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Sowing seeds

Stephanie Slater, founder of the School Food Matters charity, on how the Young Marketeers programme at Borough Market plants skills and knowledge that can change young people’s lives


Words: Mark Riddaway / Images: Adrian Pope

It was at a conference in 2007 that Stephanie Slater, the founder of a charity devoted to improving school meals, was party to the eye-opening testimony that would broaden the focus of her work and lead her a few years later to the halls and stalls of Borough Market. “I heard the headteacher of a primary school in London say that children in his school couldn’t identify an onion,” she says. “Not an aubergine or anything even slightly funky – a basic onion. I just thought, wow, that is a massive disconnect.”

Stephanie’s charity, School Food Matters, is now as committed to food education projects designed to bridge such glaring gaps as it is to its original calling of making children’s lunches less grim. “We want young people to be discerning consumers,” she says. “We want them to understand the impact of their food choices on their bodies and the planet.” The Young Marketeers programme, which began at Borough Market in 2013 and is now a cornerstone of the charity’s work, is part of that important mission.

There are two strands to the project, one for primary school students, one for secondary. The younger cohort are given the skills and resources they need to grow their own fruit and vegetables at school. After further training from the Market’s traders, they then bring their produce to Borough to sell it to directly the public, with all profits going to food distribution charities. “We want to make a solid connection that food comes from the soil, not the supermarket,” says Stephanie. “We see the pride, the awe and the wonder of primary school children who have planted some tiny seeds and now they’ve got all this stuff to sell, all this beautiful veg. It still blows my mind.”

Primary school students selling their wares at a Young Marketeers Summer Sale

Secondary school children, meanwhile, are involved in what Stephanie says is “quite a chunky piece of product development”: producing soups using surplus vegetables (which in future will be provided by Plan Zheroes, the charity that collects and redistributes leftover food from Borough’s stalls at the end of the trading day) and pairing them with fresh ciabatta baked under the tutelage of Bread Ahead Bakery & School. “The young people work with our food teacher to create soup recipes and a food panel from Borough, who are very exacting in their standards, go out to the schools to taste-test them.” The students then come to the Market to sell their wares, putting into practice what they’ve learnt about food labelling, marketing, pricing and sales.

Stephanie cites some striking examples of the misconceptions these projects are seeking to overturn: a young child who didn’t think a cucumber was ready to be picked because it hadn’t yet grown its plastic wrapper, older girls selecting ingredients from a surplus food hub who turned their noses up at beautiful loose vine tomatoes in favour of the packaged supermarket ones, “because they’re better”. She also talks glowingly of the positive impact on self-esteem of children finding their voices in a welcoming but markedly grown-up environment. “Every single time they come to Borough, you hear teachers say: ‘This child will not speak in the classroom and look at him now, talking away like a proper market trader.’”

What began in Borough has now become a nationwide initiative, with the same model rolled out to food markets in Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Leicester, Stroud and Bedford. “The markets bite our hands off every time, because for them there’s always a challenge to get new families in,” says Stephanie. “This is such a great way to do that: you get the kids there, and they invite mum, dad, granny, auntie, and suddenly you’ve got a whole load of potential customers coming to the market, often for the first time, which is really lovely.”

Secondary school students dishing up at a Young Marketeers Soup Sale

Young Marketeers is just one of a wide range of food education projects run by Stephanie’s team, and the charity’s campaigning has also broadened in scope over the years. What began as a small, single-issue pressure group is now working at a scale and intensity that was never part of the original plan. The seeds of the venture were first sown in 2005 when Stephanie moved back to Richmond after working in Australia, enrolled her young children at the local school, “and the first words I heard from this outstanding primary were: ‘Sorry about the smell, that’s lunch,’” she explains. “It was a sort of a fait accompli that school food was terrible.” Appalled by the idea, Stephanie, who for the previous two decades had worked within the cut and thrust of film production “where no is not an option and you just plough in”, did what came naturally to her: refused to take no for an answer and just ploughed in, making it her mission to sort out her local borough’s school dinners. “I thought I could rock up there and knock the whole thing into shape in a flash, not realising how complex it was going to be.”

Her ignorance was, she thinks, a strength: anyone with greater awareness of what she calls “the labyrinth of intrigue” that is public sector procurement would have run a mile from such a thankless undertaking. But Stephanie persevered. “To cut a long story short, it took about three or four years, but by working with Richmond council and mobilising parents we managed to transform the school food it served in 38 primary schools. It went from frozen ready meals that nobody ate – only 26 per cent of kids across the borough were eating a school meal – to food cooked fresh at every site. The take-up doubled, there were economies of scale, and the meal price actually came down.”

A confident sales pitch at a Young Marketeers Harvest Sale

Depressingly, even victories as significant as this have been dwarfed by the growing magnitude of the problems that need to be fixed – hence the relentless inflation of the charity’s mission. When Stephanie started out 16 years ago, too many children were eating bad food, but at least they had food to eat. “Huge namedrop here, but I was doing some work with Jamie Oliver recently and we were reflecting on the fact that when our campaigns started – mine began a couple of years after Jamie’s School Dinners – we were both campaigning about the quality of food. Years later, with children today going hungry and massive health inequalities across the country, it’s about access to food, which is just heartbreaking,” she says.

The Young Marketeers programme exposes children to vital knowledge about food: how it’s grown, how it’s sold, how it can be used, how it affects our health and the environment around us. But just because these young people have an opportunity to learn about high-quality, sustainable food doesn’t mean they can easily access it in their daily lives, such are the iniquities against which School Food Matters is battling. “Not that I’m ever going to give up doing so, but talking about organic, high-welfare food when children are hungry every day is hard to navigate,” says Stephanie. “What we want is for every child in every school to have a delicious, nutritious, sustainable meal, but what we must do first is give them the nutrition they need to thrive.”