Archive for the ‘advocacy’ Category

by Cassie Scott and Sunday Harrison

With the passing of the Local Food Act (Bill 36) and the Healthy Kids Panel in serious consultation, the explosion of interest in good food continues to resound. Here in Toronto, City Council has passed the Toronto Agricultural Program which should support urban agriculture including school gardens.

The Ontario government is investing $30M over the next three years into the Local Food Fund, and one of its four categories includes “Education”. Now is the perfect time for school gardens to show how we support food literacy and education about local food.

Please take the important first step of signing up with the Imagine A Garden In Every School Campaign at agardenineveryschool.ca to lend your voice to the campaign. If you have a school garden you can also register it on the online map, and share information about your school garden with others. Together we can be a powerful voice for school gardens in Ontario.

To gather more information about school gardens, please complete a short survey if you have a school garden. It will take about 10 minutes to complete and will help to document successes and share knowledge about our common challenges. To show our appreciation, your name will be entered in a draw to win a $100 gift certificate from Urban Harvest or 30 Mark Cullen children’s trowels if you take the time to complete the survey before February 15, 2014.

Dreaming of a garden in every school!


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queen's parkDeputation to the Local Food Act Hearings

Sunday Harrison-Vickars, Green Thumbs Growing Kids

Sunday@kidsgrowing.ca, 416-876-1480

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.

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It’s an exciting time for school gardens – please join us physically and metaphysically in our celebrations of a new season of growth and beauty! First up, today is May 24 — The First Annual School Garden Day, brought to life by our collaboration with EcoSource and the Ontario Edible Education Network. There’s a survey to fill out to help us all better understand school food gardens and gardeners, (as well as other children & youth food programs).

Next week on Wednesday May 29 is the Fairmount Park Farmers’ Market, adjacent to a school yard where a gardening project is underway. We’ll be selling some pea shoots and talking about how easy to do and nutritious they are, as well as just providing a fun activity for kids. Erin Temple, our newly minted practicum student from Ryerson University’s Masters of Health Science, Nutrition Communications will help make this event memorable.

Coming up Saturday June 1 is Rawlinson Community School’s Urban Farm Fun Fair, and we’re excited to have a table there. We’ve been working with Rawlinson’s amazing kindergarten teachers on our kinder-GARDEN pilot project, and this year the whole school has planned their Fun Fair to celebrate urban agriculture and highlight their school gardens!

On Wednesday June 19, we’ll get together with our eight Kinder-GARDEN pilot project teachers to go over the project and look at the spring season to date. This will form the beginning of a new resource guide, suited to Toronto climate and Ontario curriculum, for school food gardeners working with Kindergarteners. This project is supported by a grant from the Community Environment Fund of Earth Day Canada.

Then, Friday June 21, we’ll be offering a workshop at the Jane-Finch area Frontier College Connecting Communities Conference, where program leaders attend a free day of workshops and networking, gaining a better understanding of summer programs that meet the needs of children and youth. We’re excited to participate in the desire to support literacy – including environmental and food literacy – and detailing how the school garden can be a strong summertime asset to the community.

Meantime, the Urban Roots Youth project is deepening, and the youth involved are gaining confidence and knowledge about food growing, food systems and starting to tell their own stories. Two more summer jobs (in addition to two jobs through TDSB’s Focus on Youth) will be available and will be posted soon on our website. Funding for this program’s co-ordination has been generously provided by Telus Community Board and by the City of Toronto Recreation Grants.

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Green Thumbs Growing Kids is a finalist in the Group Category of Hometown Heroes, a national celebration of environmental achievement. Thanks Earth Day Canada!


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Bringing school food gardens into a provincial network has long been a goal of ours at GTGK. Thanks in part to a grant from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario, our Imagine a Garden in Every School campaign is being co-ordinated by our own Cassie Scott. On June 19, Roberta Bondar came to Rose Ave. PS as our guest, and as a friend to the school as well. On this occasion, she helped “launch” the Imagine a Garden in Every School campaign, and joked that “launching” is something she has been known to do before! (showing picture of the rocket that took her to space). She talked about gardens nurturing creativity and curiosity – it was quite awesome to meet her and feel how very down to earth she is! When I made the predictable joke – “why should we have a garden in every school? so we can have more peas on earth!” she quipped,

, “do they keep you on a celery here?”

It was a really lovely morning, with the amazing Orff drummers, Grade 6 student researchers reporting their findings, Ecoteam members pledging to grow and eat more local food, and the presence of so many of our friends and supporters. Meredith Hayes from FoodShare Toronto, Ravenna Nuaimy-Barker from Sustain Ontario, Sarah Vogelzang from Toronto Public Health, Richard Christie from the Sustainability Office at Toronto District School Board – all contributed wonderful comments and anecdotes about how we can collectively imagine a garden in every school, and why such a thing is a good idea whose time has come.

