Food Education in Tainan Schools
Elementary Students Grow their Own Lunch Produce
A first in Taiwan, the curriculum in elementary schools in Tainan, one of the island’s major agricultural regions, includes “food education”. By growing their own food, students gain greater self-confidence and develop a stronger bond to the land.
Elementary Students Grow their Own Lunch ProduceBy Pei-hua Lu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 625 )
During recent elementary school visits, Chen Hsiou-ping, director of the Tainan City Government’s Bureau of Education, encountered many students who were enthusiastic about the organic farming projects at their schools. They proudly told Chen that they had explained to their farming grandparents why using pesticides is not healthy.
The idea of adding food education to the curriculum was born five years ago when Tainan Mayor William Lai attended a symposium with school principals on school lunches. Lai, a physician by training, noted that students should not just thoughtlessly eat their school lunches but actually understand where the food comes from as well as its nutritional value.
Subsequently, the city government announced that “food education” would be added to the five traditional elements of a well-rounded education – moral, intellectual, physical, social and aesthetic - and become part of the curriculum.
Now the seeds sown by this food education are bearing fruit.
From School Lunch to Food Education
Tainan became the first city in Taiwan to introduce food education, also because the vast majority of schools here prepare their own fresh school lunches in the school kitchen instead of having them delivered by a catering company. As Chen points out, nine out of ten schools in the city boast a school kitchen.
These schools may freely decide what they put on their menus and where they procure produce and other school lunch ingredients.
Therefore, they can emphasize a buy-local/ eat-seasonal approach that helps reduce carbon emissions.
If it weren’t for the excited screaming and shrieking of children wafting over from the playground, one could mistake Tainan Municipal Guantian Elementary School in Tainan’s rural Guantian District for a farm. After stepping through the school gate, an aquaponics farm comes into sight on the left and a 1,000-square-meter field on the right. Quinoa, also known as "miracle grain” or super food for its high protein content, is growing in the field, the seed heads hanging heavily from the stalks, ready for harvesting.
Near lunchtime, some 20 fifth graders donning straw hats emerge from the school building behind Principal Lin Pao-liang. Wielding sickles, they cut the quinoa stalks, sweating profusely in the sweltering summer heat. The blazing sun leaves a reddish tan on the little faces.
Lin points out that quinoa has a high nutritional value. After harvesting, the grains must be dried in the sun before they can be handed to the school kitchen for further processing and use in delicious school lunches.
“Children who originally were picky eaters now pay attention to a balanced diet because they eat the fruits of their own labor,” observes Kuo Mei-chi, who has been teaching at the school for more than twenty years.
Aside from having students get to know food through work in the fields, local foods are also being featured in teaching. Since Guantian District is a major producer of water chestnuts, the crop was incorporated into teaching materials.
Every summer break, the school organizes a reading camp for the incoming fourth graders that also includes water chestnut-themed poetry writing. “The deepest implication of education is cognition through practice, experience and internalization. Then things are not easily forgotten,” Chen points out.
Located half an hour’s drive from Guantian elementary school is Tainan Municipal Songlin Elementary School in Sigang District, which is famous for its sesame production. In art class, second graders use sesame straw for artistic creations. Over a period of three months, the sixth graders work in the fields alongside local farmers, helping to turn the soil, sow, harvest and dry the ripe sesame plants, exhibiting the fruits of their labor just before they graduate from elementary school.
Chang Chi-chuan, principal of Tainan Municipal Songlin Elementary School, remarks that after graduation, students might forget what they learned in their Chinese language and math classes, but they won’t forget the fragrant smell of sesame.
Food and farming education is becoming increasingly established in Taiwanese elementary schools.
Principal Lin believes that school education must move away from its one-sided emphasis on building intellectual skills toward more diverse forms of learning. Students who engage in farming experience a sense of achievement that bolsters their self-confidence.
But he cautions that the promotion of food education requires strong will and unity. Throughout the entire process of introducing food education, from preparing the land to building a cob house from mud and straw, Lin was the first one to roll up his sleeves and get to work.
Mobilizing Town and School
As the principal set an example, faculty and students gradually united behind the scheme. Earlier this year, the school planned to build a traditional mud-and-straw house to revive this rural building method and architectural style, but the project was threatened due to a lack of funding. However, in a concerted effort, the principal, the chief of general affairs and the fifth-grade homeroom teachers mobilized the entire student body and enlisted the help of conscription-age young men who were doing their substitute service.
This public-private collaboration effort helped overcome the government’s budgetary constraints, and also reduced the teachers’ teaching burden.
Chen flatly admits that such collaboration is crucial for the success of food education. Chen points to the rice farmers who provided rice seedlings, sesame farmers who let the school use their farmland, alumni who sponsored hydroponics equipment, community university lecturers who held classes in the school and home economics experts from the farmers cooperative who taught the students how to turn fresh produce into meals.
From their practical experience, students not only get to know and understand foods but also local industry.
In her youth, Kuo, who hails from Tainan, felt compelled to leave her native town to teach in Taipei. She recalls that in the past, people from southern Taiwan were forced to leave if they had a certain ambition and wanted a career. She believes that by bringing food and farming education to local schools, students will come to understand that they can also have a career in farming or the production of local specialties.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz