I recently visited Billingsgate Fish Market for a school trip, joining a group of year 10 students studying for their NVQ in Hospitality and Catering alongside their food teacher.
We were also joined by Lily McSweeney, Food Education Partnership Coordinator for the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, who organised the visit and the day was led by chef, cooking tutor and food writer CJ Richardson. Chef CJ, who works in partnership with the Borough to deliver these sessions, aims to increase awareness and knowledge of seafood with local young people.
During introductions to the iconic East London market, which is due to be moved to Dagenham Docks in the coming years, Chef CJ described the history and workings of the market, before beginning a discussion with the students about different fish varieties, sustainability concerns and the health benefits of eating seafood.
Moving into the kitchen setting, Chef CJ showed the students several whole fish and a selection of shellfish. She showed the students what to look for in a fresh fish and let them handle the fresh mackerel, gurnard and plaice. There was a buzz of excitement, shock, and squeamishness for what was clearly a new experience for most the students. Chef CJ calmed them down with an expert demonstration of fish preparation and filleting, before the students had a go debearding mussels, peeling prawns, and cleaning squid. These provided great practical activities for the large group without the need for sharp knives.
Chef CJ then demonstrated simple and quick cooking methods: making stock, oven roasting and pan frying, before students had an opportunity to taste the different fish and shellfish. The students, who began the day firmly ‘anti-fish’, ended the day inspired, with many tucking in and trying the different seafood. It was clear to see the peer influence, and once one or two students tasted, others felt confident to join them too.
Overall, this visit illustrated the success of a school trip as part of the food learning experience and the importance of engaging sessions delivered by an expert teacher. The school’s food teacher confirmed to me that trips such as these are an invaluable experience for the students. She also admitted that, not being a fish expert herself, experiences like this give her the confidence to incorporate ideas and techniques back into her classroom. More broadly, the teacher described the importance of hands-on practical cooking sessions in promoting wellbeing, especially during pressurised exam periods.
The success of connecting schools with local industry in the form of school trips and visits is evident. In this case, the connection between local schools and these opportunities is organised through the Borough which illustrates the important role the local authority can play in promoting innovative education and public health programmes. The food teacher recognised that without this support, a trip like this would not be possible.
When I asked about the motivation from the local authority, Lily McSweeney described challenges for the Borough, with poverty and social disadvantage impacting on health and food security. She emphasised the importance of engaging schools, students and their families with healthier food messages and experiences.
During my visit, I saw the effect that a food related school trip can have on young people. Our Best Food Forward Project enthusiastically supports this kind of partnership. We recognise that, due to funding, logistical and safeguarding constraints, school trips can be a challenge to organise. Despite this we are passionate about exploring local initiatives, where schools can connect with their local authority to enable access to local food suppliers, growers, kitchens, markets and more. Formalising school trips such as these as part of the food education curriculum for all young people would be a welcome addition to wider learning about food.
Joint strategic lead for
school food education
Best Food Forward