Keeping it REAL: a food initiative teaching school pupils the value of sustainable farming


Jo Ewart Mackenzie profiles an agenda-setting school project in which the pupils learn about the world of work while planting, growing and selling their own organic produce.

Iain Clyne knows his onions. So too do his volunteers. REAL Food is a social and community enterprise run by Clyne, a teacher and youth worker, that gives the pupils of Inverness High School the chance to grow, harvest and sell a diverse range of salads, vegetables and potatoes at community markets and from stalls in and around the city.

The scheme was dreamt up by a trio concerned about the aptitude of school leavers when it came to the world of work. Local businessman Dennis Overton and Inverness High School rector Ritchie Cunningham shared Clyne’s desire to see pupils become better prepared for employment.

‘Rather than moan from the sidelines, we decided to see if we could play a part in helping young people to understand and engage more with working life, so it would be less of a shock,’ says Overton, managing director of Alness fish processor Aquascot.

The seeds for REAL (Real Education Active Lives) Food were sown. The three men envisaged an enterprise that would provide hands-on business experience and community involvement as well as something that would fit with the drive to promote healthy living at school.

When the project secured funding from the Schools of Ambition initiative and Highlands and Islands Enterprise in May 2006, the pupils began planting their first crop of root vegetables in the school grounds. They drew on the expertise of local farmer Donnie Macleod and learned how to cultivate the land using his organic principles.

Now they have three polytunnels on a plot of nearly one acre. From carrots, kale, leeks and cauliflower to rocket, mizuna, tomatoes and sprouting beans, REAL is a thriving market garden. Over 70 students are involved in the business and the produce is sold – by the pupils themselves – through more than half a dozen outlets.

‘Participation in a genuine business with the opportunity to develop employability skills, such as teamwork, selling, marketing, stock control, accounting and presentation, has proved so valuable to all the individuals involved,’ says Clyne.

To complement its own produce, REAL has teamed up with local growers and producers in order to sell goods such as seasonal soft fruits, free range chicken and eggs, freshly baked bread and farmhouse cheeses.

Two years ago, REAL Food made do with a stand in the school hall and a stall at a monthly farmers’ market. Now it has stalls at four weekly village markets and in three city locations. Its projected turnover for 2009 is £12,000. Thanks to demand from the community, the business recently started a ten-week training course on how to run an allotment.

With the Schools Social Enterprise Award from the cabinet secretary for education, Fiona Hyslop, and the Highlands and Islands Food Award for Innovation under its belt, what does the future hold for REAL Food?

‘It’s the same old story,’ says Clyne. ‘The future of REAL will depend on finding a sustainable niche for local food.’

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