For our five-question series on food and education at The Common Table, we ask experts about their strategies and practices for fostering a healthier relationship with food. Here: food provocateur and founder of the social enterprise FEAST, Devin O’Sullivan, who is working to improve food education right across Ireland, one classroom at a time.
The Common Table: How would you explain your perception of food as an educational discipline to someone who might think that it just means cookery lessons?
Devin O’Sullivan: A lot of children and even adults in Ireland can’t cook even a simple meal. It’s a sad part of modern-day life. Cooking is something that a lot of people don’t understand; they haven’t been taught, either at home or in school. For me, that’s an important consideration, but more important is the lack of knowledge and understanding about where the food we eat comes from.
FEAST is a tiny workshop-based social enterprise: just myself travelling around Ireland like a lunatic trying to visit as many schools in an academic year as I can to teach young people about the story behind the food we eat: Where does it come from? How is it produced? Is it affecting our environment? Is it affecting society? Is it affecting cultures around the world? Most of it is in some way, shape, or form – if not all of it – and it’s important to learn about that.
We’ve got four workshops: three in-person and one online. One of them, Food for Thought, is by quite a distance our most popular workshop. It teaches students about the food system, the past, the present, and the future of food, and about a lot of the problem areas, especially here in Ireland. Like the catastrophic environmental issues with farmed salmon, for example.
The Common Table: What are you doing on a practical level to change the students’ understanding related to food? Who are you aiming at? What age? What are you teaching them?
Devin O’Sullivan: Our Ár mBia Programme consists of three two-hour workshops delivered throughout the school year, and schools can book either two or all three workshops per year. The first two workshops explore a variety of foods from the sea and the land, with the final workshop showing students how they can reduce food waste at home. Each class begins with a short presentation before moving on to food tasting and demonstrations.
The first workshop, “From the Sea”, focuses on a range of sustainable food sources from the waters surrounding our island. So we will explore our relationship with the sea and look at the role that fish plays in our diet. Students will then get to prepare and taste mussels from Killary Fjord, oysters from Galway Bay, a range of seaweeds and sea herbs foraged along the seashore in County Clare and much more before finishing with a classic carrageen moss pudding made with carrageen from the Quilty-based company Wild Irish Sea Veg.
The second workshop, “From the Land”, explores sustainable inland farmed and foraged food and includes artisan farmhouse cheeses and organic fruit and vegetables as well as seasonal game meat.
The third workshop is “Food Waste”. Irish households waste over one million tonnes of food each year. Here we look at simple ways to reduce food waste at home by turning food that would usually be destined for the bin into an array of tasty dishes. Students get to try things like kimchi, flavoured kombucha, chutneys and leftover fruit bars.
We teach the young people about native Irish foods that they may never have tried before. Oysters, for example, are a superfood that might look disgusting to some people. However, they are one of the most sustainable foods on the planet. In Ireland, we produce probably the best oysters in the world. They’re everywhere, and they’re delicious, but most people generally choose to ignore them. We are known around the world for our potatoes. However, I consider oysters to be our native food, but because they look a bit different and taste a bit different, we tend to overlook them and purchase foods produced 10,000 miles away instead.
Oysters are a food that is so important to our culture and our history and have the potential to play a huge role in the future of food. It is not just the food itself that is important to consider when exploring a sustainable future food system; the production and farming method are equally as important. Vertical farming, regenerative agriculture and urban farming, alongside tried and trusted traditional methods of food production, all have a role to play in food system transformation.
The Common Table: Who are you trying to reach and teach, and why?
Devin O’Sullivan: We visit first- and second-level schools. Primary schools in Ireland are national schools for children from four to 12 or 13. Secondary schools, or high schools, are for ages 12 or 13 to 17 or 18. The split is around 50/50. It’s a booking-based business, which means we get booked by teachers at either primary, secondary or high schools, and we go to where we have been invited. So it’s not up to us. We don’t target a specific cohort, like Transition Years or Leaving Cert, which are the more senior classes in high school. We go to whatever school, whenever a class wants our workshops.
We deal with a lot of Transition Year students, the year between exams in high school. After our workshop visit, the students might go on to set up their own businesses, such as small enterprises in school brewing kombucha, which is something we look at in our fermentation workshop. Or they might look at creating a zero-waste market. So FEAST has spawned different ideas and different enterprises in schools for students.
Our workshops are two hours long, sometimes longer if there are a lot of questions, arguments and debates, which I love because it’s great to have children talking about food and asking questions. A lot of times, children would keep you there to avoid going back to maths or history. But what we find is that the level of engagement is the same from five-year-olds to 18-year-olds.
