Fermenting food in Scotland’s schools: A design-led dissertation project — Part 4: Findings

From the synthesis and analysis of the interviews’ insights, emerged five major themes: (1) the health and safety challenges of fermented food in relation to children and schools, (2) the education guidelines of the intervention, (3) the socialities and practicalities of cooking and eating fermented food, (4) the intervention’s business strategy, (5) and its communication strategy (see figure 4.1).

Figure 4.1.: Synthesis of the interviews’ findings

1. Summary of the findings

1.1. Health and safety

The first question that was discussed, is the benefits of fermented food in children’s diet. The health coach Lilia Sinclair confirmed that “fermented food would benefit the children’s health and wellbeing, but also their concentration and learning capacity”, through the action of the gut-brain connection. The conditions for fermented food to be nutritionally healthy in children’s diets were explained by the nutritionist Magdalena Seganova as follows:

“If little children eat too much fermented food, the result may be diarrhea […] That could be part of their diet and nutrition, but they should not overdo it, just because there is a risk of bowel movement to be often and to be loose, which could be a concern if that continues for a longer time, because of dehydration”.

She added that this was the same for adults and that if overdone, any food can be harmful. Therefore, she said that fermented food should be regularly part of meals, in small quantities, like a starter, a pudding, a sauce, or as sides.

About the standards in schools, food advisor Sarah Thomas explained how the school menus were designed, always providing alternative menus in case of allergies and special diets. The food and hygiene restrictions that she mentioned were that no food must be provided outside lunch, except yogurt and fruit-based desserts, no salt can be made available in school restaurants, and only food that is labeled and provided by the supplier can be stored in the school kitchen’s fridges. Nevertheless, she specified that this rule does not apply to the teacher room’s fridges. We also discussed the security issue of introducing knives in classes, as some schools do not allow pupils to use knives outside the canteen. She suggested that a grater or child-safe knives might be preferred in these schools.

In addition to this, a more recent challenge emerged, due to the Covid19 pandemic, as reported by Valeria Skafida, co-founder of the Food Researchers in Edinburgh group (FRIED): “equally access by third parties in schools […] is more complicated now than before due to a desire to minimise the number of people mixing with pupil bubbles”. Thus, various conditions need to be respected to make this intervention safe from a health and security perspective.

1.2. Education

Among the various interviews, many insights concerned the educational dimension of the intervention. First, the children’s ideal age range for it was identified by the interviewees to be between 8 and 10 years old. This can be explained by the fact that around 9 years old, children are in P5 level, and “there is no major pressure of a national exam during this year” (according to Mary Brennan, Personal Chair of Food Marketing and Society at the University of Edinburgh), leaving more time and freedom to teachers to deal with the curriculum’s program.

A series of educational methods were then mentioned. It was acknowledged that through a “learning by doing” approach, fermentation workshops could indeed enable children to take ownership over their cooking practice, as it gives responsibilities to pupils to take care of the live process of fermentation, like caring for a pet. It was also commented that giving pupils certain freedom in the way they follow the workshop’s instructions could offer them guided autonomy. But “autonomy needs a framework: choices can be up to the children, but they need to know what the options are.” Therefore, “the rules’ clarity is the key to autonomous learning” (Sarah Legoupil, intern in a Montessori school). The same participant also referred to a Montessori learning tool, the “sensory objects”, which help children to learn through their senses, by focusing on one sense at a time. Following the idea of learning through repetition, it was also suggested that, through a regular practice of fermentation, children can accept it as a routine while learning and rehearsing it at the same time. Finally, it was widely encouraged to link the workshops to the curriculum to enhance the schools’ acceptance and assure the learning outcomes of the intervention. Following these findings, the educational framework became, therefore, clearer, transforming fermenting food into a sensory learning tool.

Figure 4.2.: The systems of food education and of the introduction of fermentation workshops in primary schools in Scotland

1.3. Cooking and eating with children

Another main question that was raised during the interviews is the practicalities of cooking and eating with children during the workshops. The needed equipment and environment were listed by the participants (see figure 4.1). The main types of ingredients that were viewed as essential to a fermentation workshop were seasonal, fresh, and local vegetables and fruits (organic being better for fermentation), unprocessed sea salt, clear water, spices (anything the children like), herbs, and seeds. It was suggested by the participants who practice fermentation that the workshops’ program should evolve throughout the year, as changes in temperatures and the seasonality of ingredients affect the fermentation process.

