Health and Nutrition – Helping communities grow their own food

How an award-winning Nursery World project is expanding food horizons for children and staff. By Meredith Jones Russel

The Children’s Kitchen, a collaborative project between Bristol Early Years, Feeding Bristol and food educator Jo Ingleby, has been judged “an outstanding winner” in the Health and Wellbeing category at the 2022 Nursery World Awards for its work providing opportunities for children in tended preschools, children’s centers and schools to grow and explore fresh produce.

Ingleby was also an award winner in 2016 with the Food Project at Redcliffe Children’s Center and Nursery School. After budget cuts saw the end of the Food Project, Ingleby left with what she describes as “renewed confidence that this was an incredible approach that worked”, inspiring her to expand the idea to the whole city, focusing on food insecure areas.

The Children’s Kitchen, established in 2019, works with 16 establishments in Bristol where rates of childhood obesity and poor dental health are high. It aims to help children create grow spaces and give them a term-based planting plan to learn about food “from field to plate”. It is free and offers CPD opportunities and webinars for practitioners, helping them improve their approach to diet through regular hands-on diet sessions, training and mentorship, all focused on improving their understanding of healthy foods and the importance of developing tastes and confidence at a young age.

Establishments are encouraged to examine their eating practices, give children the opportunity to gain independence by cutting up their own food for snacks, and expand the choices served at lunchtime, focusing on fresh produce. Ingleby says, “We never bake cakes. If you talk to families about not eating too much sugar but also baking cakes, it can give mixed messages.

WORKING WITH STAFF

Trust can be one of the biggest issues staff face when approaching food. “In some nurseries, you find that the staff themselves need a bit of encouragement about vegetables and how to cook them,” says Ingleby. “Most of the time it’s about improving their knowledge of how simple it is and that you don’t even always have to cook things. Practitioners may also need help growing food.

The Children’s Kitchen is introducing a growing program in its primarily quarterly settings, ensuring all produce is grown and harvested by July to avoid waste over the holidays. After a year, they hand over the project largely to existing staff.

“Really, the project is about working with staff and empowering them,” says Ingleby. “We obviously also work with children, but the aim is that what we do happens every day in the nurseries, not just on a special occasion or when we come in. After the first year, we always offer regular visits, mentoring or more CPD, but it’s the staff who run it.

IMPACT

Results are visible quickly, says Ingleby. “When we’ve been working with a nursery for a few months, you’ll see that the children are already happy to try new foods and are learning physical development skills, like how to chop,” she says.

The project’s focus on food-insecure areas means that the greatest benefits are felt by families who need them most.

When the pandemic hit, the project was temporarily redesigned to create a network of Family Action FOOD Clubs to distribute excess FareShare Southwest food to families in lockdown each week.

“It was quite a change, but actually in a pretty positive way for us,” says Ingleby. “It made us think more about the practical way to help families cook.”

FOOD Clubs differ from food banks in that families become members and feel part of a small community. La Cuisine des enfants offers demonstrations to give families simple ideas on how to use the products they receive and has created five recipe booklets to accompany them, with some thirty recipes available in 16 languages.

“Clubs are basically a way for families to get super low-cost bags full of fresh produce and pantry ingredients,” Ingleby says. “Because it’s a membership club, it’s not just for an emergency. Access is durable and provides long-term support. It is not intended to replace a weekly store, but is additional to alleviate some of the cost of living.

Since the end of the confinement, 15 clubs have continued to provide food to families in need. “Now we publish brochures for every major holiday, all of which are very positive, bright, happy and child-friendly, so we have another one coming out of Christmas which will be based on cupboard ingredients, but keeping in mind the cost of living right now.

GROWING NEED

Indeed, the current climate provides additional demand for the project. “Feeding children is becoming more and more of a problem, as more and more children arrive at nursery hungry and eat a lot more during feeding sessions,” says Ingleby. “They used to come after breakfast and not worry too much about coming to a food session because they didn’t need to. Now it’s like they’re just happy to eat.

A pilot is running at two nurseries in Nottinghamshire as part of the Public Health Obesity Trailblazers scheme, and further expansion could be on the horizon.

“We are also noticing that confined children, who are now two or three years old, still have a long way to go to try food, learn social skills or even just sit down at a table to eat. They need a lot more support,” Ingleby says.

CASE STUDY: Knowle West Nursery School in Bristol

“We’re in a deprived urban part of Bristol, and food is an issue for a lot of children,” says Helen Hogg, a teacher at Knowle West Nursery School, who has worked with the Children’s Kitchen since 2019.

“Their lunch boxes can look quite shocking. For some, it’s completely normal to arrive with a McDonald’s breakfast.

The Children’s Kitchen began by explaining to staff how their approach differs from traditional ideas of cooking. “It’s much more of an exploratory experience,” Hogg says. “Curiosity is really a key word, because kids aren’t expected to eat the food.” They are encouraged to use all of their senses to find out.

The setting has a large outdoor area with a covered kitchen and the children’s kitchen has introduced raised beds, which has helped create a link between what has been grown in the garden and what has happened in the kitchen.

The crèche is now visited by a Children’s Kitchen representative half a day a week, with a food specialist and a gardening specialist alternating. “Kids will join in if they want, watch the box of fresh produce that the kids’ kitchen brought, chop it, taste it, and do whatever they want,” Hogg says. “There’s no pressure for the kids to come, so it’s very smooth and relaxed; real child-directed learning.

A wide range of developmental benefits for children have been observed. “In terms of language and communication, it’s wonderful because kids are learning all these new words and what things like banana leaves are, in addition to fine motor skills,” Hogg says. “They plant all of this wonderful food, watch it grow, then pick it and eat it.”

The crèche now wishes to involve parents more in the process. “Everyone has been cautious about people being in the building over the past few years with Covid, but hopefully this year we can bring parents to sessions and see their child eat a head of broccoli, so let them know they can put that in their lunchbox,” Hogg says.

Staff have revised their approach to food as a result of their work on the project. “It was a really big learning curve,” admits Hogg.

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