One of the exciting portfolios I am covering at the Vancouver School Board is our food garden initiatives. I have been an avid gardener for many years, grow much of my own vegetables in the summer, keep bees and generally spend much of my free time, a commodity in short supply of late, in the garden. I have also worked with the West End Residents Association to establish the Mole Hill and Chilco Community gardens downtown. Establishing community gardens – coordinating gardeners, finding land in an expensive metropolitan area and the logistics of building the plots – is no easy task.
The Vancouver School Board (VSB) has supported gardens on our lands for a number of years. Many of the gardens have been established through the work of students, Parent Advisory Committees and teachers. The success of gardens on VSB lands has been checkered. Some gardens have been around for many seasons while others have disappeared as the original group of volunteers moved on to other projects. For those who garden you will know that nature has a wonderful way of reclaiming itself when the human hand has left the premises.
Gardens have given our students the opportunity to get their hands dirty, understand the cycles of plant growth, see food outside of its packaged form and, as was demonstrated to me recently at Lord Sexsmith school, have led kids to enjoy eating vegetables. (I even witnessed two students deliberating over who would eat the last cucumber slice.) The hands-on learning that gardens provide makes learning fun and builds a connection between students and our natural environment.
What has me excited of late is seeing our garden projects becoming a larger part of the surrounding community. We are beginning to partner with outside organisations specializing in health, the environment and learning. Groups such as Think Eat Green have provided our students with an enriched learning experience, fostered connections with community leaders and demonstrated that food is a topic that touches on many different aspects of our day to day lives. These partnerships are also allowing us to have greater success in ensuring gardens are sustainable and taken care of.
A recent partnership between the VSB and Fresh Roots has brought in another aspect of food: money. The food we eat is part of a larger agricultural industry which over the years has increasingly been concentrated in the hands of fewer and larger corporations. Gone are the days when our milk came from the local farmer, much of our produce is shipped in from outside our city, economics being the chief driver of this change. The recent agreement signed with Fresh Roots would see a group of experienced farmers grow their produce on ¼ acre of land located at Vancouver Technical Secondary in East Vancouver. The project will cost us no money, the farmers will grow food on our lands, allow kids to participate in the farming process and provide some of the food to our cafeteria programs. The profits made from the sale of a portion of the food produced will help sustain these local farmers. The land which will be used was in need of money to make it usable for our students, this will no longer be the case as the gardens will take care of the landscaping. This project is truly a win, win and if all goes well, a model for us to expand our food growing projects well into the future.
What the future holds for urban gardens on VSB lands will have to be seen. Ideas such as composting all of our organics on site, hiring a farmer to farm our underutilized lands for food for our lunch programs and possibly encouraging a number of our students to consider the food industry as a viable career opportunity will provide our students with another learning experience. I’m so happy to see several of my personal passions – food gardening, education, getting kids outdoors into nature and healthy lifestyles, and building sustainable communities – come together in this way!