Sunday Harrison-Vickars, Green Thumbs Growing Kids
October 8, 2013
Thank you for the opportunity to present my views to you on the proposed Bill 36. My comments will be oriented primarily to the second objective of the bill, that is, to increase awareness of local food in Ontario, including the diversity of local food. I appreciate the inclusive wording of this objective – what grows in Ontario includes a lot of foods that were not perhaps grown by either First Nations or European settlers, and gardeners and farmers are all learning what can be grown here from other parts of the world and how to prepare it.
I have read through the comments in the debates before this bill came to committee and it is clear that many people at this committee already agree on increasing food literacy in the policies that govern Ontario.
I relish (no pun intended) this opportunity to inform the committee of what food literacy on the ground (more no puns intended) looks like. For 13 years our small community-based charity has partnered with schools to create gardens on school property, and lead workshops in the school gardens. In winter, we make healthy soil with food waste and worm bins in classrooms. In spring, of course, we plant; in summer, we run garden programs for all ages, and in fall, the students harvest and make recipes with the food, including potato dishes, kale chips, salad rolls, pesto and salsa. Each season we offer hundreds of these garden-based workshops at three or four local schools. We do it with very little public money, yet it is public school students who benefit. We use federal and local wage subsidies to hire youth to help run the summer programs, and keep the gardens productive. Staff and volunteers run everything on less than a shoestring, out of commitment to the idea of food literacy and environmental literacy.
Food in schools is a critical issue that knows no ideology, class or ethnicity. How we educate is critical for our democracy to have meaning, and the physical health of our children is critical to how well they learn. We know that hunger is an issue, but it is not enough to simply dump more packaged low-nutrient calories into schools. Students need to know where food comes from, and how and why to choose healthy foods. They need to know this from their own experience. If Canada’s Food Guide alone could teach healthy eating, we wouldn’t have a problem with kids eating too much junk food. The problem is more complex. Adding food literacy to the curriculum means to me actually adding hands-on activities to increase student knowledge through experience, because Canada’s Food Guide is already in the curriculum, and is supposedly taught in nearly every grade. It’s not enough — we are into the second generation of people who do not have the basic food skills that predate the microwave and single-serve plastic packaging.
Kids who have never tried fresh local foods have no way of knowing how good they taste. And growing your own connects you to the food in a deeper way from taste to waste, meaning you taste it more and waste it less. Research shows that children and adults alike eat better when they grow gardens, even in short seasons such as in Ontario’s north. But we also know that school gardens are more about taste and supplementation, less about provisioning, unless it’s just one crop. The cost of healthy food should be supported through revenue tools only available to governments. Local procurement and supports for local and regional, municipal and school board partnerships with farmers should be included in the proposed Bill 36.
We propose that the following amendment be added to the bill:
the Minister shall consider goals or targets related to food literacy and the use of school food gardens in the furtherance of the purposes of this Act.
In 2010, the government introduced P/PM 150, which limited junk food in schools. It was called “comprehensive”, but in fact it only dealt with part of the problem. A real example of comprehensive legislation is the 2010 Healthy Schools Act, District of Columbia. This 37-page legislation exemplifies a far-reaching vision and I include a copy of the Act with this deputation. The program is implemented via a 3 way partnership between private, non-profit and public sectors. With five key interlocking programs, this legislation combines local procurement, which is well-defined, school garden grants of up to $10,000, universal feeding programs, environmental initiatives and physical activity.
The Local Food Week might set good directions in terms of policy. But, with all due respect, we already have some great policy frameworks that are much more developed than naming a week, that are still largely unimplemented. In 2009, this government passed a policy framework Acting Today, Shaping Tomorrow, which commits Ontario’s education system to teach environmental sustainability in every subject in every grade, and which explicitly names food as a subject for environmental study. On the health side, a policy in place since 2006, the Framework for Healthy Schools, suggests planting school gardens, under the Healthy Physical Environments pillar and related to Healthy Eating. The government continues to promote these policy frameworks on their websites but the implementation is extremely weak or just not measured. As a practitioner I simply find it frustrating that such a gap exists, and continues to exist long after the policy frameworks are in place. The only thing that keeps you going is that you know, first hand, that your work makes a difference.
Here’s what one Regent Park-area youth had to say about our program this year:
“Personally I have gained so much in terms of experience, interest in gardening, like I became more focused on types of food, me and my sister started to grow plants at our home even though we don’t have a garden and also I realized that communication workshops are the main tools of success, so overall I have developed so many skills from this program.”
School gardens bring learning to life, and life to learning. Paired with farm-to-school programs, they would support farmers, teach kids where food comes from, and promote local food. If we can support school gardens in food literacy amendments to the Local Food Act, great, and as well, the province has some of the program infrastructure to support school gardens already – such as the Student Nutrition Program, the Healthy Schools Recognition Program and the Outdoor Education funding. Closing the gap between these programs with a modest funding increase that NGOs could access would support schools to offer high-quality programming on the school grounds for a fraction of the cost of treating diabetes and obesity later. There are metrics to show whether these programs have potential to reduce health care costs in future, and early indications are that they would.
In conclusion, we appreciate this government’s attempts to focus on our food system through the Local Food Act as well as better Student Nutrition, and support both opposition parties in calling for more depth and meaning to this Bill 36. School gardens are a small but significant piece relevant to both of these initiatives. The meaning to children is immeasurable. I will conclude with one more short anecdote – while spreading seeds in one of our school gardens, a child around 9 or 10 asked, “is this going to be animal or vegetable?” This, my friends, is why our kids need school gardens.