So many children dislike vegetables. Jo Ind reports on a scheme in Birmingham to change that.


There are certain things that experience tells us are nearly always the case - girls like pink, boys like wheels and all children do not like vegetables.

At the Montessori Nursery, in Moseley, the pre-schoolers would have us think otherwise, at least as far as the vegetables are concerned.

Dr Birgit Kehrer, of BSustained, a training, gardening and catering company, has worked with the children teaching them how to plant, grow, cut up and cook their own food. The initiative was sponsored by Morrisons' Let's Grow campaign which provides free gardening equipment and teaching resources to schools so that children can grow their own vegetables.

"The idea is that children reconnect with their food and want to eat fruit and vegetables because they have grown it themselves," says Birgit, who is aged 41, and lives in Kings Heath. She encouraged the children to touch vegetables, cut them up, plant seeds and make a vegetable stir-fry showing how colourful fresh vegetables can be.

And the children were fascinated - who would have thought vegetables could be so exciting? "It was an amazing experience because the children were completely absorbed," said Aaliyah Foster, Moseley Montessori teacher. "They were totally engaged with handled the potatoes and vegetables and watching them being chopped and peeled and then cooked and the end result of sitting there and then eating. They didn't take their eyes off the whole process.

"Surprisingly very few children get to see where a chip comes from, or get to see that a pea comes from a pod, so that was good. A lot of parents buy chopped up vegetables to it was great that the children had a chance to handle them.

"One of the highlights was when the children compared seeds and felt them and touched them and planted them and put their fingers into soil. Just a few weeks later they could see the results. The radishes came up a week later. They've been going out on a daily basis with their watering cans. They're very proud of their little garden. It was a really rich experience."

Birgit is from Germany originally and started gardening when she was aged five with her dad in his allotment.

"I loved being outdoors, being active, growing things and looking after the garden and I always loved eating vegetables. I think that's because we had grown them from the very beginning, proudly harvested them and eaten them straightaway from the garden. There was hardly any vegetable I didn't like and I think that's a bit part of it."

With funding from the National Health Service, Birgit works in a variety of schools, including those in less well off parts of the city. She is passionate about healthy eating being available to everybody.

"In this country it seem to be the more privileged who have access to healthy eating. A big thing for me, coming from a different food culture where healthy food is much less the preserve of the middleclasses, is that good food doesn't have to be expensive, fancy, or take a long time to prepare. It can be part of the our daily routine."

It is not just children that Birgit as-pireto inspire. She also works with SIFA Fireside alongside people who are homeless or dealing with alcohol abuse.

"There is a house for sobering up and a dry house where people get supported in staying off alcohol," says Birgit. "I do healthy eating and cooking with them. They have an allotment so we do gardening and growing vegetables with some of the service users.

"Gardening and cooking is grounding and therapeutic in itself. It's about doing something together and having a re-connection with your food and taking some responsibility for something, which is another big step. Then we use the ingredients in the cooking class as well.

"The cookery class is called Five a Day on a Budget, so they can increase their fruit and veg intake on a low budget, which also works really well. That has another side to it, which is cooking a meal and eating together, which some haven't done for a very long time. They really enjoy it. It has a really nice effect for lots of people.

"In the dry house they have started to grow their own vegetables. It's intermittent. It's not always perfect, but it's definitely happening. People come from chaotic lifestyles, so it's not instant, but they do connect better through eating together and working together. It works really well at that level."

Birgit has also worked in a women's centre in Balsall Heath with women facing similar issues of homelessness and drug and alcohol abuse. She had helped the women to cook a lunch for the staff and the other service users.

"We had really good feedback from that," says Birgit. "It wasn't just that the women cooked for themselves, it was that they were able to give something back. It was about something bigger than just learning to cook."

Birgit is looking to work with ex-offenders having allotments as part of halfway house rehabilitation programmes. "It's about a reconnection, literally with the ground," she says. "If you have a chaotic lifestyle, I think there's something about learning to look after something that's really positive. The actual activity is a healthy one and we know that physical activity is good for mental health.

"In a wider sense, knowing you can do something produce some of your own food has a positive effect. You look after yourself and something bigger."

Whether she is working with nursery school children, ex-offenders or struggling women, Birgit approaches her work in the same way. The point is not to be patronising," she says. "I aim not to lecture people but to inspire them.

"Teachers tell me that after I have worked in schools, some children who always had an unhealthy lunch box now start having a bit of fruit and veg in it. That's exactly what I want. I don't want people to have to change their whole life around.

"It's the same with a nursery child, but you inspire them in a different way. I'm really hoping to get more work where I can work with parents and children together. If you just work with one part, the other might moan that they don't like the cabbage. I want to get both on board.

"I like to invite people onto this journey and show them that it's not 'you can't do this' and 'you can't do that.' If people have never cooked, it's about saying 'look at this' and 'try this' and showing simple recipes. It's about inspiration not finger wagging.”

* www.bsustained.co.uk    www.moseleymontessori.com