At a time of climate and ecological emergency, children are faced with a multitude of complex, interconnected choices through which they navigate. The introduction of a new Curriculum for Wales in 2022 offers opportunities for schools to engage directly with such choices, as one of its core ‘purposes’ is to support children to become ‘ethical, informed citizens,’ who can ‘show their commitment to the sustainability of the planet’ (Welsh Government, 2020). Our project looked at how primary age children make sense of often contradictory claims about different sources of protein and their role in future food provisioning. We used this as a route to thinking about the role of schools in enabling ethical and sustainable citizenship.
Over the past 20 years concerns have grown globally about how to reduce the environmental impacts of the food system. Food production is often framed by widespread anxieties in the media (such as animal welfare, possible contamination, public health risks), as well as specific concerns relating to access of food due to climate change (for instance limited harvests due to drought, flood and unpredictable seasons.) Much food education relates to cooking or healthy diets (Owen-Jackson & Rutland, 2016).Wales’s new curriculum has the potential to delve further into issues raised by the changing food system, particularly through enabling learners to:
- think in ways that critically, ethically and creatively consider different environmental issues
- develop and make informed decisions about these contexts and issues
- begin to establish a commitment (whether individually or as part of a collective) to mitigate environmental degradation.
Although clear about its aims for the characteristics, knowledge and skills that learners should be supported in developing, the curriculm is less explicit about how teachers might go about this.
Our project encouraged children to think critically about impacts of the food they eat now, and could choose to eat in the future. We did this through a focus on the promotion of alternative diets that urge us towards reduced meat, meat-free and plant-based menus, as well as swapping out traditional meats for edible insects. The arguments made around these diets can be complex and contentious; our project encouraged children to engage with this complexity.
We worked with around 200 7–11-year-olds and their teachers in three contrasting schools in south-west Wales. One school was a three form entry, inner city primary school; the second school was a four form entry, semi-urban school; the third school was a small (approximately 50 children) rural primary school. Through a mixed method approach of surveys, workshops and focus groups we sought to explore how beef, plant-based and insect proteins can be used as a gateway to ethical citizenship and sustainable education.
‘We sought to explore how beef, plant-based and insect proteins can be used as a gateway to ethical citizenship and sustainable education.’
Children identified three themes through which they wished to explore the farming and consumption of these protein sources: impacts on health, the climate and animal welfare. Through this comparison they were encouraged to think critically. The children interrogated the pros and cons of different types of food production, with comments made such as:
‘Cow farts are really bad for the planet’
‘You might need to cut down trees to make more space for cows’
‘They [beef] can make you stronger’
‘If we eat more plants we won’t have to kill as many animals’
‘It’s bad for the environment if chemicals are used [in growing crops]’
‘Just because insects have a short life their life should be valued’
A recurring theme throughout workshops and dialogue with children was around the care and killing of animals within our food system. Children were eager to understand and discuss the language of harvest, murder, slaughter and death, what it meant, what was fair, what they felt was acceptable.
Following the workshops, the children wrote postcards to the Prime Minister, outlining their visions for future food provisioning in the UK. This was an important aspect of the project, enabling learners not only to explore the topic but act on it, thinking about different routes through which they might become active citizens. The schools received a written response from the Prime Minister, which was read out in a school assembly and used to demonstrate the possibilities of pupil voice.
The responses of the children involved with this project illustrate how relationships with food are complex and multidimensional. Teachers reported that a focus on a number of products is essential as considering a single product does not allow for comparison and deeper, critical thinking. This work offers insight into ways school and professionals might plan for food interactions for the benefit of children and young people.
For more, visit the project website. This research was funded by the British Academy (grant SRG21\210557) and is informed by findings from Verity’s earlier project reported in Jones (2020).
Jones, V. (2020). ‘Just don’t tell them what’s in it’: Ethics, edible insects and sustainable food choice in schools. British Educational Research Journal, 46(4), 894–908. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3655
Owen-Jackson, G., & Rutland, M. (2016). Food in the school curriculum in England: Its development from cookery to cookery. Design and Technology Education: An international Journal, 21(3). https://doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.33937.43365
Welsh Government. (2020). Developing a vision for curriculum design. https://hwb.gov.wales/curriculum-for-wales/designing-your-curriculum/developing-a-vision-for-curriculum-design/#curriculum-design-and-the-four-purposes