Tag Archives: Toronto

Snack time

On Thursday afternoons during the school year, I run an after-school writing program for Grade 6 kids. It’s called Writing in the City and it’s offered free through the amazing Toronto community-based nonprofit called Word-Play (we just launched our new web site this week—check it out here!). All of Word-Play’s programs operate out of the basement gallery of Toronto’s awesome indie bookstore, TYPE on Queen Street.

www.word-play.caWord-Play is a volunteer-run organization that started in 2006 after TYPE books’ owners Jo Saul and Samara Walbohm began talking to others in the community about what kinds of supports kids in the neighbourhood might need. It’s been going ever since—focusing on children from three neighbourhood schools— and now has three different programs: Reading, Writing and Filming in the City. (Check out the films the kids made this summer in the film program—3 shorts based on Newbery-Award winning novels that were submitted to a New York Public Library film festival that ran this fall.)

From the beginning, snacks have been part of the after-school deal. When I started planning the writing workshop (the kid are 11, some will turn 12 in the winter), one of the first things I thought about was how ravenous my own kids are after school most days. They are growing every day and need regular food just to stay focused (come to think of it, so do I, and I stopped growing a long time ago).

The way we set it up, they actually have two breaks for food in the  2 hours they’re with us.  It’s really simple and healthy stuff: crackers and cheese, pita and hummus, granola bars, apples, carrots, popcorn sometimes. It doesn’t cost a huge amount but it makes a huge difference.

Once the kids in the workshop have eaten, they can relax into the space and whatever art, drama, creative movement, storytelling or writing we’re doing that day. They’re energized and no longer focused on their bellies. I think they also like it because it’s a signal that this is not a school program—where they have to bring their own food if they want to snack.

When we ask the kids a few times a year about the things they wouldn’t want to change about the workshop, they invariably say THE SNACK!!!! (They love those exclamation marks!) They also talk about the staff and the games we do and the writing exercises we experiment with, but they almost always say they love the chance to eat.

I don’t want to downplay all the other great things we do in the writing workshop, but I do think the snack is the foundation of our success.

Now if only we could get the Canadian government to sit up and take notice of the myriad—much researched—benefits of feeding our children at school.

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Filed under Kids and food, School feeding

Garden greatest hits

It’s that time of year again. The nights are getting colder, the days darker, and we’re reluctantly preparing ourselves to put our urban veggie garden to bed for the long sleep. Of course, I’m already thinking about what we can do to improve it for next year, especially how we can make it more kid-friendly. I’ll also be doing some serious crop rotation since I lost a number of plants to disease this year. But in the spirit of harvest celebration, here are the summer of 2011’s greatest hits.

Sweet peas. We didn’t get many, but the ones that grew were perfect. The taste of spring.

Chicory (or dandelion). My new favourite bitter green, and a reminder that one woman’s weed is another’s delicious treat.

Carrots. They were shrunken and hairy, and not quite sweet enough, but the juniors loved them. Worth the long summer wait.

Zucchini flowers. Not sure where the zucchini in this picture ended up (the plant died soon after), but the flowers were extraordinary dipped in milk and flour and fried with olive oil.

Kale. It’s the plant that keeps on giving. From fresh new leaves in the spring to kale chips in the summer, and a more mature, slightly bitter version in the fall, it’s the stalwart of my patch.

Tomatoes. Last, but not least in my heart, that much maligned fruit: the tomato. These cherries have provided colour for my salads and fodder for my salsas all summer and fall. Easy and satisfying to grow. Delish.

{All photos by Andrea Curtis}

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Good food for all

It’s that time of year again: come out and celebrate the harvest and all the good work of The Stop Community Food Centre.

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Revillaging the city

The school garden just keeps on giving.

At our August work bee this week, we all marvelled at the fact that not only have we grown an amazing amount of produce and people have remained dedicated to watering and tending the garden, it’s been relatively untouched by vandalism (cross fingers, knock on wood).

I think it’s partly thanks to the cute sign the kids made, but mostly a tribute to all the work everyone has put into it and the fact that the community of dog walkers and daycare parents and school parents and teenagers who walk by everyday see us there,  talk to us and feel part of what we’re creating.

It makes me think about what a wise friend of mine, the storyteller Dan Yashinsky, said to me the other day about the importance of “revillaging the city.” He talked about how we need to create villages within our cities so that we can connect to one another, care for one another and ensure the weakest are not left behind.

It’s in stark contrast to the cover story in our city magazine, Toronto Life, this month about people fleeing the city for the suburbs because they can’t find community here. “Screw Jane Jacobs.  We’re outta here,” the headline shouts.

While I’m not really interested in questioning someone’s family decision to leave the city—people have been coming and going from city to country for generations, it’s the way things go—it seems to me as if the author was expecting community to rise out of nothing. The reality is, especially in big cities, we have to build our communities, create our villages. Sometimes it takes a huge amount of work and sometimes it’s easy. There are invariably setbacks and disappointments, but the project is long term. And whether it’s a school garden or a farmers’ market or a park dinner or a community food centre or a free reading program for low-income kids, the rewards of participating in this revillaging can be both bountiful and astonishing.

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Filed under City gardens, Kids and food, School gardens

No garden is illegal

One of the greatest joys I’ve discovered in growing a veggie patch on my city lawn is other people.

