One in five children have never been to the countryside. A fifth have never picked fruit and eaten it. A quarter of eight-year-olds have never come within touching distance of a cow or pig. Some children believe lemons are grown in Birmingham and rhubarb is eaten by kangaroos. Others say they have seen the countryside - passing it on the motorway.
These are the worrying findings of a new study published this week to coincide with the launch of the Year of Food and Farming, a government-backed campaign to build children's understanding of food at grassroots level. But will this new initiative do enough to address what is a deep-seated malaise in the UK?
The Year of Food and Farming, which will culminate at the Royal Show in July next year, will focus on three core areas - farm and factory visits, experiences of growing their own food and the teaching of cooking and preparing food. It will piggyback on existing events and initiatives such as LEAF's Open Farm Sunday, British Food Fortnight and the Royal Horticultural Society campaign for school gardening. "There has been lots going on by organisations. and companies. We want to bring all this together and build on it," says programme director Tony Cooke.
Organisations and businesses will be able to register their initiatives on the Year of Food and Farming website. Schools can search for events and activities by region or postcode and plan farm visits, source local suppliers for school meals and access resource material on fitting cookery .
The major retailers have pledged support as well as manufacturers, although suppliers' uptake has been slower, with some possibly feeling factory visits will have little value. "My worry is the food industry will say it is too worthy and ask 'what's in it for me?'" says Cooke. "It is not about being worthy, it is fundamentally important for the entire industry that children understand food. Hygiene standards in a food production unit make it difficult to take children around but it needn't be a barrier. They can take their story to the kids instead."
This is what McCain is doing with its Potato Story bus. "The end benefit is enlightened children who are the customers of the future," says McCain corporate affairs director Bill Bartlett. "It is important they understand food provenance and that foods can form part of a balanced lifestyle."
Kellogg's, which isn't involved with the campaign but which recently launched its own initiative to improve children's diets, believes that factory visits could dispel a lot of myths about the industry. "It is an excellent initiative to get children to understand about the naturalness of most of the foods they eat," says Chris Wermann, corporate communications director. "We need to get back to reminding children about what food is and where it comes from. They will then start to care for the environments in which it is grown."
The campaign may also provide firepower in combating childhood obesity. " If kids were more familiar with the food chain and had more exposure to it then they are likely to make healthier food choices," says Dr Aric Sigman, who led the latest research. "It is a very good way of fighting obesity. When children have a real experience it integrates the information more effectively than simply telling children about food."
A US study found children who came into contact with food at farm level were influenced to eat more fruit and veg. "Familiarity breeds affection. There are good medical reasons why exposure to farming is a sensible approach," says Sigman. "This can be reinforced with educational material but the real basis for healthy eating comes from exposure to the environment."
"It will develop healthier lifestyles and good nutrition, and increase interest in careers in the food and farming industries Schools have also welcomed the initiative. "There are some very practical suggestions, such as that every child at primary school should learn how to cook one meal and that they should visit a farm," says Michael England, headmaster of Woodleigh School in Yorkshire, which is tackling children's lack of nutrition knowledge with its EdStat Top Trumps-style game. "The targets are broad but reasonable. There is no need for a lot of extra investment."
And children themselves think gaining hands-on experience about food production will have a positive impact. "I knew you used wheat in bread, but none of the other ingredients," says eight-year-old Grace, of Avening School, Gloucestershire, who took part in a baking event at the launch.
"I'm going to ask my mum to do more baking at home now."n