Tesco school trips: what the fork?

After going undercover on a Tesco school educational trip, Anna Turns argues why it’s important to get children to the farm.

Where I live in South Devon preschool and primary school classes take a trip to Tesco at least once a year. Brownies, Rainbows, Cubs and Scouts can earn a Farm to Fork badge by going on an organised trail around Tesco. The store’s community officer will also come into school to teach kids where in the world different foods come from, or get the class baking mini Christmas cakes. More than 2 million children nationwide have taken part in Tesco’s nationwide scheme so far.

Tesco is clever. Very clever. The UK’s biggest retailer has done its research and every part of Tesco’s ‘Eat Happy’ Project (the umbrella name for its Farm to Fork trails, educational scheme and resources), now in its fourth year, is linked specifically to the curriculum for that year group. Tesco invested £15m in this initiative in the first year alone, with support from partners such as Diabetes UK, NFU, and the Children’s Food Trust.

A handful of other parents I know are pretty cross to find out that these Farm to Fork trips are so prevalent. Some are surprised to find out just how often Tesco staff come into schools, and one vowed to facilitate an alternative trip to a nearby farm shop selling vast ranges of Westcountry produce, but the headteacher declined.

Many of my peers roll their eyes if I mention why I’ve always taken my daughter on alternative trips on the days her class goes to Tesco. But now it’s time I dug a little deeper, so I’ve joined a class trip to see what it’s really like.

Firstly, the tour guide, let’s call her Patsy, gets children to swap their school hi-vis tabard for a Farm to Fork branded one (with the text ‘I’m learning where my food comes from’ on the back of each one). Showing them round the fruit and veg aisles, they are encouraged to name and feel different foods and Patsy throws in a few educational facts too, including where in the world they were grown – some far flung and some closer to home (some of the potatoes apparently come from a farm a few miles away).

Next, the class go outside (right beside the carpark, near the smoker’s corner) to the side of the shop foyer for a brief physical activity. Patsy names a fruit or veg and the children have to act out where it grows – crouch down for potatoes growing in the ground, huddle to look like a banana bush, sway your arms around for apples growing on a tree. Later, the class is allowed behind-the-scenes into the enormous fridge before going to the staff canteen to make colourful fruit faces, nibbling as they go.

Some children are tasting things they have never seen before (even the class teacher tried a sugarsnap for the first time) and they are having lots of fun decorating – grated carrot for hair, cucumber slices with a raisin in the middle for eyes, slices of bright red peppers for lips. But I’m pretty sure most of this tour could be done in the comfort of a classroom, albeit someone would have to pay for the fruit and veg.

Teachers and parents are provided with free, quality resources and lesson plans galore – a no brainer if you’re short of time or money or both. The project’s four Farm to Fork trails titled Explore the Store, Sustainability, Healthy Eating or Food for Fuel are totally free – perfect at a time when education budgets are stretched more than ever before and parents may not be able to fork out extra pounds to send their children off on a jolly. “Tesco even provide us with a free bus,” one teacher joyfully exclaimed when I questioned her – yes, they do. But why?

As with any multinational corporation, I strongly believe there’s an underlying motive to this marketing ploy. It must come down to the bottom line. Make it entertaining and children will probably go home and tell their parents how exciting it was to stand in the massive fridge or scan barcodes at the till. Perhaps they’ll even shop there for the next 70 years. It is reminiscent of banks giving children a piggy bank when they open an account. Brand loyalty is a powerful thing.

Now, I’m no saint. I don’t buy all my food exclusively from farmer’s markets or make my own bread every morning – of course, I have to pick up items from supermarkets and my children come with me when I do. But this is only a small part of the UK’s food story.

We are surrounded by a wealth of wonderful, independent growers, farmers, fishermen and artisan producers, many of whom are exploited by the big retailers. According to research by accountancy firm Moore Stephens, supermarkets’ use of predatory practices helped drive more than 150 food producers out of business last year. And Christine Tacon, the UK’s first Groceries Code Adjudicator claims that ‘supermarket suppliers are being underpaid millions of pounds every year by the UK’s biggest retailers’.

Small businesses need our support, and surely giving children the chance to meet fishermen unloading live crab at the fish quay or see cows and goats being milked on a local farm shows them something they can’t experience day-to-day, and connects them to where food really comes from. While a Tesco trip is better than no trip, I can name endless farm producers who would happily welcome visits, but schools generally have to pay for it.

For example, Riverford Organics charges £3.60 per child for a two-hour visit, excluding travel, and charges extra for a delicious lunch. Bocketts Farm in Surrey charges £7.80 per child for a four-hour trip that includes goat-milking, a tractor ride, farm tour and lunch. By contrast, Hackney City Farm in London welcomes school trips free of charge if teachers run their own activities.

As parents and shoppers, let’s question the norm and open our eyes. Just because the entire school goes on supermarket trips doesn’t necessarily make them wholesome. Exposing children as young as two-years-old to such consistent brand marketing can’t contribute much to inspiring the next generation to think independently as conscious consumers.

Watching a cow being milked or harvesting your own apples to press into juice can be so much more tangible and transformative. Let’s not revert to letting our children learn where our food comes from in a supermarket – let’s take them to the source and show them for real, muddy boots and all.

To show your children what’s beyond the farm gate, why not take your children an Open Farm Sunday event on 11th June?


Anna Turns

Anna Turns

Since graduating with a biology degree from Oxford University, Anna has worked in TV and magazine production. She now works as a freelance journalist based in Devon, specialising in sustainability, food and marine issues and is an ambassador for Zero Waste Week in September.