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Children hold the key to the future of food justice and education in Scotland

Mhairi Barrett is a PhD Gastronomy student, and a speaker at our national food conference, Biting Back: transforming food experiences for Scotland's children.

Ahead of the event, we asked her more about her interest in food education and what she thinks is next for food justice in Scotland.

What was the main reason you wanted to be part of the event; what do you want people to know about the work you do?

Children in Scotland works tirelessly to address all forms of poverty. However, from my perspective this conference is so important because it highlights a wide range of the food challenges associated with poverty.

Poverty, exclusion and access – how do these terms translate into the everyday lived experience of parents and carers feeding their children in areas with multiple pockets of deprivation? What are the long-term consequences of poverty and exclusion on children?

Poverty affects all aspects of a child’s life, past, present and future. Equally, food influences much of a child’s everyday existence. It affects their ability to concentrate in school, their energy to play, and ultimately their health and wellbeing, physically and mentally; now and in the future as an adult. The Children in Scotland conference provides a platform to discuss these issues through the lens of food.

Having always believed that all children and adults are entitled to have access to good, safe and healthy food I realised, whilst doing research, that access to food was not only a physical challenge, but also a cultural challenge. What do I mean by a cultural challenge?

“Who do you think you are?

In certain areas it can be classed as above yourself to cook things from scratch, posh or whatever, when you could just buy something for the microwave and stick a fork in it. Who do you think you are thinking that you can cook things from scratch or that you need to?”

This was a direct quote from a participant who took part in my Masters research dissertation, ‘Investigation into the suitability of integration of alternative education principles into mainstream education vis-à-vis food’. This quote provides a good example of the range of cultural challenges that need to be reflected upon when considering access to food and was also the inspiration for my PhD.

Mhairi Barrett
Mhairi Barrett

So where next for food justice and education in Scotland?

Unfortunately, I cannot answer this question, but I can say, in my opinion, that the answer does not lie in one individual element. Sugar, fat, or Universal Credit are not solely responsible for the lack of access to good, safe food. Whilst yes, they do, without doubt, all contribute to poverty, exclusion and access to good food, they each play a part in a much wider social context. To be able to tackle these, and a host of other food and poverty related issues, a multifaceted approach may prove to be the most productive way forward.

However, what I can answer, with some degree of certainty, is that children are keen to learn. Having developed and run cooking programmes within schools for many years, in conjunction with local charities, I can confirm that I am regularly accosted by irate little people demanding to know when it is their turn to take part in the programmes. Feedback from the schools correspond with this notion, when asked to choose from electives, cooking projects were always the children’s first choice.

Therefore, in this case, it may be that the children know best and hold the key to the future of food justice and education in Scotland.

Mhairi Barrett is a PhD Gastronomy student at Queen Margaret University, and will be speaking at Biting Back: Transforming food experiences for Scotland’s children on 20 March at Queen Margaret University.
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