Educating young people about healthy food consumption and food production processes can change perspectives on growing food and increase awareness on the importance of healthy diets. Moreover, developing simple techniques for local communities to grow food in their own small backyards allows them secure an adequate supply of nutritious food in the future.
In the Syrian Arab Republic, where agriculture is the largest sector of the economy, schoolchildren learn about agricultural practices, various types of food, the importance of healthy diets and the nutritional value of food as part of their curriculum. However, many schools lack a space where they can gain hands-on experience growing fruit and vegetables. To change this, the Government of Japan supported the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to design and implement a project to establish gardens in public schools. The project also included in-class lectures and training sessions with a practical component to teach schoolchildren and teachers how to follow planting instructions and improve their understanding of nutrition. More than 3 000 students, their teachers and families in Homs and Rural Damascus governorates benefitted from this project–teachers’ developed their educational practices and schoolchildren gained technical and experiential knowledge on growing food in a 200 m2 space.
“The future of food security in the Syrian Arab Republic will become brighter when children have a better understanding of nutrition-sensitive agriculture and healthy diets concepts. Through the establishment of school gardens under the “Education for All” programme, with the support of the Government of Japan, children will appreciate food more because they grew their own vegetables, maybe for the first time in their lives and we do hope they carry these positive practices forward into the future,” said Mike Robson, FAO Representative in the Syrian Arab Republic.
Students and teachers celebrate the taste of green leaves
At Al Sabreen School, located in Sehnaya, Rural Damascus Governorate, 16 km from Damascus City, more than 100 students (7 to 12 years of age) prepared their small garden for cultivation and planted spinach and beans. On a warm sunny day, the students harvested the spinach to bake spinach pies, called fatayer, for breakfast with their teachers. The sense of achievement – and the smell of hot fresh spinach fatayer – spread throughout the school. It became a celebration of the end of the winter season and announced the beginning of the spring season, and thus the time to plant new vegetables in the school garden.
“We prepared our school garden by cleaning it, collecting small rocks and putting them aside. Then, we prepared the soil for planting, and every day we properly irrigated the plants based on their type and their need for water,” said Jouri Yassin, one of the students at Al Sabreen School. “I am very excited to harvest spinach leaves today, and once we finish harvesting this season’s crops, we will start the process all over again. We are going to plant vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers and onions. We can use them to make a green salad,” Jouri added.
Changing attitudes on healthy diets and growing food
Not only has the school gardens activity enhanced students’ knowledge of plants and vegetables, it has taught them not to damage or waste food, which is critical in achieving sustainable food security for all. Sara Ahmed, one of the students Al Sabreen School, said, “We now understand how important it is to save our plants and not to damage or waste the vegetables. All people, including the poor, should be able to have a variety of vegetables to eat to become healthy”. Another student, Raneem Saleh, said that she would benefit from what she learned in the future, “I want to grow up and become a doctor, and even though I will not become an agronomist, I will be able to advise my patients to eat healthy food”.
Mike Robson added that, “The establishment of school gardens and nutrition education programmes in public schools will help students to develop their consumption habits and perspectives toward food in the future. Getting good habits early is vital. Together, with the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform, we can help improve the education system by incorporating nutrition-sensitive agricultural concepts among schools in the Syrian Arab Republic for more sustainable food availability and security in the future”.