Children of the revolution

Categories: Features

For the past five years, Borough Market has been hosting a programme designed to get primary school children growing their own fresh produce, building their appreciation of food along the way. Market Life drops by to see the Young Marketeers in action

Words: Clare Finney
Images: Sophia Spring 

“Two hands please, Emmanuel! It’s not a ball, it’s a pumpkin. Max, if you drop it, it will break like an egg.” Immediately upon hearing their teacher’s bark, the young pair cease throwing the luminous globular vegetables up into the air and instead clutch them to their chests protectively. They’ve not spent six months lovingly nurturing pumpkins and squash for them to splatter onto the unforgiving floor of the Market Hall; they’ve come to sell them.

“We’re getting money, and the money is going to people like homeless people who don’t have any food,” Emmanuel explains excitedly. He looks to his teacher for approval. “What’s the charity called, Emmanuel?” “FareShare!” He shouts, grinning. “We’ve grown pumpkins and beetroots and tomatoes and cabbage. You dig the soil, then you put the seeds in the soil, and water them, and wait for one or two weeks and see if they’ve growed. Then you eat them!” And with that, he runs off, shouting. “£2.20 for a pumpkin!”

For the past five years, Borough Market has hosted the Young Marketeers project, through which children from boroughs across London sell the produce their schools, with the help and support of the School Food Matters charity, have grown. Every project kicks off with an assembly in each of the participating schools, where children are told about the trials of food poverty and, absurdly, the equal and opposite challenge of food waste.

Then, former Blue Peter gardener Chris Collins comes in to teach them the art of growing food: “I go through the basics of seed sowing, the names of the plants—a horticultural background, really—and how to look after them. They all get their hands dirty—it’s not just me talking—and halfway through the year I come back to see how they are getting on.”

Blushingly ripe tomatoes
Chris looks proudly around him. The children bear beetroots the size of his fist, swing bright bunches of carrots from long, emerald leaves, and boast blushingly ripe tomatoes that put my homegrown numbers, still stubbornly green, to shame. “They seem to take to it easily. It is quite natural for them—for us, as human beings—to garden. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years.” In all the time he’s been working with children, on Blue Peter and with this project, he has “never once had a kid who’s said ‘no’”.

“They love it,” affirms Anna, a teacher at Trafalgar Infants in Richmond. “They do everything: digging, planting, watering, harvesting. We teach them about compost and leaf mould, and use some of what we produce in cooking lessons—for example, we make leek and potato soup.”

Gardening covers a lot of ground on the curriculum, Chris points out: biology, chemistry, PE, domestic sciences, and, in the case of one remarkable school whose raised beds have been built in the shape of addition, subtraction and multiplication signs, even maths.

“What better way to teach than to get out in the fresh air and get children to engage in these signs, and then in working out the perimeter, and the volume of soil needed for the beds? For me it is really interesting,” affirms Anne, a teacher at Charles Dickens Primary School in Borough. “Usually they’re in a class of 30 children, but in a smaller group like I have here, I get to really see their different strengths.”

School children take part in Young Marketeers day

Team spokesperson
Reggie, for example, a jolly, fair-haired boy, is full of confidence and quickly assumes the role of team spokesperson: “It makes us so happy to grow stuff for other people, and give them food when we have such delicious food and they have nothing to eat,” he proclaims.

“Yet Blake is the best seller,” his teacher points out quietly, “even though he did not seem confident at first.” Other children excel at the growing stage, focusing on their seedlings with an intensity they may never show in the classroom. “We really encourage those children who struggle to focus in lessons to be part of this project. They learn to nurture—to look after something. They seem like different children when they are out there selling or working with their hands.”

For those who need it, the reward that comes with growing food from scratch also provides an immeasurable boon to their self-esteem.

Sadly, there is a degree of unavoidable irony to some of the children’s sterling efforts to raise money for those suffering from food poverty. “In our school, it’s one of the biggest issues—and we expect it to get worse,” says one teacher. There are parts of London where the rates of obesity and food poverty are among the highest in the country. It’s one of the reasons we’re here at the Market: to help connect these young Londoners with a remarkable place that may not feature on their radar.

Addressing that disconnect
“Borough Market is a fantastic jewel,” Stephanie Wood, founder of School Food Matters, explains, “but many families aren’t shopping here. Young Marketeers is in part a fun and creative a way of addressing that disconnect. One of the first reasons I became interested in this project was when a headteacher at a primary school told me some of her children couldn’t identity what an onion was,” she recalls, sadly.

I see none of this in these students who, throughout the course of the day, blossom in pride and confidence. “Thyme for 30p! Goes great in soups and stews!” bellows Emmanuela from her position, wide-legged, waving herbs around outside her school’s stall. Is it better than shop-bought? “YES! It’s fresh and organic—and we grew it too!” she cries.

“We know what’s in it,” an older girl explains seriously. “They”—some supermarket vegetables, I assume—“might have chemicals inside, and they don’t want all the different shapes we get.” “Yeah!” another giggles. “They don’t want our foot-shaped carrots!” which, before I know what I’m doing, I am buying for the grand sum of 25p.

