Years ago when I was at teachers college I listened to a talk from Stephen Ritz online that resonated with exactly the type of teaching I wanted to do. He said “kids shouldn’t have to leave their community to live, learn, and earn in a better one.” Like a catchy song, that line lives with me regularly as I go about my day running school educational gardening programs with FoodShare Toronto.
At FoodShare, I work with schools and teachers to turn vacant outdoor space into productive urban farms that provide paid jobs and school credits for high school students. We build modular garden planters on school rooftops, tear up sod for half acres of raised beds for organic vegetables, and deliver hands-on, curriculum-linked food literacy education to schools across Toronto. Over the last decade, we have had kindergarten students dress up as bees to collect “pollen,” grade four students create their own salad dressing recipes from scratch, and high school students critically examine how food security and income security are intimately linked. We get students reading and engaging with the food system as a whole. In my six years doing this work I have seen time and time again that students learn best when their school work is rooted in their community, rooted in a sense of belonging and care for the people and spaces around them.
In our school farming program, School Grown, the same students who often struggle with attendance or being on time for class are remarkably prompt during the summer months. We were surprised – how could they make it to work at 7:30am but not make it to class until 10:00am? When we talked about this, students shared that with our program it matters if they show up. If they do not come, food does not get harvested, the rest of the group must do more work, plants might not get watered, and maybe someone does not get to eat. There is a direct connection between the work they are doing and the benefit to their community.
This is the common thread I see between our work at FoodShare and The Green Bronx Machine. We are inviting students to do something that has a real, tangible, material benefit for their community, their school, and their families.
FoodShare and LoyaltyOne
In 2015, FoodShare gave a talk about our School Grown program at a conference in Toronto. That is where we met Angela Simo Brown from LoyaltyOne. Angela had been speaking with Stephen Ritz and the Green Bronx Machine to see how a similar model could be replicated here in Canada. LoyaltyOne was interested in funding a program that would lead to long term behaviour change around healthy eating and we were interested in broadening and deepening our work in schools. LoyaltyOne had expertise in creating partnership coalitions and programs that change behavior, and we had expertise in teaching food literacy and gardening in the school curriculum. It was a good match.
The Good Food Machine
So, we created the Good Food Machine. We replicated the best parts of the Green Bronx Machine into a Canadian version that would be sustainable and impactful. In the fall of 2016 we launched with 10 Toronto District School Board pilot sites. We were intentional about equitably selecting schools and used a school board tool called the Learning Opportunities Index to ensure we worked with sites that had a higher need for external resources plus a reduced capacity to fundraise. We used very similar components to the Green Bronx Machine plus we added our unique resource support.
Tower Gardens. We like using growing towers because they get kids growing and eating good food right in their classroom. The towers can live in the instructional space – keeping them close by means it is more likely that they will be cared for and maintained regularly. Students are paying attention every day as the seedlings emerge, show their true leaves, flower for the first time, or need to be pruned. We can also teach growing skills all year long no matter the climate. The towers can be harvested in June and unplugged over the summer which solves the struggle of how to maintain an outdoor garden when school is not in session. The towers come with wheels and the units’ mobility is key for adapting to the ever-changing learning environment of a school.
(source: Sufian Malik from FoodShare Toronto)
The Mobile Kitchen. We love the mobile teaching kitchen unit that was custom made for The Green Bronx Machine by a Canadian company called Stephenson Case. Many teachers have expressed interest over the years in doing cooking in their classrooms, but infrastructure is often a barrier. How do you get 30 grade three kids cooking if you do not have a hand washing sink in your classroom? Our kitchen unit – with a foot pump sink, induction burner, fridge, and outlets for small appliances – provides everything a teacher needs to prepare dishes with his or her students made from produce harvested right from the tower.
Green Bronx Machine Classroom Curriculum. We are also thrilled with the new Green Bronx Machine classroom curriculum that launched in January 2017. We love how thorough and expansive it is. The curriculum is page after page of great activity ideas and extensions to support the use of the tower and kitchen cart throughout the year, in different subjects and across all ages.
FoodShare Support. In our years working with teachers we know there is no shortage of interest in bringing good food education into their classrooms. Many teachers do this successfully; however, many do not because of infrastructure barriers and lack of confidence and training. Cooking a meal for your family at home is not the same as managing 30 kids using knives, cutting boards, a pantry of ingredients, and a hot plate.
Growing food can be challenging too. Some teachers want to start seedlings with their students but are afraid they will kill the plants, may not have enough light, or just do not know where to start. Before the Good Food Machine, we had heard stories of tower gardens collecting dust in school closets because teachers needed more support and training. We know that teachers have so many things to look after in one day so we made sure the Good Food Machine is easy to use and maintain.
So far the Good Food Machine’s results have been fantastic:
- Students at Eastdale CI are harvesting salad greens from their towers and serving them weekly in their lunch-time salad bar.
- Students at Bruce PS sold their produce at a mini farm stand to parents and staff, learning lessons on entrepreneurship and counting money.
- Parents at Ogden PS volunteer to lead cooking classes with the kitchen cart, sharing family recipes for the foods they eat at home.
- Teachers at D.A. Morrison have noted that students on the autism spectrum have improved attendance this year as they have developed an attachment to caring for the plants in the tower each day.
- While eating a salad made entirely of ingredients grown in their tower, a grade two Ogden student exclaimed “eating this salad is like meeting my first love!”
We have seen 86% of elementary school students say they are now eating more fruits and veggies, and 64% are reporting they are talking to their parents about healthy foods. Fifty-five percent of middle school students are trying foods they never had before, and 66% say their eating habits have changed for the better.
And after only 7 months we are expanding quickly. By the end of 2017 we will be in over 40 schools and community centres in Ontario plus Canada’s north.
Bring Good Food Machine to Your School
In addition to LoyaltyOne donating Good Food Machine kits to select schools, the Good Food Machine is also available for purchase. The kits have simple requirements such as access to water, two electrical outlets, and (ideally) a window. Anyone interested in more information or purchasing a Good Food Machine kit should visit: http://foodshare.net/program/goodfoodmachine/ or https://www.loyalty.com/good-food-machine.
The Good Food Machine is an effective tool for teaching food literacy and helping with healthy food accessibility for all grades. With its proven mix of tower gardens, a kitchen cart, curriculum lessons, and FoodShare support, the Good Food Machine makes teaching and growing easy for teachers and students all year round. This program ensures that it is not a one-off experience for students, but instead is a comprehensive program with duration and intensity that transforms kids’ lives by driving meaningful and sustained behavior change. As our inspirational partner Stephen Ritz of the Green Bronx Machine would say: “Si se puede!”
About the Author
Katie German is a certified high school teacher and urban farmer. She brings over 15 years of working with youth, designing educational programs, and facilitating meaningful learning experiences that are rooted in social justice and building community. She recently completed her MA thesis on the subject of youth as authors of food literacy curriculum with a critical lens towards whiteness in food justice work.