“You might inspire a generation of kids to save the world for all of us. You would be amazed at what inspired children can do.” With tears in my eyes I sat in the Michael Fowler Centre and listened to the incredible Dr Jane Goodall speak about the world we could have. Her words resonated to my core. “Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, we will help. Only if we help, we shall make a difference.”
How could I make a difference?
I sat there and imagined every single New Zealand child growing up safe, healthy, well fed, able to make their own healthy eating choices, free of obesity, free of dental decay and living in harmony with their natural environment. What would that Aotearoa look like? Can we make this future happen for upcoming generations of Sir Eds, Kate Sheppards and Richie McCaws?
My godson Leo and I have been hanging out since his first day here on planet Earth. Ever since that day he has owned my heart with his big dimpled smiles. Through his eyes the world is a big maze waiting to be navigated. His mum and dad let him get his hands dirty and explore. He already has his first thriving veggie patch at home where he is currently growing carrots, silverbeet, onions and lettuce. To say that little Leo is an inquisitive, creative and adventurous 18-month old boy is an understatement. I’ve loved watching him grow up before my eyes.
As his godmum, I want to help create a future Aotearoa that Leo can grow up in, at a school that allows him to continue to be interested in the world around him. This school would take the classroom outside and open his eyes to other ways of learning. I want Leo to grow up appreciating and valuing healthy food and respecting his environment.
As a dentist, I treat young children on a daily basis and have had to remove teeth due to preventable dental decay and infection. Current New Zealand statistics show that children living in the most deprived areas were 2.4 times as likely to have had a tooth removed as those living in the least deprived areas (after adjusting for age, sex and ethnic differences).
There is increasing evidence that the intake of added sugars leads to weight gain and tooth decay (WHO, 2015). Sugary drinks, including fizzy drinks, and junk food are the main sources of sugars in the diets of New Zealand children. Our dental community is already running projects aimed at making all our schools water-only. I would love all children in Aotearoa to have easy access to healthy food that is nutritious and not have to live on cheaper, high sugar and poor nutritional value alternatives.
As a health professional, I dream bigger and imagine creating a New Zealand where all 2529 of our schools have a living garden.
My answer to making this future a reality is by supporting Garden to Table. It’s a New Zealand-based charity that currently runs programmes in 45 schools around the country and its aim is to one day be a part of every school. This programme is changing the way children approach and think about their food.
Kiwi kids are learning to grow and harvest their own food and to prepare and cook fresh, healthy food from their own gardens. These programmes truly take the classroom outside. Children become involved in all aspects of gardening, in an environmentally sustainable garden.
A teacher at one of the participating schools in Porirua described it as “one of the most worthwhile programmes a school could invest in”. The benefits are multifactorial as the programmes involve bringing volunteers and parents onboard, empowering children and their whānau to make healthy eating choices.
Māori believe there is a deep kinship between humans and the natural world. This connection is expressed through kaitiakitanga, which encompasses guardianship, protection and conservation of the environment. People are not superior to the natural order; they are part of it. All life is connected and to understand the world, one must understand the connections and relationships within it.
Imagine a world where programmes like Garden to Table teach our children to become kaitiaki (guardians) responsible for looking after the environment. This notion of kinship with nature may be the key towards helping our environmentally threatened world.
Watching children in a natural environment getting their hands dirty planting seedlings, understanding how compost works and what living things need to grow and thrive is truly beautiful. It gives children permission to express themselves; to take ownership of caring and nurturing something of their own.
It has given me a glimpse of a future that is possible for all our children if we spend a little more time encouraging them to be creative and less time conforming to ‘traditional learning’ confined between four walls. As a health professional, I am seeing this positive change happening all around. With the number of gardens in schools rising, more and more schools adopting water-only policies and even daycare centres like Leo’s having gardens, the future is looking brighter.
Garden to Table could one day run its programmes in every school here in Aotearoa, but needs our help to get there. Support the vision for healthy, connected kids with a regular donation at www.onepercentcollective.org
Words by Dr Laura Ichim and Images by Bradley Garner and Pat Shepherd.