It’s a bargain: fresh carrot soup for dinner and the timeless comedy value of vegetables shaped like anatomical parts. “It’s great fun when we dig them up—and if we tell them they’re going in the salad bar at lunch, we find it’s a big incentive for them to try new things.”

School children take part in Young Marketeers day

Sanitised lives
One teacher, who has otherwise struggled to broaden the tastes of some children, has found that getting them to touch and understand the vegetables they once found repulsive is a big step. “They lead such sanitised lives. Indoors all weekend, on video games. This at least introduces them to spider webs and dirt and things that grow.”

Come the cookery demonstration, in which chef Jenny Chandler prepares a menu using the kids’ produce, this willingness to handle and taste vegetables they’d normally fear is gleefully apparent. “They understand the ingredients. Children are usually nervous about beetroot—but today I’ve found they are far more adventurous,” Jenny marvels as her two willing helpers carefully slice the raw, school-grown beets and carrots, and mix them with tahini to make slaw.

Jenny wants to encourage children to take responsibility for food, “from growing, to cooking to eating”. “Children are innately suspicious of something they’ve not eaten before—they should be, it’s a primitive instinct,” she continues, “but if they get excited about cooking, they’ll be more likely to try new things.”

Jenny’s own daughter has cooked with her from a very young age. “It’s not necessarily about saying, ‘tonight is our cooking night’—that’s not always feasible. It’s about setting aside a few minutes every so often to go through, say, chopping techniques, or if you are making meatballs, encouraging them to roll them beside you.”

Herbaceous smells
It’s serving time. First up is the pumpkin soup: a creamy, steaming saucepan of autumn colours and herbaceous smells. The queue to try this is startling—as loud and almost as long as the queue to try the apple and berry galette—and I am struck by the children’s eagerness not just to tuck in, but to grab a recipe sheet for the dishes, too. “I’m going to make this at home. Definitely,” one girl tells me, rubbing her tummy eagerly. “I’ve made a pear tart, and potato salad before. I love cooking.”

Not every kid is as sophisticated—one tells me her favourite fruit is spaghetti—but the discovery that the cake baked in honour of the Young Marketeers scheme’s fifth ‘birthday’ is made from courgettes and carrots deters no one. “I’m sorry, but I have to go eat cake!” the spaghetti-lover tells me breathlessly when she hears.

“This thing of sharing food, with FareShare and with each other, pushes aside so many hang ups,” says Jenny. “If your family doesn’t eat healthily, you are surrounded by that—but if you are sharing great, healthy food with your classmates it normalises it and you are more likely to be healthy later. This little one, Mohammed, for example, he was really wary of trying the slaw just now, but he overcame that because his classmates kept chivvying him.”

As Emmanuel tells me, quite seriously, when we meet again over birthday cake, “if you don’t like something you have to try it. You can’t just put it in the bin. You try it three times. If you don’t like it then, you should save it and give it to someone else.” His favourite dish is lasagne, which he cooks with his cousin and “shares with the whole family”.

Jenny Chandler showing school children how to cook

Projects and ideas
School Food Matters was initially set up by Stephanie to improve school dinners in Richmond, which had previously been shipped frozen from Wales. “It was mostly going in the bin, everyone hated it so much. There was a 26 per cent take up.” After 10 years of campaigning and raising money, and five years of the Young Marketeers scheme, School Food Matters has grown and branched out into all manner of projects and ideas.

Its central premise has borne much fruit: school meals in Richmond, London and beyond have changed beyond recognition thanks to the sterling efforts of grassroots campaigners like Stephanie, and, of course, the “Jamie Oliver magic” (“Getting a high profile celebrity on the backs of local authorities is very helpful in encouraging them to respond,” she notes wryly). It is now mandatory for school meals to be balanced nutritionally.

In the meantime, Young Marketeers has grown year on year. “We started with one sale, now we have three—and you know, we’re increasingly finding that growing food is a great way of getting parents who might not be that comfortable with the language or culture through the school gate.”

Stephanie cites, as an example, a school in Hackney which grows “all sorts of wild and wacky veg” known and used by different cultures in the community. “One of the things we’d like to see in future —and we’re currently working on with Borough Market —is a celebration event involving a number of schools, in which we celebrate the different cultures this brilliant city holds.”

A special intercultural day
These families might not feel comfortable helping out with the school fete, but they will, if asked, cook up traditional dishes for a special intercultural day. Grandparents, meanwhile, often offer their services, so delighted are they by their grandchildren’s newfound interest in gardening and cooking.

“When we do the research around skills and food IQ, what we see is a lost generation, who grew up with supermarkets and convenience food,” says Stephanie. Inviting parents to Borough Market to see their children surrounded by piles of fresh fruit, running around with their hands full of pumpkins, is just another way of reinforcing the message that good food matters everywhere, not just at school—and keeping the ball Stephanie and Borough set in play five years ago rolling into the future.

As Emmanuel says when he finally remembers he’s not holding a ball, “when you cut the pumpkin, and take the seeds out, you can save those seeds to grow more pumpkins. Then you can save those seeds and grow more pumpkins...” he trails off, in awe of this infinity of pumpkins. Long live his dream.