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School Food Gardens in Multicultural Inner-city Settings

Originally appears in the Winter 2008-2009 issue

Multifaceted, deep, and rich with learning possibilities, the relationship between people and plants goes to the source of our existence on the planet. Thomas Dewey, the famed educator, once said, “All you really need for education is a library and a garden.” Yet working school food gardens are certainly much rarer than libraries.

Food gardening provides many opportunities for student engagement, from planting to harvesting (think lifecycles, from seed to seed), with composting (nutrient cycles) and healthy eating in between. Food gardens can help to address concerns about children’s diets; about community access to locally grown produce; and about a variety of environmental issues, from pesticide use to greenhouse gas emissions.

For many schools, the biggest obstacle to food gardens is the labor required to establish and maintain them. Teachers do not have the time to shepherd a vegetable garden through a growing season that includes a lengthy summer break. And while parents are vital partners, they come and go during the summer and someone must coordinate the schedule. Despite these limitations, our experience in cultivating school food gardens over the past eight years has shown that such gardens can be sustainable. What’s needed is an approach that welcomes the community to participate in the garden and includes a dedicated garden instructor, someone who works with students and teachers during the school year and remains through the summer to organize and oversee community activities in the garden. To draw inspiration from Dewey’s statement about school food gardens, garden instructors are like outdoor librarians, teaching a variety of “literacies” — environmental literacy, vegetable and fruit literacy, compost and soil literacy. In this article, I describe our own approach to school–community gardening, which includes summer care, and then suggest a model for funding the programs and instructors needed to make school food gardens sustainable over the long term.

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Sunday Harrison is the director of Green Thumbs Growing Kids and a parent of two in Toronto, Ontario. She holds a diploma in landscape architecture and has 20 years experience in organic gardening.