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snails kissing for the camera, Winchester School Garden

Jan Wong’s silly article “The Horticultural Revolution” ( or as it says on the cover of the magazine “The Stupidity of School Gardens”) in the October edition of Toronto Life just begs for a rebuttal. In advance of the article being posted digitally, I am posting my response here.

Thanks to Jan Wong, I now know that teaching children not to kill snails is communist propaganda. I am not sure how the snails organized into trade unions, but apparently they have done so under the cover of school garden programs offered by my organization, Green Thumbs Growing Kids. Likely they’ve become so clever, and hired me as their covert operator, munching on children’s textbooks left behind in the garden, as the garden commands so much of the children’s attention that academic subjects suffer. Surely the kids don’t need to know where food comes from, or get dirty, in pursuit of the academic success that awaits if they wouldn’t spend so much time caring for snails or lettuces.

Wong missed the point that hungry children don’t learn, and the school gardens feed children real food, high in nutrients that growing minds and bodies require.

Wong’s use of the terms “stupid” and “mucking around”, comparing gardening to fixing toilets, plays on elitist images of working people as dirty and ignorant. The only value she admits is when the youth enter the marketplace and sell produce, which begs the question of how exactly the produce would get to the market if nobody raised it. Agronomists, crop and environmental scientists as well as the entire agri-food industry (1 in 6 Ontario jobs) depend on some knowledge of soil – dirt, if you will. As far as low test scores cited by Ms. Wong, there’s never been any research at Winchester School, so no link has ever been established. School garden research elsewhere in fact suggests the opposite, finding that gardening improves academic test scores, improves nutrition knowledge and uptake of healthy foods. (Toilet-fixing might be improved as well; there’s a research project there I’m sure.) Anyway, it’s not as if students miss class time to garden – garden programs are curriculum-linked and are a hands-on opportunity that deepens classroom learning by engaging children through their senses. Horribly communist, I know. We even make it possible for low-income families to share the produce in summertime – proof of our leftist plot!

Seriously, although there are numerous connections to the Ontario K-12 curriculum, many teachers do not access the garden because of the challenge of teaching outdoors. Notably, Ms. Wong cited no teachers opposed to the use of gardens for instruction or recreation. Back to the standardized testing that forms the backbone (snail shell?) of her slim(y) argument, it is probable that low test scores are related to teaching methods in the classroom or behaviour issues, and it should not be forgotten that many children are functioning in their second or third language when they write the tests at Grade 3 and 6. The EQAO itself is under scrutiny as questions have arisen about its ability to provide an adequate measure of evaluation. At Upper Canada College, students have gardening programs woven into their curriculum, and I have never heard that the sons of high-powered corporate parents are achieving under their abilities or joining the Communist Party because of the beautiful food gardens at the school. But maybe my snails haven’t gotten up the hill yet. Beware.

Sunday Harrison

Executive Director

Green Thumbs Growing Kids

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Yesterday I was lucky enough to represent Green Thumbs Growing Kids at the Parks and Environment Committee meeting at Toronto City Hall (super bonus: beating the heat in air-conditioned Committee Room 1).  In case you’ve missed (or perhaps avoided) the recent media coverage, the accounting firm KPMG was hired by the city to perform a Core Services Review in an effort to identify areas where City Hall may be able to save a little extra cash – a tidy sum of $774 million dollars, to be exact.  While there are lots of “opportunities” on the table, one that is particularly concerning to us at Green Thumbs is the proposition of “a reduction or elimination” of the Toronto Environment Office.  How incredibly fitting that the value of the TEO, which participates in policy planning and promotes sustainable living to Toronto residents, was being discussed on a day where the humidex temperature measured in at 47 degrees C (a clear indication that climate change isn’t just a myth!)

Okay, okay – I won’t get into that.  I would like instead to impart with you the thrill of being in a buzzing room of passionate Torontonians.  Over 100 people presented deputations to the Parks and Environment Committee championing organizations and services that are currently on the chopping block – the Toronto Environment Office, urban agriculture, Riverdale Farm, and other city parks, just to name a few.  The meeting didn’t end until a quarter to midnight and was concluded by a recommendation to pass these issues to the Executive Committee meeting next Thursday.  Mayor Ford is inviting the entire city to come to the meeting and make a deputation – “even if [he] has to stay three or four days.”  So here’s where I make a little plea for this beautiful city that we call home: if you feel strongly about any of the services whose loss we are facing, I strongly urge you to go out and show your support.

Want an idea of what to write?  Here’s the deputation I presented yesterday:


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