The wider benefits of food growing

Posted in: Talks and Presentations

This is the talk I gave last Friday at the launch of Food Growing Schools: London, a Big Lottery-funded initiative by Garden Organic, supported by the Mayor.  I was asked to talk for 10 minutes about the wider benefits of food growing.  Here's what I said ...

We were once described, wrongly, as a nation of shopkeepers; more like, we’re a nation of gardeners.  90% of us have gardens.  And our gardens – and other people’s – are hugely important to us, and to who we are.  George Orwell called us a nation of flower lovers – which is true, but not quite the same thing.

ONS surveys confirm this interest in gardening, and that it increases with age.  More than 60% of the over 45s now garden.  According to Age UK, almost 40% of pensioners say that gardening is what gives them most pleasure in life.  And it’s the only form of exercise which more people do as they get older.  Gardening transcends culture, class, religeon, ethnicity and age.  It takes place in window boxes, back gardens, allotments, urban parks & country estates. It's benefits are wide-ranging and extensive

  • Good for physical health – if you’re careful
  • Good for mental health and a sense of proportion – except for worrying about pests

Gardens are not just about growing.  They are also places to be, to relax, to socialize and so employment is not just plant-related.  It’s about design and manufacture.  But, crucially, gardens are about good food.

In 2011, half of gardeners said they intended to grow their own fruit and vegetables with 12% of these were said to be ‘first timers’.  And allotments are important again.  There are now about 300,000 of them and they produce around 240,000 tons of food a year.  The waiting list is around 90,000.  There’s a huge economic value in all this.  The Horticultural Trades Association says garden spending exceeds £5 billion, with over 60% of adults buying things for their gardens.  The real economic and social value is much higher, however, and we have to think well beyond back gardens.

If we want to make the case for food growing we’d say that it:

  • improves health and well-being
  • is motivating and educative
  • is good for local jobs
  • brings people together, and that it
  • lessens the impact of climate change

These points emerge from the RHS’s Britain in Bloom and It’s Your Neighbourhood schemes where food growing features strongly.  In these, millions of volunteer hours transform communities and people’s lives.  This results, for example, in …

Stronger communities with better communication and increased neighbourliness

Reduced crime and anti-social behaviour because people feel better about where they live

Improved health and well-being where people get exercise, and have better diets with fresh food

Greater skills and confidence through teamwork and shared gardening

Stronger local economies because these are places where people want to be which brings investment

Improved physical surroundings which people take greater care of

Enhanced natural environments where biodiversity increases; natural capital is restored, and resource pressures lessen

It’s a similar story from the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens which says the contribution of growing to the well-being of individuals and communities include:

reconnecting people with nature

promoting local action on global environmental issues

using less carbon

providing routes back into education and employment

networking that strengthen communities, and promotes inclusion

positive impacts on the local economy through spending and employment

These are tremendous stories although a survey of 2000 people in April cast doubt on all this good news.  There was the usual gloomy stuff –

  • three quarters couldn’t pick out a geranium from a pansy.
  • 60% didn’t recognise a tulip
  • 40% reported that looking at their gardens made them depressed

There may well be something in this, but scepticism is due as the poll was paid for by Karcher who were launching a new product range to make gardening easier.  One good thing about the survey was that it didn't blame schools.  This was clearly a missed opportunity as schools usually get the blame at times of moral decline or national crisis.

But all of what I’ve said shows the value of food growing in schools.  The research carried out for the FGIS task force found strong evidence that food growing leads to improved student nutrition, attainment and knowledge, and so it was good to see 40% of parents saying their child’s school had communicated with them about school gardening over the last year.  If curriculum is a selection from culture, then food growing deserves inclusion.  But we’ve had to learn this again, although we knew it a hundred years ago.


I ended with a short extract from this book: Educational School Gardening and Handwork which was written in 1913 by GWS Brewer who was the Inspector of Educational School Gardening in Somerset.  Sadly, there are no more Mr Brewers.  In 1913, school gardening was gendered.  It was just for boys.  The girls were in the cookery classroom – though mysteriously they were allowed to grow herbs.  So, we have learned something in the past 100 years.  This remarkable book advocates a pedagogy that's up to date.  I thought of sending it to Mr Gove.

Posted in: Talks and Presentations


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