By Chelsea Brunette and Samantha Brazeau-Wilson
Think back to when you were young, helping your parents or grandparents in the garden. Remember that sense of accomplishment when you were done? Better yet, remember how delicious the vegetables were when they were freshly picked and rinsed? Kids don’t always realize gardening can be one of life’s pleasures. And parents might be surprised how helpful it is in the development of good eating habits.
Here in Ottawa, Growing Up Organic (GUO) is cultivating a new generation of gardeners. This project offers youth the opportunity to get their hands dirty and enjoy the fruits—in this case vegetables— of their labour. In the process, healthy habits take root. The GUO Ottawa Chapter’s programs are aimed at increasing youth awareness of and access to local organic foods, while encouraging organic production in our community.
Back in 2007, Canadian Organic Growers National launched GUO as a three-year pilot program with four regional chapters, including Winnipeg, Salt Spring Island, Perth-Waterloo-Wellington and Ottawa. The aim of the initiative was to boost organic production by encouraging organically grown food at institutions focused on youth.
Organic production is really important, says Alissa Campbell, GUO’s project manager. “Not only because it helps reduce exposure to pesticides (to which children are particularly vulnerable), but it’s also an entry point for instilling a lifelong sense of environmental responsibility and respect for the planet.”
To date, GUO has partnered with 28 local schools in establishing organic school garden programs. Complementary programs range from curriculumconnected, garden based workshops to Farm-Gate Cafés. And kids eat it up. After all, students have the chance to participate in field trips to local organic farms or host an organic farmer in their classrooms. Afterwards, they get to work with a local chef and/or nutritionist to prepare a tasty meal from the foods they’ve brought back to class.
Alissa says GUO’s program is flexible and adapts to meet the needs of participating schools. Sometimes schools become independent after a few years, while others continue to enjoy the assistance provided and the role GUO plays in their garden program.
“The attitudes, behaviours and values that children learn at school follow them throughout their lives. In fact, that’s why Growing Up Organic focuses on children and youth,” she explains. “The impact we can have by focusing on that age group increases a hundredfold as those children grow into adults and carry [those values] with them in their lives and as they themselves raise families.”
Given the urgency of today’s environmental challenges, Alissa says there’s a pressing need to incorporate environmental education into school routines. “Once students start to care for their school garden, they begin to care more about their own backyard, in the largest sense of the word.”
For Stephen Skoutajan, a language arts teacher at Devonshire Public School, GUO has enriched his teaching and has dramatically touched the lives of his students. “The garden ties into so many different areas of learning,” he says, listing “healthy living, healthy eating, supporting local food production.” Not only have many students started gardens in their own backyards, many families sign up to maintain the school garden during the summer.
Though he can’t remember how his school originally connected with GUO, Stephen says the program is now very involved with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. “We have students from junior kindergarten all the way up to our oldest students (Grade 6) working on the garden and they often work together.”
The students are involved in every aspect of the gardening process. They begin by planting inside their classrooms and then head outside by late May. They build new sections to the garden, harvest, save seeds to use in the following year, explore the garden with their senses, prepare their own recipes—in a cooking program funded by Ottawa Public Health—and even create songs and poetry.
To Stephen, one of the most important aspects of the program is to increase youth awareness of organic and local foods. “Our garden is changing how we buy food and what we cook. Many of my students love herbs now. They come in from recess with the smell of basil and chives on their breath. It is changing the culture of food in our community.”
The community is also an important part of GUO programs. “We never turn down volunteers,” says Stephen. “We have always had a very active parent schoolyard committee … interested in exploring innovative projects that will extend learning outside the classroom.”
Since Devonshire Public School began its garden over three years ago, other schools in the neighbourhood have joined in as well. Pleasant Park Public School is one of them.
Katia Theriault is a Grade 3 teacher who has adopted the GUO program after being introduced to it by a colleague. The school’s science lessons about plants and soils tie in perfectly. “The students are involved in all aspect of the process,” says Katia, “from the building of the flower beds to putting [in] the soil, starting the seeds, planning the layout of the garden, planting, weeding, watering, harvesting and eating.”
She says GUO makes learning meaningful, with a purpose and an end-product students can anticipate. “It’s seeing with their own eyes that what they put into place flourished. It’s making them aware that what they buy at the grocery store has a hard labour history. It makes them respect more the gardeners and the farmers and they learn and develop a sense of ownership with their gardens,” she says.
For details about Growing Up Organic and to find out if you or your school can get involved, see growinguporganic.blogspot.com.