Whatever age the children and young adults are, I don’t sugarcoat things. And for this series, I would hope that you would stay away from the people who patronise children and young adults when it comes to food education. Children and young adults understand so much. And they want to be taught by people who will be honest with them. It annoys me when you see so-called “educators” going into a school doing food art, you know, chopping up veg with children and teenagers and making rainbows out of different coloured veg. And then taking a picture, thinking, “Oh, this, this is fantastic”, before throwing the food in the bin.
That’s what annoys me a lot about how food is taught in Ireland and around the world these days, this kind of patronising way. For me, I’m very hard-hitting in what we show kids. We show them what is really going on, and they appreciate that. The teachers appreciate it as well. It can be uncomfortable for some because it may be the first time they see how their food is produced.
We want what we teach to be impactful. So when we leave two, or four, or six hours later, they’re thinking, “Wow, the food that I’ve been eating all my young life is not produced the way I thought it was. It tastes delicious, yes, but it’s farmed and produced in a way that I had no idea about.”
Looking at social media as well is a massive thing we do in secondary schools because most young adults are impacted and influenced by what they see online. When you show them how their food choices are affected by social media, they start thinking, “I need to look at this fad diet that I’m buying into more seriously”. Their diets are often sparked off by social media, where online marketing and advertising directly target young adults who, at this time in their lives, can be so easily manipulated in many ways.
It’s not all doom and gloom! We spend more than half of each workshop looking at the future of food and ideas for how to make it more sustainable. But we certainly paint the picture at the beginning as it is because we want to inspire that change. We want the children, the teenagers and the young adults to go home with a greater understanding of the food they eat and where it comes from.
The Common Table: Where would you like to take your work in this field; what are your goals?
Devin O’Sullivan: I don’t really know. Pre-COVID, I used to have lofty ambitions and dreams. I studied International Hotel Management in college, and I would still like to get back into the hospitality industry and maybe open a small restaurant, years from now, but with the current climate, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. FEAST as a business has massive growth potential even in Ireland. Thankfully after five years now, it’s slowly starting to find its feet.
COVID changed a lot. One thing I learned as a small business owner is you really can’t plan anything, even in this day and age. The cost of everything that we use is rising all over the place. The war in Ukraine and the economic recovery post-COVID have led to an inflationary climate, especially around the food and materials we would use as well. So I kind of work from month to month now. If I can get through a month and hit our targets and visit a decent number of schools, I’m happy with that.
We have a lot going on behind the scenes, though; one of them is a book I’m writing called The Story Matters Most, which again looks at the story behind the food we eat. It’s a really exciting project that keeps growing and evolving. FEAST is a tiny business, and running it in this environment is difficult, but that’s the nature of business, I suppose.
The Common Table: What is the big-picture perspective regarding the future of food education, and where will it come from?
I have two answers for that. Number one: what I would like to see is a brand new mandatory subject in primary and secondary schools, where schools work with local farmers, food producers, chefs and people like me to help teach students how to cook and where different foods come from and how they are produced. Understanding the environmental cost of food production and its societal impact must be a key component of this subject also.
Number two: we have to re-educate teachers if this is to be successful. Some teachers in Ireland are allergic to change; they don’t want to be re-trained and go to CPD [Continuing Professional Development] programmes because they feel they know it all. That’s a common occurrence from first-level right up to third-level education. You might know it all when it comes to maths, you might know it all when it comes to history and geography, but you certainly don’t know it all when it comes to food because our food system is constantly evolving. It’s constantly changing. So that’s what I would hope would happen in the food education realm.
What will happen, sadly, is nothing. That’s the unfortunate thing. Again, it’s a bit doom and gloom, but I understand how processes work in schools and the barriers to change. Nothing is going to happen, nothing beneficial anyway. We’ll always see initiatives, and we’ll always see campaigns, but nothing that will be introduced into the curriculum in the coming years will be effective.
Where can I take this? I don’t know. Can governments take it somewhere? Absolutely. Can a massive company with a lot of backing and resources do something beneficial to change food education in Ireland and internationally? Of course. Is the will there from policymakers and from those who can influence change? I don’t think so. I hope I’m wrong, though. I really, really hope I’m wrong.
Devin O’Sullivan is 26 years old and from Clonreddan in County Clare, Ireland. He has a degree in International Hotel Management from the Atlantic Technological University in Galway and, in parallel, worked for several years in hospitality before he decided that his vocation lay in doing something to improve food and food education in schools that directly benefitted students. So in 2018, he founded FEAST, a social enterprise aided by donations, working to improve food education in Ireland. Each year they visit up to 100 schools nationwide and teach around 4,000 pupils in their workshops about food systems and what is involved in getting their favourite foods on the table.