Grow It Yourself founder Michael Kelly discusses the importance of vegetables and why he's teamed up with innocent to launch Sow&Grow…

Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

What are the health risks of a vegetable free diet?

'There is loads of compelling evidence that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables is incredibly good for our health and conversely that a diet lacking in veg puts us at greater risk of chronic disease. I am not a fan of fad diets, particularly the ones that omit a major food group altogether, but one thing that most diets agree on at this stage is that loading up with veg and fruit is good for you. Part of the problem I think is that the modern diet is so brown/beige and loaded with sugar and refined carbs. Bringing some colour in to your diet is fantastic for your health - think vibrant colours of veg like beetroot, tomatoes, spinach, squash and fruit like strawberries, plums, blood-red apples and so on.'

Why do you think that so many toddlers haven't tried a vegetable yet or refuse to eat them?

'I think the reality is that most (and I stress 'most') kids will eat whatever their parents actively eat themselves. So of course our toddlers are copying us and refusing to eat veg! I think immersing kids from a young age in trying lots of different foods and in growing some of it themselves will cultivate a diverse diet.

'Kids are far more curious about food than we give them credit for. When they were toddlers our kids used to literally forage in the veg patch, trying different foods, leaves, plants - whatever they could get their hands on. They would often eat things in the veg patch that they might not eat if it was served up to them in the kitchen! And when they are involved in the growing of a plant, they are even more likely to try and taste the food that comes from it.'

What are the mental health benefits of gardening?

'There are proven links between food growing and improved mental health for a host of reasons - physical activity outdoors in the fresh air is good for the mood and gardening tends to be a very mindful activity which centres us and quietens the endless chatter in the mind! Growing your own food forces you to slow down and live in tune with the seasons - the perfect antidote to the frenetic, fragmented pace of modern life. I believe that seed-sowing is also a tremendously hopeful act - you're playing a very long game and making plans for next month, next season, next year.'

Why is it important that Brits know where their food has come from?

'For every food scandal that comes along, I think people's distrust of the food chain increases. Growing your own food is obviously the ultimate way to put food on the plate that you can trust 100%. But on another level, when you grow your own food you also learn about how food works, so you are a savvier consumer when you do have to buy food. Shortening the length of your own personal food chain (either by growing some food yourself, or sourcing local) is the best way to restore your confidence in what you eat. I also think it's important if at all possible to stick to whole foods (that is, food in its original form) and steer clear of anything processed.'

What is your favorite veggie dish to make at home from the garden?

'I think my favourite dishes of the year are the ones that celebrate the first of the new season crops - the first new season salad leaves, the first potatoes, the first broad beans, rhubarb, the first sprouting broccoli, the first tomatoes and so on. They are all the sweeter because you've been waiting for them! I like any recipe that puts these new season crops, that are bursting with nutrition and flavour, front and centre. A simple broad bean hummus, or sprouting broccoli dipped in an anchovy dressing, or new potatoes with a mountain of butter melting on them! My favourite meal of the day is breakfast so I think my number one meal from the garden might be 2 poached eggs (from our own hens), with a couple of grilled Sungold tomatoes, some baby leaf spinach wilted in butter and a slice of sourdough bread!'

There are mixed messages over whether organic is better- what are your thoughts?

'I have absolutely no doubt that it's better. Not only because it hasn't been sprayed with chemical pesticides or fertilisers, but also because by definition it's been grown in healthy, nutritious, living soil which results in healthy, flavoursome, living vegetables. There is simply no comparison between the flavour a commercial carrot or tomato and the equivalent grown at home in great soil that you've lovingly nurtured yourself. The most common comment we hear from first time GIYers is 'wow, this tastes the way food used to taste' and of course they are right - all food used to be organic food at one stage, but back then we just called it 'food'!

Why is it important to you to get 100,000 children interested in gardening with your new campaign Sow&Grow?

'Grow It Yourself and innocent's new campaign Sow&Grow aims to gets kids out in the fresh air, sticking their hands in some dirt and having fun with growing their own veg. We think that getting children growing their own food is quite literally the whole ball game. A huge part of the problem we have with food in society is that we've lost any sense of connection we had with it - we don't look under the hood any more at how food works. We don't stick our hands in the soil, or pull food from the ground. We don't understand seasonality or have any sense of the work that goes in to producing food. We cannot value food in any meaningful way when we don't have any connection with it. Getting children to grow their own food helps to re-establish that connection and develop a thing we call 'food empathy' which will follow them right through their lives. By growing some of their own food they develop a better understanding of how food works which is a proven lever to a healthier, happier life. Food growing has taught me (and my own kids) to have a proper relationship with real, healthy, life-giving food - that's the greatest gift there is.'

What are your top tips for getting children interested in eating vegetables?

'Just let them connect properly to their food by growing and cooking some of it themselves. Give them a raised bed or a few pots to call their own and let them sow some seeds and get their hands dirty. Let them write on their own plant labels. Let them get the spacing wrong and sow things upside down or inside out. Let them help with the cooking and pick what you're all eating for dinner. Gardening doesn't have to be boring! Keep children interested by doing different activities. You can get them to design their own plant markers, teach them how to press flowers or even play a game of Garden Bingo. Check out for extra fun activities.'

What is next for you?

'We'd love to make the Sow&Grow campaign even bigger next year and reach more and more children, and take it beyond the UK and Ireland in to other countries! We will shortly launch our [email protected] campaign where we're getting teams from 1,500 companies in the UK and Ireland to grow some peas on their desk. And at the same time we're also developing our urban food empathy centre GROW HQ, here in Waterford. We're aiming to create a community of 1 million GIYers and that's when we will start to have a real impact on the food chain. No pressure then…

How to apply: teachers can go online to to register for their special (and completely free) growing packs which includes seeds, soil, growing guides and lesson plans.

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