Growing Food: Our story and philosophy

I left school in 1984 (aged 17) and joined a Youth Training Scheme to learn how to cook. I trained to be a Chef for a year and I’ve remained a very keen cook and a foodie ever since.

I went on to Watford College to study graphic design, print, photography and film before embarking on a 30 year career as a graphic designer. I’ve worked freelance for the past 13 years.

I’m a proud parent to two lovely children. I am a life enthusiast, a campaigner and environmentalist.

When I cook for my two children – or for anyone in fact – I put my heart into it, I try to make food look special (a feast for the senses), I add a little chopped parsley, a drizzle of olive oil or a sprinkle of Parmesan and… voila! There are clean plates pretty much every time, no complaints, no hunger, children nourished, happy, no waste.

I am interested in food as medicine and I love herbs; I strongly believe that we are what we eat – if we eat healthily, we live longer and stronger.

I also love a treat, we can’t be good ALL the time and I wouldn’t deny my children the enjoyment of an ice-cream on a hot day, and I’m partial to the odd Cornetto myself.

But instead of fizzy sugary drinks, we use soda water with a little lime cordial or fresh lemon, the children enjoy lots of fresh fruit, they aren’t addicted to screens (yet!) and they love gardening and being outside.

Before my children were at school, I prepared their lunches most days, they loved (and still do) omelette filled with chopped tomato, fresh parsley and Parmesan with a side salad, or a simple home-made tomato, garlic and herb sauce with pasta, topped with rocket.

Then the sad day came when they had to go to school… what would they eat? Unfortunately for my two cherubs, it wasn’t a lot!

I started the hasthag #VegSchoolMeals on twitter in 2015 in response to my daughter’s daily (vegetarian) school lunch report. She would often come home hungry and complain that the lunch was ‘horrible’ and ‘tasteless’.

Clearly I’d spoiled her with my Mediterranean-inspired repertoire and I feel proud that both my children actually appreciate flavour – or lack of it! My son then joined the school and he said exactly the same thing ‘horrible!’ He actually started to look like he was losing weight because he wasn’t eating his lunch.

I decided to investigate. I found a printed school menu and read it with interest.

The vegetarian options were mainly made from cheese and quorn and a number of the dishes were re-invented meat dishes with the meat substituted with veg! Veggie quorn bolognese, quorn sausages, quorn chilli con carne, quorn frankfurter, quorn cottage pie and cheese flan.

It wasn’t really showcasing fresh vegetables or modern vegetarian (or meat or fish) cuisine which has moved on from the 1970s.

Where was the innovation and inspiration? Was this really feeding hungry minds? When asked if they felt their minds had been fed, my children both replied “no!”. Fish on friday? Yes, fish fingers! Where’s the fresh fish? We live on an Island surrounded by fish and our children are given it breaded and oblong.

A typical conversation: “what did you have for lunch today?”, “We had pizza”, (I make sourdough bread and love to make sourdough pizza, I add tomato sauce with garlic, mozzarella then chopped spinach and eggs to make Fiorentina – delicious – we all love pizza). So, I reply “Mmmm, sounds good, what was the topping?”. “Cheese!”. Is it really that difficult to add some olives, spinach, rocket or roasted veg?

I then looked into school meal provision. In our local authority, Schools & Education was outsourced, and the outsourcing company outsourced the school meal provision. This is big business with a lot of salaries being paid.

We have a commissioning director, a commissioning officer and a monitoring officer working for the council, we have the outsourced Schools and Education company who manage the outsourced school meal provision.

The outsourced school meal providers who include a Regional Operations Director, Senior Operations Manager, Operations Manager, Four Area Managers, an external supplier providing ready-made meals, an external supplier providing fresh fruit, veg and meat, another supplier of fruit and veg, and a butcher based within the borough itself.

We then have the delivery drivers, school liaison/business manager, staff at the school canteen, mealtime supervisors and cleaning staff. And last but not least, the actual farmers.

The journey from seed to plate has been massively extended. This is one very long supply chain with money being made while schools are struggling!

The most economical way to provide lunch for children is to cut-out all the middlemen, start growing food on-site, then simply pull it from the ground, prepare it in the school kitchen and eat it! The children can do that and learn at the same time.

I’d been inspired by Hugh Fearnley’s Whittingstall’s 2001 River Cottage Cookbook – he talks about a ‘food acquisition continuum’. At one end we have complete dependency (on external suppliers for example), at the other end is self-sufficiency:

“Any move from dependency to self-sufficiency (however small) was a step in the right direction…”

…with its benefits to health, finances etc, he is absolutely right. The school is effectively dependent and the only benefits are to the outsourced suppliers who will make a profit.

I was also inspired by the brilliant book: Practical Self-Sufficiency by Dick and James Strawbridge. I started to look at the school grounds and at opportunities to make the school even more self-sufficient.

There was a huge field, a huge main playground, 2 smaller playgrounds, lots of roof and wall space, one perimeter edge was covered in nettles, hawthorn, brambles and the odd blackberry.

There was an abandoned set of raised beds and some tired, rather unloved planters. The school also has a large wind turbine generating renewable energy which is brilliant and sensible (I’d have installed three more).

There is a large farm opposite, mainly stables and fields for grazing horses (opportunities to extend school-growing) and a dairy farm within a mile, but apparently the dairy farm isn’t dairy anymore! A LOCAL farm that could have supplied milk to at least 10 local schools, butter, cheese etc.

The children could walk there to see dairy products made and to make it themselves!

There was clearly space for 3 or even 4 productive polytunnels, 1 nursery, 1 or 2 for school eating, one for making money. Space for vertical gardening, edible playgrounds, more planters, space for fruit trees and fruit such as blackberry, gooseberry, raspberry and more.

There’s plenty of roof space for solar panels and roof gardens, sensory spaces, a space for bee-keeping, areas for an earth oven and outdoor eating space, and underground space to install water tanks to collect rainwater which would then be used to flush toilets and to water the plants through solar-powered or gravity-fed automated irrigation systems.

All organic waste could be collected and with an anaerobic digester – the school could be producing bio-resources – gas or electricity and the by-product bio-fertiliser. Space for aquaponics, greenhouses, allotments and composting toilets.

Suddenly a whole world opens up where the school can begin growing food to feed itself, rely on itself, make money and educate children in a sustainable, environmentally-friendly way. Why wasn’t this already being done? Why wasn’t this on the national curriculum? Why don’t we have an Eco-Schools Minister?

I decided it was time to change that, so I set up my petition to Parliament to make school food-growing and self-sufficiency a dedicated subject area within the national curriculum.

I also see this as an opportunity for the Government to invest in and subsidise UK farms so that they can supplement school food-growing which will forge closer links with the UK farming industry.

Today, there is a live petition to Parliament to make change, conversations on twitter via @VegSchoolMeals and this website built by my great friend and Australian indie music legend Tim Steward

There are flyers and posters kindly printed by Ace Graphics in North London and I have a growing list of amazing supporters from within the worlds of catering, schools, bee-keeping, nursing, seed-production, self-sufficiency and TV.

Please sign, share, speak to your local MP, councillors, headteacher, family and friends, follow me on twitter (@VegSchoolMeals) or contact me if you can help in any way.

Thank you.

Ian Dunn, London, Feb 2019

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