I haven’t posted lately here but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been doing a lot of thinking about kids and food-related subjects. I think of this blog as hibernating right now—something like the winter garden. You can’t see all the activity down below beneath the snow and muck, but it’s happening all the same.
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We wound down a productive summer in the school garden a few weeks back with a Harvest Potluck and celebration that included fun activities like making the scarecrow above, potato and apple prints, mulching the trees and a scavenger hunt. We’d hoped to eat outside beside our still growing vegetable patch, but threat of rain had us setting up in the school gym at tables we’d dressed with kraft paper and white tablecloths, gourds and crayons.
To add to the incredible spread of goodies provided by families (plus corn and cider purchased by the school), our outstanding French/library teacher and garden advocate worked with kids in class to make roasted carrots, kale salad, beet hummus and “smashed” potatoes using garden veggies (with a little help from the farmers’ market!). We’d planned for about 100 people to turn out, and were shocked and thrilled when some 400 people from our school community filled the gym and hallways. There was some minor panic about long lines for the food and not enough seating but nothing a few hastily erected tables and a tray of warm cider and beet hummus offered to those in line didn’t resolve.
The highlight of the evening for me was when the kids brought down the house with a song about the garden they’d been practising all week long with that same French teacher. Let’s just say I wasn’t the only adult in the crowd dabbing at my eyes. The song and the entire evening showed all of us how the garden has become such an essential part of our school community—a place the kids take pride in tending, a place for both learning and celebrating, a place not just for food but for connecting with others.
(Photos by Andrea Curtis)
Give peas a chance
The school garden is planted, and the year nearly done. In our third year of growing an edible veggie patch, we’re really seeing pickup on the part of the kids, parents and teachers in our community. It’s not that they didn’t respond before, but there’s something different about it this year, a feeling that the garden is part of the social, emotional and academic environment—not just the physical one. There are many kids who’ve never known the school without a garden. They feel tremendous ownership of it, reminding each other to be careful, where the peas, basil or radishes are planted, and they come out for our weekly tending and watering “party.”
There are lots of reasons for this change—the main one being the awesome teachers at the school who embed it into their work in the classroom—but one of the things that has also helped is that there are now colourful signs made by the children explaining what’s happening in the patch.
Last year, with the support of teachers and a local artist, they created collage images illustrating garden-specific concepts like A Plant’s Life, Beneficial Insects, Compost and the Three Sisters (corn, beans, squash) Plot we’ve planted. They also researched and wrote up text to accompany their images. With foundation funding, we had weather resistant signs made. Now kids can go with their teachers and discuss the material as part of an outdoor class, or just read the beautiful posters with their parents or friends.
The signs serve to beautify the playground, mark the garden as a place of kid-centred and kid-led learning and emphasize food literacy in the school.
The sign idea was inspired by a school in Oakland California that I posted about a few years ago here. I’d love to hear what you are doing in your school garden to emphasize food literacy or just make it a more fun and inviting place. Comment here and I’ll post about some of the ideas soon.
There is something truly magical about planning and planting a garden. Riffling through seed catalogues, talking to other gardeners about plants, hashing it out on paper, even preparing the soil. In those moments, the garden is all beautiful potential.
I think it’s a bit like writing fiction—something I’m also doing right now. Most writers begin with an image or an idea, a character, a voice, a setting, or maybe a plot twist. In your head it is glorious and perfect and you can only imagine that it will be easy to write and astonish others as it has astonished you.
But then, you sit down to write and come up against your own imperfect mind and gifts, exhaustion or inexperience. It never sounds exactly as you imagined before there were words on a page. No matter how good, no matter how surprising, it never exactly captures that initial inspiration. There are lots of people who pack it in, but also many who keep going, digging away, hoping that they might come close to expressing that moment of clarity and insight.
It is the same in the garden. In imagining the vegetables and herbs and flowers I will grow, there are no cats pooping, slugs eating or tomatoes rotting. At the school garden, there are no seedlings torn by little hands, no vandals painting over the signs the children have made, no seeds that fail to emerge from the soil. Spring is a beautiful kind of reverie and I want to linger here in this moment, to revel in pure potential.
This week, Crave, a web site focusing on food and health-related books, asked us to blog about our book, The Stop: How Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement coming out next week. Nick Saul and I decided to write about our experience planting a veggie patch on our city lawn—and some personal discoveries about the power of food.
Here’s a taste of the blog post. To read the whole thing, check out Crave.
When we decided to build a raised bed vegetable garden on our small downtown Toronto front yard a few years ago, we thought mostly about the delicious tomatoes, peppers and fresh herbs we’d enjoy come harvest time. We ordered fresh soil, built a simple structure using 2x6s and some brackets and shopped for seeds at farmers’ markets. But the day the soil arrived, it was clear the harvest was the least of the pleasures involved in growing food in the city.
November is the longest month here in Toronto. (Or maybe February.) The short, grey, cold days and distance from spring make me despair that it will ever be warm and bright again. Luckily, there are photos. I’m going to try and imagine that this sunflower is my own personal Seasonal Affective Disorder lamp and it’s pouring its sunshiney goodness all over me.
And if that doesn’t work, maybe these radishes can inspire a bit of spring-like optimism.
But I’d even settle for the kind of tough, in-it-for-the-long-haul fortitude of a squash.
Who knew light deprivation could make a person want to anthropomorphize vegetables? For a hilarious take on this very subject, check out Don Gillmor’s wonderful children’s book, When Vegetables Go Bad.
The school garden has been put to bed for the winter, and I find myself reflecting on the season past and beginning to think ahead to what we might do differently next year.
Sadly, here in Ontario, where the government has decided to unilaterally end bargaining with the teachers’ unions, and the teachers have responded by withdrawing their involvement in extracurricular activities (one of the only tools they have left to make their displeasure clear), there could very well not be a garden next year.
We’ve worked hard to embed it into the school’s life—supporting teachers to use the garden as a teaching tool, buying curriculum resources, etc. And it’s worked remarkably well. We have a committed and enthusiastic staff team devoted to using it for teaching purposes. In just the past few weeks, the teachers have been using the harvest in their classes, baking kale chips and making a veggie soup that had children literally pushing to the front of the line to get seconds.
But maintaining the patch is the collaborative work of parents, students and teachers, and such collaboration isn’t possible right now. We’re doing what we can while respecting the teacher’s right to withdraw their voluntary labour, but it might very well not be enough. A lot of work has to go into planning and fundraising—not to mention planting and tending—to make the garden thrive, and without parents, kids and teachers working together the whole thing could easily not happen.
It’s devastating to think that all the work we’ve put into this garden, all the momentum we’ve built over the past two years could actually grind to a halt.
I think making food literacy a part of our schools and education system is a key part of how we’re going to reverse the damage of our current food system—the diet-related health issues, the environmental degradation, the fear about food safety and unfair labour practises. Teachers are our most important resource when it comes to making food literacy a part of our children’s school life. We need to urge our provincial government to treat them with the respect they deserve and get back to negotiating in good faith.