There’s our neighbour, the Garden Guru, whose own lawn is a veritable urban farm, and who never fails to offer advice or complaints about our gardening skills. He also gladly shares his own produce and waters for us when we’re away.

There’s also the Hoarder, an older Italian gentleman who we see strolling the streets on garbage day, arms loaded with other people’s discards—old stakes and poles, lamps, even a barbecue once. He helped us a few years ago when a great big load of soil arrived and it had to be shovelled into the patch, and helps us still whenever it looks like we need it. A few weeks ago, he urged us to pluck our zucchini flowers and fry them up in batter (he gave us the sense that if we didn’t do it, he would!). Though I’ve eaten zucchini flowers in restaurants before, these succulent delights straight from our own garden were one of the highlights of my culinary life.

The Garden Guru and the Hoarder gather at the former’s fence surrounding his farm nearly every day, laughing and teasing one another, grumbling about the state of GG’s pear tree or the proper use of caldo verde. (I realized recently GG doesn’t know H’s name—he still refers to him as “The Italian Guy”—though they’ve probably known one another for 25 years!)

There are lots of kids and parents and adults who stop and look at the plants in my garden, pointing out the cucumber or basil or zucchini. Whether we know their name or not, people ask us what we use for fertilizer (answer: compost) and how long the lettuce will last. We recently met someone who just moved into the neighbourhood because she wanted to know what kind of  leafy greens we were growing. We talk with passersby about heirloom tomatoes and parenting and sports and the smell of garbage on Toronto streets. Growing a vegetable garden on a city sidewalk is a very social endeavour, an amazing way to connect with your community, and my entire family loves it.

So it was with a sense of disbelief that I read about the Oak Park, Michigan, woman who faces jail time for planting her front yard with vegetables. Poor Julie Bass has a bunch of very neat looking wooden boxes on her front lawn, but apparently they aren’t acceptable.  The city planner suggested that “a nice, grass yard with beautiful trees and bushes and flowers” was more suitable for the City of Oak Park.

If the charges hadn’t been dismissed this week, she could actually have faced 93 days in jail for failing to adhere to such rigid community standards.

Bizarre.

If that city planner and his comrades could see the kind of community give and take that happens on my street because of the gardens— friendships made, stories shared—they’d realize that instead of making city veggie gardens illegal, they should be legislating gardens for all in the interest of greater happiness, better health and more cohesive communities.

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Filed under City gardens, Kids and food, School lunch

Can Twitter feed the children?

My friend, Emma, is a blogger extraordinaire over at Embrace the Chaos. She writes funny and trenchant posts about parenting almost every day of the week, and she’s never afraid to wade into tricky territory.

(She also c0-wrote a fabulous cookbook for families called Whining and Dining: Mealtime Survival Strategies for Picky Eaters and the Families Who Love Them, a book I use all the time, including this weekend for my awesome, youthful, not-at-all-picky dad’s birthday cake, pictured here.)

Last week, she wrote about how she posed a question on Twitter asking for ideas on how a Toronto school with a funding shortfall for its school feeding program could generate funds and feed the kids the rest of the year. Her post got a ton of response and the school in a low-income, mainly newcomer community got their school meals paid for.

It’s a great story and shows both the still-astonishing (to me) power of Twitter and the good will of people when faced with something unimaginable like kids in a relatively wealthy city like Toronto going hungry at school.

But from where I sit, it also shows the profound failure of the Canadian system with its lack of a properly funded school feeding program. The principal at the school with the funding shortfall no doubt had to beg for the money she did get for school feeding in the first place—asking the shaky flotilla of nonprofits, piecemeal government grants and/or school board to help support her kids get the education they are promised. Then, when the money didn’t last until the end of the year she had to rely on Twitter to feed the children.

It’s a drum I’ve beaten many times before but it still shocks me that Canada is one of the only developed nations in the entire world that fails to have a coherent national strategy to feed school kids. The U.S. has one; so does Italy and Japan; even Russia, Brazil and India feed their kids at school. At least one commenter on Emma’s blog claims parents are the people who should be feeding their schoolkids, but I believe that as a society we have a responsibility to  children and each other, and the best expression of this (in this context) is a universal school feeding program that ensures no one gets left behind.

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Filed under Kids and food, School feeding, School lunch

“Planting my garden late at night”

There’s something about Get Yourself Home, a fabulous new album by longtime Toronto singer-songwriter (and fellow school gardener) Laura Repo that—despite playing with old standards of folk-country like coalminers, daddy and a wedding dress—feels perfectly modern and right to me at this moment. Repo is an evocative and moving songwriter, for one thing. And her voice is both haunting and crisp at the same time.

But it might also be the way gardens, farmers and nature are woven through this very urban singer’s music. A productive tension between urban and rural—between concrete and soil—feels present in the words and the music.

In  “Sleepy baby,” she sings, “Planting my garden late at night/Hoping things will work out alright…” then later “It’s the middle of the summer in the middle of the night/Boom cars are blaring the street lights are bright….”

I feel as if she’s singing about my very own downtown veggie patch. This is going to be my summer soundtrack—perfect for dreaming about the harvest or just watching the garden grow.

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