The Need for Food Education – not a new issue

A few days ago I had a conversation with a local historian about a subject matter relevant to some research that I have been doing for a few years now regarding my local area. One of the themes that we discovered as a result of this conversation is that ideas tend to repeat themselves in history and that there really isn’t such a thing as a truly ‘original’ idea, concept or concern. Most things have been thought about before, if in their own specific historical context. This idea is relevant to this post because it is related to some reading I have been doing over the past few days. The paper I have been studying is Lady Eve Balfour’s ‘The Living Soil’ (1943), a work that has been on my ‘to read list’ for some time but this is the first time I have actually got around to reading it. It is a work that requires a good deal of study before one truly understands the concepts and ideas behind her writings but it is in essence a very well written compilation of the ideas in the 1940s regarding food culture and the processes behind food production as well as the importance of fertility of the soil and the role of mycorrhizal relationships in ecological processes.


Although I am bound to return to posts about this work in the future for now I want to concentrate briefly on a few paragraphs that I feel encapsulate the idea expressed above about ideas and concerns repeating themselves. In chapter nine Balfour raises the issue of food and agricultural education – a topic that is one that I regularly feel like I should step onto my soapbox about today. It appears however that in eighty years (at least) the topic has been of equal importance and relevance. Balfour calls for farming to be integrated into the curriculum of all schools, something that I believe passionately about in today’s context. She drew my attention to St Columba’s College in Dublin, a school that even today still professes the importance of an agricultural education within its curriculum under the banner of its Leaving Certificate in Agricultural Science:

Personally I believe they could still go further in integrating more about food education in their curriculum more widely but it is certainly far more than the vast majority of schools provide for in this country and elsewhere.

I wish to quote directly from this section of the Living Soil to show you exactly how relevant Balfour’s ideas are for today:

‘Contact between town and country should be encouraged on every possible occasion, and coupled with this the pursuits of farming should find a very definite place in our system of education. Farming as a profession should be part of the curriculum of all technical schools, and knowledge of our land and good husbandry coupled with good diet should be part of the curriculum of every school, town or country. This view is beginning to be reflected in the management of more than one school of which perhaps the most interesting is St Columba’s, near Dublin. This public school for boys has built up, from small beginnings, a farming side which has now become an integral part of its educational scheme. The farm is now over 200 acres in extent, pays its way, is self-supporting (through the use of compost) and produces almost all the food for the college. An interesting account of this enterprise appeared in Sport and Country, March 1944 issue, from which the following quotations are taken:

‘Those in charge of the farm believe that one of the secrets of their success is that the practical work was done first, and that created a thirst for the theory of agriculture. The other secret is that all the work done is purely voluntary and done in spare time…The health of the community generally has been unusually good, and the work and games have continued with additional zest. The main significance is, however, the fact that the boys are being educated to appreciate the rhythm of Nature and to understand intelligibly her influence on the whole of life, while their powers of concentration and observation have increased. The experiment has also had the effect of welding the ordinary school activities into a community life, with the feeling there is a contact between the School and the world outside.’

(continuing The Living Soil extract) ‘The land has been looked down upon hitherto as a career for the ordinary boy or girl, because it is said to have mo future. By ‘future’ is usually meant a bank balance, but the function of education surely is to develop character, to produce vigorous, healthy men and women capable of forming a sound judgement on ultimate values, and of rendering their quota of service to the community.’

At times she can be a little patronising and certainly the way that St Columba’s carries out its course of agricultural education could and should not be seen as a model for all schools looking to further food education in their curricula. However, I still believe that the issues Balfour raises are relevant for us today and should form a part of a new conversation about what it is that food really means for us. Are we losing touch with our surroundings? Are we going off the rails in our relationship with food? Do we really understand what it is that we want out of our food? Should we be doing more to educate our children as to the importance of food? Food is a part of our culture and the basis of our nutrition. We need to give some thought as to where we are heading. Life is an education. I believe we should integrate food to the centre of that education. How we go about doing that is a conversation in itself. There are some great organisations and initiatives out there such as the Food for Life Partnership ( and Todmorden’s ‘Incredible Edible campaign’  here in the UK and numerous others abroad. To make steps though and avoid Lady Evelyn’s discussion continuing for another century things will have to begin small and work up. For it to work people have to want it to work. First step is to think to yourself – what is it that food means to me? What is it that my good health means to me and how can my nutrition aid my good health? As is written at the end of chapter 9 in The Living Soil ‘health is not a state but a process.’ In other words man and every other organism is so much a part of its environment that both organism and environment must be allowed to grow and develop together, mutually benefiting each other. To ‘cultivate’ health one must, according to Balfour, ‘first cultivate a vital environment’ (one with a positive vitality).

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