Children of the organic revolution

More and more parents - and some schools - are choosing organic food for their children. Laura Smith reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It's Saturday morning in Hackney, and Esther Boulton is leaving the house to do the weekly shop. But instead of the strip-lit aisles of the local supermarket, she is on her way to the food stalls laden with organic produce at Stoke Newington Farmers' Market.

Like parents of young children across the country, Esther is a pioneer in a quiet revolution. Food scares such as BSE and growing concerns over the safety of genetically-modified (GM) food have left many fearful about the effects of modern farming methods on their children's food.

The result is a soaring demand for organic produce, with parents willing to pay up to 50 per cent more for fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and dairy products farmed without artificial chemicals.

"It would be fair to say that parents are the driving force behind the growth in organic food," says Martin Cottingham of the Soil Association. "Many new parents, faced with a vulnerable new life, are eager to do the right thing by their children."

According to research by the Soil Association, three out of four children are now given organic baby food on a regular basis and 40 per cent of the baby food market is now organic.

The first organic baby food brand, Organix, launched in 1992, is now sold in all major supermarkets and has been joined on the shelves by organic options from all the major companies, including Heinz, Cow & Gate, and Hipp.

Two years ago, Sainsbury's became the first supermarket to use solely organic ingredients in its own-brand baby food range and last month the store went a step further, introducing a range of frozen organic meals and desserts for babies over four months.

But is organic food really better for children? Yes, says food writer and campaigner Karen Sullivan. "Organic standards prohibit pesticides and additives that have been linked to allergic reactions, asthma and hyperactivity in children. Numerous studies have shown organic produce to be higher in vitamins and minerals than conventionally produced farmed goods. In the face of overwhelming evidence, it makes sense for parents to give their children the best."

While the food industry say levels of potentially dangerous substances are kept well below safety levels set by science, the Soil Association warns that cocktails of chemicals can have unexpected effects that will have never been tested. The Government's Food Standards Agency is undecided on the matter, but Esther Boulton, a 35-year-old mother, errs on the side of caution for her 10-month-old son, Isaac. "When your children are so small, the effects of eating food that's covered in pesticides and chemicals must be even greater," she says. "As a parent it's very worrying."

Esther, who runs the country's only two Soil Association-certified organic pubs, now makes all her son's food with ingredients from the farmers' market. "It is more hassle, but it's actually cheaper than the supermarket, which proves what a premium they whack onto organic food," she says.

But she is worried about what will happen to his diet when he starts school. "School dinners are appalling, but if he wants them I can't stop him," she says. "I can only give him the best start and hope that by then he will have learnt to love good food."

Sopley Primary School in Dorset is addressing exactly this concern. It is one of five schools taking part in the Soil Association's "Food For Life" pilot project, which aims to increase the proportion of organic, locally-produced and additive-free food on school menus and improve food education.

Headteacher Jackie Groves says the chips and "chicken-shaped things that contained very little chicken" which children once piled on their plates have been replaced by organic meat and freshly prepared vegetables - often from local farms.

Children's favourites, such as sausages, burgers and fishfingers, still feature strongly but are likely to include a lot more meat and a lot less "filler". Fresh fruit, fruit juice, yoghurt, milk and salads are available every day within the school meal price of £1.45.

"There were a few murmurs from the little ones who were used to the high-salt, high-additive flavours they were getting before," says Groves. "But now we have children saying they like eating more healthily. From around 45 per cent eating school dinners, we now have between 70 and 80 per cent of children eating at least one school meal a week."

And it's not just schools that are responding to parental worries. Britain's first fully organic nursery - First Learning - was set up in Shepperton, Middlesex, in January this year and already looks after 63 babies and children aged three months to five years.

Kimberley Foster set up the day-care centre "to prove that it could be done and that it would be competitive on price". All the food given to children is organic and staff use environmentally friendly cleaning products and biodegradable nappies.

It costs £175 to £198 a week, depending on the age of the child, to send a child to First Learning - compared with a London average of around £170 and £130 nationally.

"As long as there is organic food available to us as adults, I see no excuse for not giving it to children," says Foster.

But the trend is by no means limited to food. A whole range of baby essentials, from nappies and baby clothes to cleansing pads, toiletries and even soft toys, can now be found made from organic ingredients.

One successful company is Green Baby in Islington, London, whose biggest sellers are washable nappies, made from 100 per cent organically grown cotton.

Frustrated at not being able to find environmentally friendly products for her newly born son, Jill Barker set up the company with a £45,000 loan in a rented shop in Islington five years ago. "There I was in this tiny shop surrounded by boxes," she says. "People thought I was mad."

The business is now worth £3m, with another shop in Notting Hill, a mail-order company, website and plans for five more outlets across London over the next two years. "It's not surprising that when people become parents they become more worried about the environment," she says. "They are suddenly aware of the effect the chemicals we use are having on the world our children are going to grow up in. It's not something that can be ignored any more."

'My children are little people. What they eat is important to me'

Boiling up some organic eggs for breakfast, Emma Long explains why she switched to organic food when her daughter Chloe was born.

"My children are little people and it's important to think about what they're eating," she says. "We don't know what the long-term effects of pesticides and chemicals are. I don't want them to turn around to me in 10 years and ask why I wasn't more careful with what they ate."

Now, whether it's sausages and mash or pasta and sauce for dinner, Emma, 26, from Berkshire, tries to make sure the food she buys for Chloe, 5, and Felix, 2, is organic. "I can get most things I need at the supermarket, but I can't get everything," she says.

"I'm lucky because I don't have to think about the cost too much. For parents who aren't so fortunate, it is a hard decision to make, because organic food is more expensive. But that's why it's important for people like me to support it. The more people buy it, the cheaper it will become, and the more people will have the choice."

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