

What would it take to make it possible for all schools to have a garden? Who would need to act?

Wouldn't it be great if a government of whatever hue saw the value of a school garden as an educational resource and adequately funded schools so that they can have these amazing outdoor spaces? Wouldn't it be great if every head teacher saw the value of outdoor learning, so it can happen even with limited funding? We've got children growing vegetables in pots and pans, bathtubs and wheelbarrows. So, it is possible, but school leaders need the will and the skill to make this happen. 

In my mind we need less of a carrot and more of a stick approach! Food education is on the national curriculum but it is absolutely squeezed and the delivery is patchy. Food ed sits within the Design and Technology curriculum which gets little attention from Ofsted. If food education was given the same attention as English and maths, school gardens would pop up all over the country!