Slow Food’s Learning Communities

04 Sep 2006

At Terra Madre this year, in addition to the Earth Workshops focused on themes like agro-ecology, market access and resource management), there will be seminars on a topic that Slow Food is devoting ever more attention to: food education. Participating at these workshops will be the learning communities, the latest to join the world of Slow Food.

Three years ago, at the Slow Food International Congress in Naples, Italy, when our movement began promoting the school garden project started up by Alice Waters in the United States, nobody imagined the people involved in this kind of educational activity would become so numerous, motivated and determined as to come together to form communities. But the school gardens proved they are indeed a valid educational tool for transmitting a love for the natural world in both a theoretical and practical way. School gardens, which in Italy are part of the Orto in Condotta project, are rapidly growing in numbers. And each, in its own way, helps young people directly experience the meaning of nature cycles, seasonality, territoriality, and respect for the environment.

As the school garden project became more specialized, it became increasingly clear that community plays an important role in this alternative model of education. The learning community arose when the people directly involved, such as parents, grandparents (the ones who primarily take care of the garden on a daily basis in Italy), teachers and those indirectly involved, like local governments or suppliers of seeds and plants, recognized that they were a reference point for these youth. It is a research community in which each individual can gain sufficient knowledge to then train others. The children learn in the garden, in the classroom and at home. Together with the scholastic system, this program takes care of their education.

The challenge now facing Slow Food is to link up these communities into a network as well so the model that each of them represents can become the object of discussion and a stimulus for change.

So Terra Madre will also see the presence of learning communities from all over as well. They are just as motivated and open to discussions with diverse cultures as the food communities.

Among the learning communities from outside of Italy, a fine example of a regional network is the experience of the Austrian school gardens. In Styria, in southeastern Austria, eleven (soon to be 16) nursery, primary and secondary schools are part of the Schulgärten project promoted by Manfred Flieser. The small towns received funding through the Leader+ project and the Hügelland östlich von Graz association, whose respective directors, Gerald Gigler and Bernhard Liebmann, both very active in the region, are part of the learning community network. Also part of the network are people such as agronomist Theresia Krammer, who is actively involved in organizing the gardens and seeing to it that there is ongoing contact between the schools. The exchange of native plants and seeds is an example of active interaction and represents not only an effort to recover often forgotten plant varieties, but also a sign of community solidarity. One product of the Austrian network will be a cookbook written by the children, starting from their family recipes. It will be printed in 17,000 copies at the end of the year and will certainly be a reason for pride for many of the teachers and parents.

The Austrian network will bring this and many other experiences to Terra Madre. This educational model will probably not be replicated elsewhere (I challenge anyone to reproduce the silent, orderly and diligent atmosphere of the Austrian schools in the rowdy Italian classrooms), but at least it will give some ideas to learning communities that are only now making their first tentative attempts in the garden, armed with hoes and a trust in the possibility of giving future generations a better food culture.

Translated by Ronnie Richards
Annalisa D’Onorio works in the Slow Food Taste Education Office

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