“You don’t want to stay here too long,” jokes one of the cooks at Schumacher College – the ecological learning institute in South Devon, “you’ll put on loads of weight. I have to stop myself from eating the biscuits every day.”
She’s referring to the two huge plates of still warm, home-baked cookies (one vegan, one not) that have just been placed on the coffee tables for all to help themselves too. Several hours later a lunchtime gong will sound out through the old wooden halls. This isn’t a signal for everyone to pop down and grab a sandwich but instead an integral part of the day for all who work and study here.
As lovingly prepared platters of vegetarian food are laid out on the dining hall tables, the cooks, the staff, the students and any visitors, hold hands and recite a prayer of gratitude. Amongst them is Satish Kumar, the former monk and peace activist whose own philosophy about food, the environment and spirituality helped found the college and continues to shape its courses and work.
For Satish, meals times are sacred. Not just a time to eat but to come together as a community, make friends, celebrate and worship.
“Food brings people together and nourishes not just their body but their soul, their mind and their spirit,” he says. “That is why it is so important what kind of food you are eating. If you eat food that is tasteless, sprayed with chemicals and wrapped in plastic then your soul and spirit will not be nourished. We should eat wholesome food for a wholesome life”.
Satish comes from a long line of vegetarians and hasn’t “in 76 years ever tasted meat or fish”. His reasons are threefold – his religion, his ecological beliefs and his health. “I think if you eat the right food then food becomes your medicine and medicine becomes your food”. He’s referring to the many spices and herbs he uses daily in his cooking like turmeric, coriander, cardamom and ginger. Satish is not against other people eating meat – “so long as they do so sparingly and it’s free-range, happy animals that have lived a good life,” but he thinks we’ve been “brainwashed” into believing that we need more protein than we do by the food industry.
“I was once asked by a child at a school I was talking at “What is your favourite animal?” And I said “The elephant, because the elephant becomes so big on a vegetarian diet it must be a good diet. And then the child said “What is your second favourite animal?” and I said “The horse, because the horse is also vegetarian yet he is so powerful we measure the strength of our cars in terms of horsepower,” So we need to eat good quality vegetables and grains and not meat or dairy so much.”
Satish’s extraordinary life story is testimony to the positive impact of his simple diet and approach to life. At nine, he left home to become a Jain monk – an ancient Indian religion that prescribes non-violence to all living things. A change of heart at 18, led him to re-join the world and work towards Gandhi’s vision of land reform in India. Then, inspired by the British peace activist, Bertrand Russell, Satish and a companion began an 8,000 mile pilgrimage walking from India to America via Moscow, London and Paris to deliver a humble packet of “peace tea” to the then leaders of the world’s four nuclear powers. They took no money and no food and just relied on the hospitality of whomever they met along the way. Some days they went hungry but rather then fret, Satish chose to take the opportunity to fast – a practice he still continues today to clear his mind and give his body a break from constant eating.
By the time the pair reached Washington, 8000 miles and thirty months later, President Kennedy had just been assassinated and Kumar ended his walk at his graveside. The tea was delivered to the new president, Lyndon Johnson. Satish’s pilgrimage had attracted attention around the world but particularly in Britain where he subsequently moved and met his wife, June Mitchell. They settled in the small village of Hartland in North Devon on a two-acre plot where they tend an orchard and vegetable gardens together. “Gardening is not just a way of growing food, it is a wonderful opportunity for me to work with my wife. I say to my wife, ‘one of the reasons I love gardening so much is that I can be with you,” he says touchingly.
At 76, Satish still has the energy of a much younger man. He works five days a week – three editing his magazine of thirty years, Resurgence, and another two at the College. As well as writing several books (his autobiography No Destination sold over 50,000 copies when it was published in 1978) and serving on the board of several charities, he is also still involved in The Small School which he founded in Hartland to focus on a giving pupils a secondary education with an ecological perspective. Here, as with the College, the kitchen is seen as a classroom – a place to learn not just about cooking, but the philosophy, the spirituality, the economics and politics of food.
“On the very first day I said to the children, this is how the school is going to be different from any other mainstream school,” says Satish. “Here, the kitchen is the centre of the school. When you are cooking you are not missing any other lesson and this lesson is more important than any other lesson. Before you learn Darwin, Newton, Galileo, Shakespeare, learn how to bake bread and how to make soup and how to serve your fellow students and do the dishes with pleasure. Once you have learnt how to feed yourself and how to take care of yourself then we will add all the other knowledge of science and maths and humanities and French and whatever you want to learn. We will teach you all the subjects but food is at the centre”.
Satish is pleased to see the Education Minister, Michael Gove, is to introduce cooking to the secondary school curriculum. “I introduced it in 1982 but it’s good to see he’s catching up,” he jokes. The Small School students regularly cater for village events and were commissioned to cook for four to five hundred people at the Triodos AGM recently. Some pupils have gone on to set up restaurants, vegetable box schemes and gardening initiatives but Satish is confident that all of them leave with a lifelong respect for food. “They learn that food is a gift from the earth, it is a part of the ecology of life and an integral part of our living systems. Through food, the pupils learn a whole new world view – they learn to value food and value nature – and the rest of their life is informed by this philosophy”.
So what advice does he have for those of us whose education was more focused on individual exam results than preserving the planet?
“Bake bread” says Satish. “Once a week make time to bake bread with wholesome, organic, stoneground flour and if you say ‘I don’t have time to bake bread, then I say ‘you don’t have time to live’. Baking bread is a kind of meditation. At the moment our lives are too fast, everything has to be done yesterday, we need to slow down for our physical and mental health. So baking bread helps you to slow down. It connects you with the cosmos and with yourself. You are baking something for yourself, you are taking care of yourself, you are loving yourself.”
It’s the simplest advice from a man who has seen more of the world than many of us could ever hope to. It’s got to be worth a go.
Satish is editor-in-chief of Resurgence and Ecologist magazine
Satish teaches on a forthcoming course about food, spirituality and happiness – click here for more details >>
Schumacher College is currently recruiting for its January 2014 postgraduate programme in Sustainable Horticulture and Food Production, visit http://www.schumachercollege.org.uk