Why we need school gardens

Classroom gardens provide important lessons about food, the environment and sustainability.

Credit: Ian Lai

Classroom gardens provide important lessons about food, the environment and sustainability

In Richmond, hundreds of children walk or bike to the Terranova Schoolyard Project once a week to tend their very own food gardens.

“The children are so excited, coming back over the summer and after school to see how their vegetables are growing,” says Chef Ian Lai, founder of this non-profit program. “They are so proud of what they are doing!”

“I believe in time there will be a great appreciation of the value in learning to grow food,” says Lai. “The garden space creates a different learning environment and helps children who have trouble focusing in the classroom. And it brings children together with seniors and children of different ages. School gardens help to cement both the community and the children’s learning.”

In the garden, older students are paired with younger, and volunteers, some of them Master Gardeners, assist with the teaching. More volunteers are welcome, says Lai, who encourages anyone interested to get in touch with him at www.myterranova.ca/contactus.php

The teaching opportunities in the garden are limitless as the children plan and plant their gardens – counting, measuring, drawing and writing as they go, says Lai.

In early spring, the children plant seeds inside their classroom and work outside to amend the soil. Come April, they plant transplants and seeds in their 12-foot-square garden plots. Each student decides what they will grow, with a delightfully “higgledy-piggledy” result, says Lai. Included in the many garden lessons are growing the “grain of the daily bread,” from buckwheat to amaranth to oat, and making bread in their classrooms. While the bread bakes, the children make butter from whipping cream, chanting the multiplication tables as they shake it.

Students also learn key environmental lessons, adding compost bins to their schools for food waste, exploring alternative energy with solar panels and hydroelectric wheels, and caring for mason-bee habitats.

The program has grown “ballistically,” starting with 30 children in 2006 and now at 500 with long waiting lists. Chef instructor at Northwest Culinary Academy in Vancouver, Lai started the Terranova project when he realized many of his students “had no idea where food comes from.

“I realized we need to be teaching this from the bottom up. Our children need to understand their interconnectedness with the food chain and with each other.”

“We’ve lost our connection with food,” agrees Arzeena Hamir, Outreach Coordinator of the Richmond Fruit Tree Sharing Project. “If we want our children to know where food comes from, they need to grow it themselves. I am still amazed at how many 30- to 40-year-olds I meet who have never seen a beet growing and don’t know where on a plant beans form. So few of us grow food at home that our children are no longer exposed to the mechanics of food growing.”

The solution? “Every school needs a food garden,” says Hamir, who has co-authored School Year Gardens: A Toolkit for High Schools to Grow Food from September to June, (for more information and to download a PDF of the toolkit here.

“The schools have the ability to create school gardens; they have the land and the power is in their hands,” agrees Lai, who urges all parents to work with their Parent Advisory Committees to sow seeds for gardens at their local schools. Children can be empowered in this process too, he says. “Recently two children here in Richmond made a presentation at a city council meeting, asking council to save green space and use school grounds for food security.”

Whichever way families approach it, he assures us, “it does take some time but it is extremely rewarding!”

“The look of amazement on the kids’ faces is still pretty neat when they realize that one tiny tomato seed will grow into a plant that produces 15 to 20 tomatoes,” says Hamir.

“When the children arrive at the garden, their eyes light up,” agrees Lai. “They’re counting everything: ‘I had four beans yesterday and now there are only three. What ate it? Was it a bug, a squirrel, a slug?’”

Recently, Lai was approached by one of his younger students, Elizabeth. “Mr. Lai,” she said. “I have $2 and I would like to donate it to the garden.” When he protested that she should keep her spending money, she was adamant that he accept it. “This garden is just so important – I want to donate my $2.” Lai says he humbly accepted, tears in his eyes.

“Many more classes and teachers are clamoring to get into the Terranova program but it’s totally full,” laments Hamir. “Plus, it doesn’t make sense to commute to a garden when one should in fact be on site at their own school. Every school needs a food garden. Food gardens teach so many lessons apart from biological ones. Every teacher from math to social studies can use a food garden to teach their lessons.”

And Hamir reflects that there are other critical reasons to connect our children with the growing of their food. “I guess it all comes down to whom do we want growing our food in the future? If we don’t mind having multinationals grow our food under highly mechanized, high-pesticide, non-organic and unsustainable methods, we can stay on the track we’re on and allow our food production to move to where it is cheapest to grow it. If, however, we want to eat food that is nutritious, sustainable, and has less of an impact on our environment, we will want our food grown locally by local people.”

So who are these future growers? “Right now I know only three farmers in Richmond under the age of 50,” says Hamir, who reminds us that if we want our children to see themselves as tomorrow’s farmers, we need to introduce them to the joy of growing their food now.

“We are at a critical time in our society. I think many of us have woken up to the fact that we cannot continue along the path that others, especially multinationals, have laid out for us. Eating cucumbers from Mexico, garlic from China and oranges from South Africa just doesn’t make sense to many of us anymore.

“I hope that this awakening can be manifest through the construction of many, many food gardens at schools. Not only will it teach our children a lesson that we value our food, school gardens will be an incredible resource for our communities.”