Fatma Sabet (pictured) is the founder of Shillingford Organics Farm School. Farm School is a social enterprise which runs sessions for kids in its miniature version of Shillingford Organics. At the school, children and their parents or school teachers learn how to grow, care for, harvest and cook produce. They also get the opportunity to observe the practises taking place on the farm and learn about the nature which supports the farm’s agricultural activities. If Farm School is not enough to keep her busy, Fatma is also in her first year of a PhD at the University of Exeter. An aim of her PhD is to create an intervention in the school food system to optimise healthiness and sustainability. In the light of the novel Coronavirus pandemic, like most schools and extracurricular clubs, Farm School has been forced to close.
PhD student, Becca McGowan from the School of Life Science's, Warwick Crop Centre interviews Fatma to understand how Covid-19 has affected Farm School and its pupils and her thoughts on its implications for the diets of children.
First of all, could you tell us a little more about Farm School?
The overall aim of Farm School is to grow a generation that is able to understand and appreciate where food comes from. We want to promote a healthy and sustainable food culture. Farm School gives the children opportunity to see how food is grown, understand the effort which goes into growing it and then experiment themselves with growing and cooking. With the initial aim to instigate a gratitude of food within kids, we soon realised this was a great opportunity for parents to grow and learn with their children too. We want to inspire these families to source their food sustainably and ethically.
At Farm School, we mimic the current practises which are occurring on the farm dependent on the season. Our site includes growing beds, polytunnels, a conservatory and chicken run in one of the fields of the farm where horticultural produce is grown (left picture). Children go out and visit the crops on the actual farm whilst they are growing them here. Therefore, they gain an understanding of why certain things happen on a large scale, such as crop rotation. We are a small educational farm within a big operational farm feeding the community.
Can you tell us about your PhD?
I am using a case study approach at one large school. Before lockdown measures were put in place, I was planning to send questionnaires to various actors in their food system, from pupils, to parents, to teachers and their caterers. I wish to use this information to create interventions to increase the healthiness and sustainability of school food. An intervention could involve taking our Farm School approach into schools.
How has Coronavirus affected Farm School?
In early March we took the tough decision to cancel courses for April and May. We plan to start back as normal once lockdown measures are lifted. At this time of year, the kids would usually be planting produce which could be harvested later in the year. As the kids are not able to do this right now, activities we plan to do later on in the year are affected. I have found it very difficult not to go to the farm. As a social enterprise we rely heavily on a workforce of volunteers. We are very grateful that one of our leaders who also works on the main farm is growing our seedlings for us so we can hopefully carry on the cropping plan as normal when the children return.
Are the families who attend Farm School doing any growing at home?
I am staying in touch with some of the families via a group chat. They are posting photos of their teamwork in their gardens and allotments and I am so impressed! I have received photos of seedlings, flowers and planted crops and they look stunning. Families are following the Farm School calendar in their own gardens (picture above right- greenhouse in the garden of a family who attends Farm School). They are also doing other activities which we do at farm school such as cooking produce, making skin cream, creating art and foraging.
I think the chat between the families is very useful as it is inspiring the activities of other Farm School families. It seems they are keeping busy and positive and the weather in April really aided this. Unfortunately, not all the families have access to a space to grow.
Are they doing more in their gardens or allotments then usual?
The social distancing measures are definitely a reason why these families are growing more at home. Forgetting about the negatives, there are a lot of positive things coming out of lockdown. Before the lockdown measures were put in place, the families would have had a lot of other commitments and busy schedules. They may not have had the time to dedicate towards their home growing projects or to cook more regularly. Now the children have more time and less distractions. They can focus and submerge themselves in their growing projects.
Are newer families to Farm School growing at home?
A newer mum asked me where she can source good quality seeds and when to sow. A positive of these families being involved with Farm School is that they have a network of people during this time to ask questions regarding food and nature. Whilst I am at Farm School I am learning from the children and their parents and we experiment together.
Do you think Farm School has positively affected the activities of the families during lockdown?
At Farm School the families have built a passion for growing and increased their experience in growing whilst learning from one another. Now they have the opportunity to practise, learn and experiment themselves. It seems the children are really interested in managing their own crops which is an ultimate goal of Farm School.
An aim of Farm School is to instigate a level of curiosity and open the door for people to learn knowledge for themselves. Having the time to experiment will hopefully encourage the children to do their own research which is a valuable skill for them to learn.
Overall the children are spending more time than usual in nature. Children thrive when they can explore nature. Our natural rhythm is far quicker than the pace of nature. Now some people can sync to the pace of nature, slow down and appreciate the little things in life. Nature has not stopped whilst a lot of things have.
Finally, would you be able to give us your thoughts on the implications of the crisis for the diets of children, maybe those who would usually receive a meal at school?
I think it is incredibly sad to know that a lot of the almost 1.3 million children in the UK who are eligible for free school meals have missed out on such a key meal as a consequence of school closure. On the one hand, it is frustrating to see that the government voucher scheme has left a lot of children hungry, and their parents humiliated. On the other hand, it is refreshing to see some school communities staff and caterers nationwide taking their own initiatives as a response to the crisis, from headteachers delivering food cooked in the school kitchen to disadvantaged families homes, to school caterers collaborating with top volunteering chefs, whose restaurants had to close during the lockdown, to produce healthy and nutritious food for the families who need it, which is another reminder that governments can't just do everything and we, as communities, need to get together and take initiatives to address immediate and pressing needs.
Pictures: 1. Fatma 2 & 3. School visiting farm school (before social distancing measures) 4. The greenhouse in the garden of a family who attends Farm School
If you live in the Exeter area and would like to get involved with Farm School after the crisis, here is the link to their website > https://www.shillingfordorganics.co.uk/shillingford-organics-farm-school