The first school I went to was a small Catholic Francophone school in Kingston, Ontario. It was downtown so granted there was little space to work with, but our entire schoolyard consisted of asphalt. There was not a single tree or shrub on the lot. It certainly meant for lots of imaginative play since we had no climbing equipment either. We were left completely up to our own devices. I hope things have changed there today but, sadly, there are many schools that have barren yards with little stimulation for children. A field of simple grass is not much better. Experiments with rats show that the more complex the environment within a pup’s cage, the smarter they become. If they have nothing to interact with, i.e. a barren environment, they perform poorly on intelligence tests. Today, there are many ‘outdoor classrooms’ being installed with native plants in my city of London, Ontario, but they could add even more learning components to them by incorporating edibles.
Edible schoolyards aren’t just a way of teaching kids how to grow food, develop healthy eating habits, reduce obesity, and reduce the environmental impact of schools. They are also used to teach math, history, English, the sciences, and art. Through hands-on learning and relevant application of the subject matter at hand, children retain knowledge better and get excited about learning.
The Edible Schoolyard movement started in Berkeley, California 40 years ago with Alice Waters, a local chef who cares deeply about sustainable food systems. The first school they tackled was Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. They started by removing an acre of asphalt and converting it to garden space, and by the third year they had revived the abandoned cafeteria with a kitchen program. They now have several programs that integrate the larger community into what’s going on at the school garden with celebrations like the English Language Learners Dinner. They even have a flock of chickens and ducks in the garden whose eggs are used in the kitchen classroom.
An inspiring Canadian example is Dustin Bajer’s Permaculture Club at Jasper Place High School in Edmonton, Alberta. At first he was getting kids to volunteer to give up their spare periods to help him transform an empty school courtyard into a permaculture Eden. Now the space, the activities, and the food produced there are incorporated into several classes ranging from the culinary arts program, to Aboriginal studies and ecology. Jasper Place is blessed with a rooftop greenhouse that has been given new life by Dustin and his Permaculture Club students. They are now slowly expanding into the grounds around the school as well.
Four of Toronto’s inner city communities are privileged to have Green Thumbs Growing Kids active in their neighbourhoods. This not-for-profit runs gardening programs for children in five schools and two public parks, reaching over 3000 children and their families. I am pleased to see that the second school I attended as a child, École Public Gabrielle-Roy, is now involved in the Green Thumbs program and has some raised vegetable beds and a worm composting program. Their grounds had a much more stimulating play environment than my first school, but the addition of this program is definitely an improvement.
To get an edible schoolyard started in your neighbourhood requires a communal effort. Collaboration between school administration, teachers, parents and broader community is essential for it to be successful. In our northern climate most food is produced over the summer holidays, not when children are in school, so community involvement is very important for summer maintenance. The use of perennial plants and guild systems, as employed when using permaculture design, will help reduce maintenance demands over the summer and ensure the garden is still thriving when children return to the classroom in September. Structures that lengthen the growing season such as plastic hoop houses and cold frames, or ideally a greenhouse, are very helpful in extending the amount of time students can be involved in gardening. The former are easy to construct and low cost - students can even do the construction themselves - while the latter can be quite expensive and takes considerably more skill, likely requiring the involvement of a contractor.
An edible schoolyard can take many forms, from a simple vegetable patch or herb garden to a food forest with fruit trees integrated throughout and chickens running around doing pest control while providing protein rich eggs for students. Be inspired by the big successful projects like Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, not intimidated. Start by getting together with some peers and discussing the possibilities. Dream. Plan. And make it happen.
Jessica Robertson operates her company, Wild Craft Permaculture, out of her home in London, Ontario. She helps people grow healthy, low-maintenance food for themselves and their families by mimicking the patterns found in natural ecosystems. She believes in empowering people to be more self-reliant so that communities become more resilient.
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