Some interviews adopted a special focus on the possible recipes for the workshops, considering the preparation of the food, its fermentation period, and the way to serve it. It was recommended by participants to prioritise easy and quick recipes in class to teach the basics of the fermentation concept and to leave recipes that need more equipment or time for home. Concerning the integration of the workshops’ outcome into school meals, many interviewees also advised that the recipes should be coordinated with the school’s menus program and look familiar and easy to eat with daily meals: kefir Orangina, fermented ketchup, probiotic chocolate bars…

1.4. Business strategy

The interviews with food policy and food business experts brought out substantial insights about the nature and purpose of the intervention’s organiser and the concrete service it offers. It was said that, in the light of the current system’s organisation, the intervention’s entity should act like an organisational facilitator between the intervention’s stakeholders. Policy Officer at Nourish Scotland Simon Kenton-Lake suggested that the organiser should be external to the school’s primary activities, like “a private business, NGO, social enterprise, community group…” Mary Brennan estimated that “a middleman approach is appropriate […] as wholesalers provide most food and drink ingredients and products to schools.” She added that the intervention’s food supply chain would work as a mix of public/national and private/local procurement systems, as ingredients like spices and sea salt were too specific to order on a very local scale, but fresh vegetables would be easily ordered locally, creating new business opportunities for local farmers and wholesalers. Still, experts’ answers to the question of the intervention’s business model remained slightly vague and seemed to suggest that the only way to sustain it, would be through public and private funding programs, as they believed parents should not be charged.

With these same experts, it was also discussed how to approach the different stakeholders and users, and how to build up a supportive network with individuals and organisations that already work for the same values and similar activities. This led to the idea that the adoption of the intervention would be progressive, starting local, small, targeting receptive specific communities, and after measuring the impacts and collecting proves, it would evolve towards other schools and councils, scaling up and out. This guidance helped defining the concrete form of the service and its strategy.

1.5. Communication strategy

The last main theme of findings that was identified is the communication strategy of the intervention, and how to challenge the narratives about fermented food, cooking, and even health and education. First, for children to want to do the workshops, it should not look like another lesson, but an opportunity to experiment with textures, colours, and other senses, while learning to create valuable food for their body and obtaining empowering knowledge. Although Sarah Thomas intimated that “parents will always complain”, it was also asserted that parents would largely accept the intervention if they are not charged and their children bring healthy food home. Still, as Valeria Skafida puts it by referring to the pandemic context, “parents (and mainly mothers) have had a very tough time in the last 1.5 years often taking on additional roles (homeschooling) on top of existing demands”. The home activities should therefore be very simple and not depend on parents’ participation. Regarding the schools’ and teachers’ acceptance of the intervention, it was suggested to work with key opinion leaders (doctors, education experts, school nurses…) and allow a trial period. There was an important emphasis on the need to make the intervention’s adoption as guided and transparent as possible. As the general biased idea of what fermentation is can raise skepticism among the various actors, some participants tried to imagine a more positive image of fermentation, linking it to the Scottish traditions and environment, as well as to the experimental aspect of a chemistry lab.

When trying to define the general pitch with the experts, four main points were highlighted: the health, wellbeing, and education benefits of fermenting food, the convenience of the fermentation technique, the fun dimension of the workshops, and the inclusive and sustainable purpose of the whole intervention.

2. Discussion of the findings

Multiple interpretations of these findings can be drawn, with subsequent implications for the intervention’s design. First, a call for resiliency seems to be reflected in most of the participants’ insights, encouraging children’s emancipation from alienating and unhealthy food and health systems, but also from the dogma of schools and parents, which might not accept change as much as children can. This can be shown by the fact that the ideal age for this intervention coincides with the age that marks the beginning of children’s gain of independency from their parents, and children’s quick development of mental and physical skills (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019). This age is therefore the perfect age to provide children with the tools and mindset to start critically reflecting on their lifestyle and change it.

Based on the interviews’ findings and secondary research on the status quo (Part 2), the intervention’s related systems, or Scotland’s food and health education system, could be mapped (see figure 4.2.). This map depicts this system’s stakeholders, policies, funds, existing interventions, and biases… It also underscores this system’s main cores (or ecosystems): primary schools, households, farms, the web, and the Scottish government. The multiplicity and interconnectedness of these ecosystems throughout Scotland enable the intervention’s systems to be distributed, enabling knowledge and products to be locally exchanged. By targeting these main ecosystems, the intervention can be resilient and self-sustaining in long term.

Read next part here: Part 5: Intervention

The entire bibliography is in the last story (Part 6: Conclusion)

Interaction Design Student www.emilie-schaefer.com