This school has taken teaching pupils about provenance of food to a whole new level by allowing them to experience field to fork eating first hand on its farm, writes Sarah Welsh.
In an age when most kids spend the majority of their time in a virtual reality, many schools are struggling to get pupils interested in the food they eat and understand where it actually comes from.
One school which has taken an innovative approach to teaching children about provenance and animal welfare is Westlands School in Sittingbourne, Kent. This secondary school has a non-profit smallholding on site complete with cows, pigs, sheep, chickens and goats to name just a few, where pupils learn about the food chain at ground level.
“We use the animals to engage with pupils to not only improve their knowledge of where the food they eat comes from, but offer them a safe haven where they can be themselves and grow in confidence and responsibility,” explains Oliver Howland, who runs the smallholding with farm technician, Sue Hodkinson.
This urban farm, nestled between residential housing and open countryside, is run with the help of pupils who take responsibility for the animals and all that entails before and after school, as well as some weekends. From feeding and grooming to checking the animals’ field for litter and preparing them for shows, pupils learn the importance of animal welfare in the meat production process.
“Each pupil has an animal they look after,” explains Oliver. “Welfare is really core for us. Every Friday we weigh the animals, check their condition, the fat around the meat, that they are growing properly and that they aren’t losing mass.”
Although the farm only has 35 members from the student body comprising several hundred, the numbers are significantly increasing year on year. As well as animal welfare in the UK, these children learn about how food is produced on the continent as well as intensive farming and its negative effects.
This smallholding isn’t simply a petting corner – although the students have clearly created bonds with their animals and enjoy making a fuss of them – the livestock are bred for their meat and there is no sugar coating this fact.
The animals are reared from birth and the children see lambing, calving and farrowing. They are well aware that these animals are reared for their meat and will eventually go to slaughter.
“The children see birth, life and death here and they accept it,” says Sue. “The animals go off to slaughter and come back butchered. Of course they are sad but they understand that’s the way it is and deal with the process remarkably well.”
Pupils learn all about the importance of breeding and welfare and the effect that has on the quality of the meat produced. They take part in the whole process such as picking the bulls with the largest behinds for insemination, which is ideal for beef-producing cows, so they will pass these genetics onto their offspring who will produce optimal quantities of meat.
“Animal welfare is important to us, which is why we look after ours properly,” says Brad, 15, who also volunteers at a local farm and keeps a small herd of sheep at the school. “It’s essential to learn about the process to understand where meat really comes from.”
When they reach the appropriate size and age, the animals are sent to a local abattoir to be slaughtered, which both Oliver and Sue visited beforehand so they knew where their animals would be ending their days.
“For us how the animals are treated when their lives end is just as important as the quality of care they’ve received up to that point,” explains Sue. “That’s why we wanted to be sure we were sending them to the right place.”
The meat produced on the farm is used in food technology lessons and sold to staff, pupils and anyone else if there’s any left. I was fortunate enough to purchase some lamb chops when I visited and the quality, value and flavour really was second to none.
To celebrate the kids’ hard work throughout the year and the animals they’ve reared, an annual summer barbecue is held using the meat they’ve produced. The pupils aren’t squeamish about eating the animals, says Oliver.
“The meat comes boxed up and we charge around £60 for a whole lamb, which is great value,” says Oliver. “We also sell three packs of sausages for £10 and fresh eggs daily for £1 per half dozen. We are not-for-profit which is great because everything goes back into the farm.”
This agricultural space doesn’t just ensure the welfare of the animals – it’s a safe place for pupils too. They are able to completely relax away from whatever stress or troubles they are experiencing in their lives and concentrate on the animals.
“We see children with no confidence and some that simply don’t want to go home, but very soon they come out of themselves,” explains Sue. “One child said to me it’s great because I can talk to the animals and they don’t answer me back or call me names.”
Another aspect to teaching pupils about animal welfare and the importance of provenance is showing them at agricultural events. Each year they attend the Kent County Show to display their efforts, sometimes being offered cash by farmers for their animals.
“Pupils have to record information for the show, which includes all the illnesses and medicines their animals have been given as well as the daily live weight gain,” explains Sue. “They are doing English, maths, science and time-keeping, without really knowing it.”
Not content with looking after livestock, the team at Westlands School has its sights set on creating vegetable plots for use by the school kitchen and food technology classes.
“The food technology department was keen to use the meat we produce as they were impressed with the quality and know exactly how it’s been reared,” says Oliver. “We are planning to put in raised beds for the vegetable plots so we can really do the entire field to fork, which is important for the children to experience.”
The next step for the team is to erect a greenhouse to grow vegetables so they can produce entire meals and understand the real cost of food both economically and environmentally. This will create a well-rounded experience of food production for pupils at this school, which is a valuable lesson more people could afford to learn.