Free range kids

It’s reached that time of year when the few spares hours that I have to call my own are wrestled from me by my wife and forcibly reallocated to our allotment.

While I occasionally get to execute a few of my own ideas when it comes to looking after the girls, where the allotment is concerned I’m very much in the role of monkey to Alix’s organ grinder. The moment that spring muscles past winter and starts the soil a-thawing, Gardeners’ World is on series link and I’m dispatched up the road in my wellies to dig and weed, weed and dig so that the ground is ready for the crops that will make us all but self-sufficient during the summer months.

So that’s where all the strawberries went last year

I moan about it, but even I can appreciate that it’s a positive force in our lives. Living in London, we could easily spend our entire lives inside; the allotment ensures that we venture blinking into the sun. What’s more, growing our own veg means we lessen our impact on the environment; from May to September we work in food metres rather than miles.

However, the biggest benefit is what the girls get out of it. Most summers, Lola now reaches the point where she refuses to eat vegetables that she hasn’t witnessed being tugged from the ground. Even at a couple of years old, she already understood that the produce you get from supermarkets is less flavoursome and nutritionally inferior to anything that’s been hand grown. While a discerning palate in a four year old is fine, the real value of the allotment is the lessons it teaches the girls.

A short digression. I grew up in Croydon, which, for those of you who haven’t visited, isn’t too often confused with Arcadia. Though I was raised in the leafier part of the borough, it certainly wasn’t a pastoral ideal and nor did I spend my childhood heaving sods like a South London Seamus Heaney. In fact, having low level mythomaniac tendencies – watch that – I used to persuade people that I’d never seen an actual cow until my early twenties. Although quite feasible, this is probably an exaggeration.

Yet thanks to my metropolitan childhood, I freely admit that I knew little about food until I met the future Mrs Burge who knew a great deal more. And rightly so. Growing up in deepest Kent, she couldn’t move for oast houses and orchards.

(Side note: I’d long assumed that such a place as “the middle of nowhere” didn’t exist in Britain, after all we’re a small country area-wise. It’s hard to get away from other people. Not like Russia or Australia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I held this belief until Alix took me to where she grew up. Literally a couple of houses, then fields surrounded by more fields, a place where the only signs of life are the hedgerow creatures.)

The point though, when I finally get to it, is that our young urbanites Lola and Mina could easily end up like I was in my mid-twenties, imagining that all food comes out of factories emblazoned with the Tesco logo where bright people in lab coats manufacture exotic substances like milk and kale and tuna for the benefit of the rest of us.

Flippancy aside, such fears aren’t totally unfounded. Lola recently asked what chicken is made of. A hard question to answer without simply quipping ‘Chicken, Lola’ (which of course I did), but it shows that kids are interested in this stuff if you get them thinking about it. This is why we had Mina at the allotment within 48 hours of her birth. In fact she made it to the allotment before the health visitor made it to us. It’s imperative that the girls see where their food comes from.

At the risk of sermonising, with more people moving from the countryside to cities than at any point in human history, we can’t afford to lose that connection to our environment. We have to talk to our children about what they are eating, explain where it comes from and how it affects them physiologically, teach them to eschew processed food, take them to farms, give them the opportunity to pick their own and to see an actual cow, help them remember that everything comes from the soil and everything returns to the soil. Grow stuff with them, if only in a window box.

Our small parcel of hired land up the road looks pretty rough and ready with its weedy grass and tumbledown shed, but I’m fairly sure that it will provide some of the most important lessons that our two free range chicks will learn.


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