COP26: It's time to Rethink Food

By Nathan Atkinson, Co-founder, Rethink Food

Published:23 March 2020

Nathan Atkinson, Co-founder of Rethink Food
Nathan Atkinson, Co-founder of Rethink Food

In 2021 Glasgow is scheduled to host the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference. To mark this event, Rethink Food will be working with schools and businesses to give young people the opportunity to highlight the positive actions that can be taken to help us achieve a brighter and more sustainable future.

In total 289 schools (17 schools in each of the 17 cities) will take part. Using the 17 Sustainable Development Goals as a framework, schools will be challenged to complete a social action project linked to food and the environment.

The project has been designed to be an inclusive immersive learning opportunity and provide children with a voice during this global summit.

Each school will be assigned one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. They will consider what is at stake and what could happen if no action was taken, and work together to create positive actionable solutions. A range of experts linked to the goals will support the schools in understanding their designated goal.

Children getting involved with the Rethink food project
Statistics suggest that when children grow their own food, they are five times more likely to eat it, says Nathan Atkinson.

In addition to shaping local, national and international solutions to the climate emergency, all schools will grow fresh food using soil-free aeroponic techniques and will eat this food as part of the celebration event to mark COP26.

Ninety-seven percent of British children and young people don’t eat enough fresh food produce; however, statistics suggest that when children grow their own food, they are five times more likely to eat it. This part of the programme is designed to introduce alternative methods of food production and reconnect children and young people with fresh, healthy food.

Climate change and its impact on food security is high on the news agenda, and rightly so. This event will bring together children, businesses and local government together is a positive, solution-focused way.

About Rethink Food

My passion for addressing the issue of food security began in 2014 when, as the headteacher of a large inner-city primary school, I became aware of the vast numbers of children arriving at school each day hungry.

After one particularly alarming incident I vowed to remove hunger as a barrier to learning.

I introduced a number of initiatives in my own school, including buying a toaster for every classroom so every child could have a piece of toast each morning, and at this time I became aware of the vast amounts of food that supermarkets were throwing away each day.

I gained access to some of this food and set up a market stall at my school gates where families could access it.

Owing to the stigma sometimes associated with food insecurity, some families were reluctant to take food home with them. In response to this we shaped a programme of education around the SDGs and invited families to help us save the planet by taking the food home and eating it. This approach was well received, and newly empowered ‘food superheroes’ started rescuing food!

This idea developed and became known as Rethink Food Education. In collaboration with another teacher, Kevin Mackay, Rethink Food was established. This not-for-profit organisation has provided food and education to schools in Leeds, Bradford, Lincoln, Leicester and London.

In Sept 2017 I decided to leave my role as Headteacher to scale the work of Rethink Food and help improve outcomes for children and young people across the country.

Children build a growing tower
The growing tower can be used as a data collection point, daily measures can then be taken by children. Image: Growing Tower by Rethink Food.

In addition to working with food at the end of its lifecycle we wanted to introduce a programme of growing. After much research, the programme Rethink Food Futures was created.

Children begin this programme as scientists, then become farmers, chefs and finally consumers, taking a seed to edible salad in 60 days. This project is currently being delivered in Newcastle, Leeds, Bradford, Manchester, London, Bristol, Leicester, Lincoln and Southampton.

Rethink Food works with schools, businesses and community groups. This event to mark COP26 is part of a growing project that empowers schoolchildren to grow food using tower garden technology. These growing towers are sponsored by local and international companies and organisations. They are a great opportunity for business to connect with schools.

Rethink Food also has a school programme that uses surplus food and redistributes it to hungry children. It includes a programme of education, pupil workshops and staff training. It also offers a consultancy for businesses and community groups that introduces employees/members to the Sustainable Development Goals using food.

Positive solutions

Schools taking part in our COP26-focussed event will receive fully funded access to the programme through sponsorship provided by local and national businesses. Savills, the real estate adviser, are the founding sponsor of this programme and have currently funded 27 schools to participate in Rethink Food Futures programmes.

During the celebration events children will present positive solutions to all 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals. The issue of hunger and food insecurity will be highlighted as part of this work.

The programme will officially begin in September with schools joining throughout the 2020/2021 school year. The findings of each school will be collated and packaged ready for a celebration event scheduled to coincide with COP26.

For further information about this project, school participation or business sponsorship please contact nathan.atkinson@rethinkfood.co.uk @RethinkFoodUK

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