Cultivating Young Minds With Learning Gardens
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Cultivating Young Minds With Learning Gardens

Toronto schools are offering hands-on nature and food education.

A student at Bendale Business and Technology Insitute tends to her school's market garden. Photo by GreenFuse Photography, courtesy of FoodShare.

A student at Bendale Business and Technology Institute tends to her school’s market garden. Photo by GreenFuse Photography, courtesy of FoodShare.

It was late June and another school year was nearing an end—but at Elmlea Junior School in Etobicoke, things were just starting to come to life. Students were digging into box planters and putting down flowering plants, vegetables, and herbs. Like a growing number of schools across the Toronto District School Board, Elmlea is teaching its kids about nature, urban agriculture, and sustainable food with a school “learning garden.”

Dozens TDSB schools have food gardens, butterfly gardens, and medicine wheel gardens, as well as nature study areas—parts of the schoolyard left to naturalize so students can study ecosystems and the habitats of local animals. The board first committed to school gardens with a pledge in the TDSB’s 2010 Climate Change Action Plan  to “partner with local organizations to pilot more ambitious food and market gardens at selected sites, building on the Board’s significant school ground greening expertise.”

But the gardens cropping up around local schools are mainly the result of hard work and dedication from kids, teachers, and community members, as well as expertise from non-profit organizations, and grants from government agencies like Ontario Trillium Foundation and Live Green Toronto.

These learning garden projects pay off in myriad ways.

“School-based gardens provide curriculum enhancement for science, math, language and other subjects, and are fun and engaging for students,” says Sunday Harrison. She is founder and director of Green Thumbs Growing Kids, one of a handful of non-profits that support school garden projects in Toronto.

In May and June this year, Harrison and colleague Todd Irvine led a pair of Jane’s Walks (free walking tours) to school gardens in St. James Town, Regent Park, and Cabbagetown. It’s in dense urban areas such as these that safe public space and fresh produce may not be readily available. “In summer, [school] gardens become a community asset, feeding families locally-grown greens and fruits, and animating public space, creating a pro-social environment through the universal language of food,” Harrison says.

Other organizations have joined in the movement, too, including FoodShare, a non-profit group that’s worked for the past nine years to ensure communities, families, and individuals have access to sustainable, healthy eats. They’ve reached out to local educators, parents, and students of all ages with the Field to Table Schools program.

“Through interactive student workshops, teacher training, events and school food garden projects, the program is reconnecting students across the GTA with the joys of growing, harvesting, cooking, eating and composting food,” says Meredith Hayes, senior manager of FoodShare’s student nutrition and school programs.

FoodShare is helping to establish and support more than 30 school food gardens at inner city and model schools in Toronto, including with recent garden design and installation projects at Brock Public School, Queen Victoria Public School, and Dundas Junior Public School (and the adjacent First Nations School of Toronto).

Students sell school-grown produce as part of FoodShare's programming. Photo by GreenFuse Photography, courtesy of FoodShare.

Students sell school-grown produce as part of FoodShare’s programming. Photo by GreenFuse Photography, courtesy of FoodShare.

The organization also runs School Grown, a program that gets high-school students involved in growing and preparing produce, selling it at farmers’ markets, and providing it to restaurants. “Our School Grown program grows food to grow people,” says Hayes. “Our programs put students at the centre of our work, opening doors for young people to [obtain] good paid employment, food security, food skills, meaningful mentorship, healthy food, and personal growth.”

The TDSB, for its part, is working on a plan to have high-school wood-shop students design and build raised garden beds for distribution to schools across Toronto.

As the number of school gardens in Toronto continues to grow, more and more of the city’s youth will have a chance to learn, create, and produce. They will give their classmates and neighbours access to engaging public space and healthy food. They will help cultivate not just gardens, but entire communities.