Schools program offers farming focus for kids

Ask a child where flour comes from and they might say “wheat” or “corn”, but ask them how it gets from the field to the supermarket shelf and they’d likely come up blank.

“There’s a big knowledge gap,” says Louise FitzRoy, a former radio journalist and founder of the From Paddock to Plate program.

“I grew up in northern NSW in a very small country town called Guyra where my dad has Merino wool, Angus cattle and prime lambs.

“When you’re from the country you just presume people know where their food comes from, but I’d be out interviewing farmers and people would be listening to those interviews and asking questions about the produce — food that was actually coming from their region.

“I realised pretty quickly that a lot of people had no idea about what they were putting on their plate.”

That realisation was the inspiration behind From Paddock to Plate, an online education resource that aims to fill the knowledge gap about food and farming.

Developed to complement the Australian school curriculum, it offers teaching manuals, lesson plans, worksheets and visual excursion videos for students in Years 5 to 10 in English, Geography, Science and Design and Technologies — all written by Louise and reviewed by teachers in the classroom.

The food schools program is designed to allow teachers to pick and choose — replacing sections of their curriculum with From Paddock to Plate content, while still meeting the subject’s learning outcomes.

The goal, she says, is to get students learning about food and nutrition and agricultural issues across the curriculum, so it’s not limited to kids who choose subjects such as food technology.

“I’m not a teacher,” admits Louise, (although she did spend a year teaching English in Japan after high school), “but I know a lot about food and agriculture and teachers can mould the content as they see fit.

“So, for example, for Year 7 English there are vocabulary lists for different industries that they can discuss and then integrate them into the rest of the curriculum. That’s the starting point, but by Year 10 they’ll be debating things like climate change and greenhouse gas emissions from dairy cows, or live exports, or the use of chemicals on crops.

“It’s about giving kids the tools to form their own opinions and discuss the issues that affect their food supply.”

It’s here that Louise’s journalistic background kicks in.

“I’m adamant that the content has to reflect the full story,” she says.

“I’ve had a lot of support from the government and interest from industry groups who’ve approached me asking me to add content, but the thing for me is that the information is neutral and unbiased.

“That was also a major factor in the financial model of From Paddock to Plate. Schools pay an annual subscription fee that keeps us viable, so we’re not reliant on government funding.

“A lot of people are creating food education projects like this but they die after two or three years because they’re reliant on a notoriously unreliable source of funding.

“We’re financially sustainable and that’s what teachers want to see — that it has the potential to remain in the curriculum for years to come.”

Eight years since its inception, the food schools program is now in more than 100 schools across the country. And while metropolitan schools such as Melbourne’s prestigious Xavier College are on the list, it’s not just for city kids who’ve never dirtied their RM Williams boots in a paddock — rural schools such as Cobram Secondary College and Timboon P-12 School have signed on, too.

“Interestingly, the program has been equally popular between city and country schools,” she says.

“A lot of the country teachers will tell me there’s no dairy industry in their region, so while their kids might be able to tell you everything about the grains industry, they don’t know where their milk comes from, or where rice comes from, or where berries come from.

“It’s a similar story with school excursions where kids are probably going to be visiting the local industry that they already know about because their parents work in it.

“That’s where our videos — our virtual excursions — come into it. You’ve got a farmer, in the classroom, showing you around the property. It’s less tactile, but you’re doing the same thing you would be on the farm, without the cost or logistics of getting 30 kids there.”

For Louise, the program is a natural step beyond school kitchen garden programs, which have grown in popularity in recent years.

“Kids are the next generation of consumers and soak up information like a sponge, so kitchen gardens in schools are great, but they only teach kids about a handful of vegetables or fruits, and only on a small scale,” she says.

“Kids need to know how it’s commercially produced, because that’s what they’re eating. When they go to the supermarket, they’re not eating a carrot from the school garden, they’re eating a carrot that has come from a massive greenhouse somewhere.”

While the food education project has been a slow burn — Louise also worked for the ABC and taught yoga during the first six years — it’s now starting to take off.

When The Weekly Times caught up with Louise, she had just returned from a business trip to Iceland, Morocco and the US, and was about to fly to Western Australia to film the next series of From Paddock to Plate videos.

“I’m finding now I have some experience to offer others in different countries,” she says.

“I’ve just help set up an international network with lots of people doing what I’m doing in different countries around the world, and after we film in Perth I’m off to the Cayman Islands — they’re looking at setting up their own food program.

“It’s been a bit of a bumpy ride  but it’s all really exciting.”

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After all our recent weather events, here is a photo that is definitely worth sharing! Thank you to Barb Eulenstein at Boola in NSW for your amazing photography skills to capture this incredible moment. #FromPaddocktoPlate #feedyourmid

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