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Let Children Grow: No more tins of beans – it's a real harvest

Six months on from the start of our campaign, 250,000 schoolchildren have been learning to grow their own

For years, Dione Greenwood's school lunchbox treat was a packet of sweets. Now, five months after her school joined The Independent on Sunday's Let Children Grow gardening campaign, she has ditched the sweets and replaced them each day with an apple – and intends to keep it that way.

As thousands of schools around the country prepare for this year's harvest festival, Dione and her classmates at Kingsway Primary in Goole, East Yorkshire, won't be making up their festival offerings with tins of sweetcorn or packets of rice: the fruit and vegetables they will give away to the local community have been grown by the pupils this year.

Since the IoS started its campaign, working with the Royal Horticultural Society, last April, almost 250,000 schoolchildren around the country have received support in growing and learning about vegetables. The campaign aims to get all primary schools in the UK to provide some form of practical gardening for pupils.

The children who go to Kingsway Primary School, which the IoS has adopted as its beacon school, live in one of the most deprived boroughs of the country, where life expectancy is well below the national average and high rates of obesity and heart disease go hand in hand with widespread unemployment and low aspirational levels.

Experts say introducing children to gardening at an early age helps to contribute to their mental and physical health. Teachers at Kingsway have already noticed an improvement in behaviour and concentration among their pupils.

Liam Jackson, head teacher at the school, says: "We've not quite done a full cycle yet but the children have seen the whole concept of watching, watering and nurturing vegetables – and now they've harvested them. This is so much more important than bringing in tins of food, which is what would have happened normally.

"The next stage is to get more families involved by getting them into the school. The children are very knowledgeable about vegetables – they know what they're doing now."

Dione has helped to sow, nurture and harvest potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, raspberries and strawberries, to name only some of the school's produce. Before last April, such things would have been alien to her.

With the first crop harvested, the children are looking forward to starting again and planting seeds in the polytunnels donated by Marshall's garden centre.

But it has not been plain sailing for every school involved in the campaign. Two hundred miles south of Goole, in inner-city London, Thomas Fairchild School in Hackney was burnt to the ground during the summer. There were no injuries, but the school will have to be rebuilt.

However, Nicola Hedley, one of the teachers, who runs the school gardening club, is determined to get things up and running again in their new, temporary location a few miles away.

"Gardening is really important for children because it's a hands-on experience," she says. "When the children knew there had been a fire, the first thing they all asked me was 'when can we go into the garden?'

"At the moment we don't have much space to grow anything, but I'm hoping we can start again by using a few pots and at least find a little bit of space. We're probably looking at after Christmas now before we can start planting again."

Two of Ms Hedley's pupils, Yassin Kerbourba, aged nine, and his sister Fatima, 10, were so upset at losing their school garden that they each took some tomato seeds home to sow. After several months of keen nurturing, they have harvested red, ripe tomatoes grown in their own house.

"It's amazing being able to see a tiny seed grow, and then be able to eat it," said Fatima.

Campaign trail: Celebrities join hands with 1,000 schools

The IoS Let Children Grow campaign began in April in partnership with the Royal Horticultural Society and with cross-party backing from Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Supporters also included the high-profile gardeners Alan Titchmarsh, Charlie Dimmock, Kim Wilde and Pippa Greenwood, the chefs Antony Worrall Thompson and Tom Aikens, as well as the broadcasters Sarah Beeny and David Bellamy. By July, more than 1,000 schools had signed up. Thousands of posters and packets of seed were distributed to young gardeners at the Chelsea and Hampton Court annual flower shows, while a photo competition held by the IoS received hundreds of entries.