Students share the harvest

Teacher Mike Payne explains why kids who grow healthy food also eat healthy food.


Grade six students savoured bruschetta on freshly baked focaccia during their class visit to the culinary arts program at Loyalist Collegiate.  Who would imagine eleven-year-olds enjoying a mixture of tomatoes, onion, garlic and basil? Students explained readily: “It tastes better when you grow it yourself.”

Since spring of 2010, grade 5/6 students at First Avenue and Rideau Public Schools have been cultivating their GROW gardens. The GROW Project, an initiative of parent Catherine Styles and Urban Agriculture Kingston (UAK), involves the adoption, planting, raising and harvesting of tomato plants and other produce in gardens on the front lawn of the school properties.  After the fall harvest, the primary school students took the fruits of their labour and prepared them alongside the budding chefs in the Loyalist Collegiate Vocational Institute’s (LCVI’s) Cook’s Internship Focus Program.

Above: Grade six student MacKenzie savours bruschetta on freshly baked focaccia during her class visit to the culinary arts program at Loyalist Collegiate.

The LCVI students are themselves no strangers to growing food. This year, in partnership with UAK and Oak Street Community Garden, the students gained growing skills, learning first-hand why the local-food trend has city chefs sourcing from area farmers and in some cases digging their own gardens.

In addition to cultivating a garden, the LCVI class toured Wallace Beef at the Joyceville Penitentiary and visited Sonset Farm in Inverary. In October, when the Cook’s Internship’s vegetarian entry won Chili Fest, much of the produce in the chili was grown by the class itself in their plot at the Oak Street Community Garden.  Chef/teacher Doug James says that his students “are learning what fresh is, and what it takes to produce quality ingredients. They are also gaining confidence and pride in their choices. I watched one of my students teach food-preparation skills to two grade six boys who had never held a knife. They were peppering him with questions about high school and the food industry.”

Tim Lyon facilitates the garden instruction and notes that the students are keen to learn about growing produce and to get their hands dirty. “They were floored by the power of the seed,” Lyon says, “and the idea that a miniscule package could contain the instructions to grow and reproduce. And I think as young chefs, these students are looking for flavour and for an understanding of seasonal food production. When they got to the garden they got right into it.”

Above: LCVI students Dylon Hale and Dean Lewis-Vankoughnett turn soil in April at Oak Street Garden

Dean Lewis-Vankoughnett, a student in the LCVI Cook’s Internship Program last season, got excited about gardening. “It blew my mind to see how an onion starts from a tiny seed. I want to see the growing process through to see where the plants end up.  I want to build contacts with farmers and to see the city prosper through self-reliance.”

Urban agriculture benefits both farmers and city dwellers. While urban gardeners do shorten their shopping lists by eating from the garden, UAK research finds that they are also more likely to seek out additional sources of fresh local foods. Once a person tastes a real tomato, he is more likely to buy a bushel from a local farmer, along with meats, grains, maple syrup and more.

Just as in the country, urban agriculture strengthens the community fabric. The sharing of knowledge, skills and tools brings people together, and results in happier, safer, more resilient neighbourhoods.

Whereas children who do not grow vegetables often do not  like vegetables, those who garden tend to like and eat a variety of vegetables. This goes for adults, too. Moreover, those who grow food are more likely to eat together as a family – one of the most important indicators of health and academic success for kids.

A further benefit of urban agriculture is that it develops awareness and interest in farm and food issues. Only by experiencing how much hard work, planning, skill, time and experience goes into growing food can the urbanite begin to understand the true costs of food.

Urban Agriculture Kingston is a not-for-profit corporation that began as a working group of OPIRG Kingston. UAK promotes sustainable food production for all people in the Greater Kingston area by advocating policy changes in governments and institutions that will support increased food sovereignty across the region.

Since 2008, UAK has launched the very successful Oak Street Community Garden; consulted productively with the City of Kingston to improve food policies in the Official Plan; partnered on the Save Our Prison Farms campaign; and spearheaded the Kingston Backyard Hens movement. UAK has partnered with three schools and the Ontario Early Years Centre (Kingston) to develop gardening programs and to bring students to area farms.

Mike Payne is coordinator of Urban Agriculture Kingston.

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