Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Kids should know their raspberries from BlackBerrys

Role model: Alan Titchmarsh
Role model: Alan Titchmarsh

At last, May is upon us: the month of sitting in the garden without wearing a coat, the Chelsea Flower Show and more Alan Titchmarsh on our televisions.

It is also the time of year, it seems, when a survey is published showing how ignorant children are about where their food comes from.

Only half of under-16s can tell the difference between a cucumber and a courgette. Just one-in-10 youngsters could identify a leek.

With increasing urbanisation, fewer children have access to a garden – let alone a vegetable plot.

Our obsession with home improvements and extensions is shrinking outside space. The easy availability of ready-trimmed supermarket vegetables separates us from produce in its raw state.

The issue is not only with food, but an increasing disassociation with nature. My own child, brought up without a back garden (although we do have an allotment) is so cut off from the countryside that, when we venture out of town, she shrieks with fear at a farmyard animal or hedgerow bird.

The National Trust seems to be listening, because it is running an admirable campaign – 50 Things To Do Before You're 11-and-three-quarters – to get kids to drag out their parents to one of its properties for a country walk.

Presumably the trust believes that, when the child turns 12, he or she will become allergic to fresh air and will only want to slump on the sofa.

This brings us to Alan Titchmarsh, who has blamed the lack of a new generation of professional gardeners on youngsters being more interested in BlackBerrys than raspberries.

Titchmarsh says that, without horticulture, we would be "hungry, uninspired, artistically stunted, unhealthily house-bound, pale of skin and unsound in body".

"Our wildlife would be deprived of habitats. Birds would go hungry, bees would be short of nectar and frogs would fail to find sufficient places to spawn," he added.

I wholeheartedly applaud Titchmarsh's appeal, made at the Royal Horticultural Society to mark 100 years of the Chelsea Flower Show, if it were not for the fact that the RHS bans under-fives from attending the show. Those over five are charged the same as adults – more than £60 a day.

The RHS does, however, run a campaign for school gardening, which has attracted more than 16,000 institutions since it launched six years ago.

Nearly 6,000 have become 'benchmarked', meaning they have passed certain requirements on growing food and flowers, involving children and the local community. The campaign works on several levels – it encourages learning, especially to those children not normally enthusiastic about sitting at a desk in double maths, it promotes healthy eating and exercise and it propagates enthusiasm in children that they can then pass on to their parents. Yet one drawback is that most of the RHS schools that have achieved Level 4 and Level 5 – the top two benchmarks – with well-established school gardens, are predominantly in affluent areas.

Eligibility for free school meals, a good indicator of deprivation, is less than 10% – well below the national average – in most of them.

It matters that children know their onions from their garlic and are not put off by the elitism associated with the Chelsea Flower Show, or scared when a wild rabbit crosses their path.

Interest in gardening and nature breeds learning, lowers levels of obesity and reaps all the benefits of fresh air. And I'd hazard a guess that even some of the poorest children in the country can now identify a leek.

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