How children stopped reaping the rewards of harvest festivals

Harvest festivals used to be a rite of passage for schoolchildren. It was also a very visible display of parental culinary skills.

One of my friends always arrived with some elaborately baked bread in the shape of plaited corn. Others struggled on the bus with bags full of vegetables from their grandparents' allotment.

Me, always forgetting to hand over the letter until the morning of the event, would usually come armed with tins of spaghetti hoops and

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fondant fancies. Even then I knew my offerings weren't really in the spirit of the event, but I always suspected the old people who were given food parcels to take away probably much preferred Mr Kipling to knobbly old parsnips.

It's some years since I sat cross-legged during a harvest festival celebration, but in the interim it seems the event has fallen off the British calendar.

According to a survey by the campaign group Eat Seasonably, most people no longer celebrate it at all and of those that do, half take only tinned or dried food to church or school, with the majority opting for cans of baked beans.

"Harvest festivals emerged in ancient times and became the traditional way to mark the end of the agricultural year," says Eat Seasonably's Rob Moore. "Like most people, I remember school assemblies devoted to the harvest festival and trying to persuade my mum to bake something decent for me to take to the table.

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"However, in some parts of the country, you'd struggle to find a festival these days. It's demise has been recent and it has been rapid.

"Partly, it's tied to the general decline in our understanding of the seasons and when certain fruit and vegetables grow. People may

associate strawberries with June because of Wimbledon and Brussels sprouts with winter, but after that their knowledge runs out.

"It's easy to see why. Supermarkets and the availability of cheap foreign imports mean we can eat what we want all year round and home-grown produce has been squeezed out."

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The Eat Seasonably campaign was launched last March and the group works with everyone from major retailers to market stall holders to promote Britain's seasonal produce and is hoping to reignite the fashion for

harvest festivals.

"Eating seasonably is also a way of eating more sustainably," adds Rob. "Growing fruit and veg in season requires lower levels of artificial heating, lighting, pesticides and fertilisers and so it has a lower environmental impact.

"If schools can encourage children to understand about the food they eat through events like harvest festivals then we will all benefit in the future."

While the future of the harvest festival remains a little uncertain, in a corner of Sheffield some green shoots of recovery have been spotted. The Grapes pub in the city centre has just announced it will host a new take on the old tradition, with an alternative harvest festival next month. There will still be a table for produce, but there's unlikely to be any renditions of All Things Bright and Beautiful.

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"Most of us remember sitting on hard wooden floors impatient to deliver a tin of peaches or some such delicacy to the front of assembly," says Andy Whitehouse, organiser of the event. "Some elements of this festival will be very familiar, but instead of the songs being hammered out by a heavy- handed school pianist, we will have a range of different artists whose material owes much to a relationship with the land.

"We still want people to bring produce, which will be given to the charity Assist Sheffield and distributed among the city's refugees. In fact, bringing a gift is a condition of admittance. It doesn't have to be big, it could be apples from your tree or just a bar of chocolate.

"However, it does have to be something that, however small, would be a treat to someone who has very little and in some way communicates hope and encouragement."

n For more information about Eat Seasonably, visit The Grapes alternative harvest festival will take place on October 23. 0114 2490909.

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