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Little Green Thumbs: School Gardens in Ontario

Little Green Thumbs: School Gardens in Ontario
By Sylvia Black, MHSc candidate and dietetic intern at the Nutrition Resource Centre

     From Sarnia to Sudbury, school gardens are sprouting up across Ontario. This trend isn’t entirely new–school gardens have existed in Canada for over 100 years and in Europe for much longer.

     What’s changed recently is the number of options available to schools wanting to bring growing activities into the classroom. This can be done quite literally, for example, with a tower garden: a vertical aeroponic garden that takes up less than three square feet. This innovative concept allows schools to grow up to 20 vegetables, fruits, herbs, or flowers indoors, without the need for soil.

     However, the cost of a tower garden is a barrier for many schools. For this reason or others, some schools prefer to get their students out in the sunshine with a traditional ground garden. This is a great way to combine healthy eating with outdoor education, but challenges include the Ontario climate, which leaves the main part of the growing season during summer vacation.

     Gardens – whether indoor or outdoor – require time and effort to set up, maintain, and integrate into the school day, and many teachers struggle with knowing where to start. That’s where public health dietitians and other professionals can lend a hand. There are also lots of great resources available for Ontario schools interested in starting a garden (see below).

     The effort is well worth it. Gardening is a great way to increase students’ food literacy; that is, the ability to make food-related decisions to support the achievement of personal health and a sustainable food system (definition adapted from Dietitians of Canada).

     Tentative evidence suggests that school gardening activities may increase students’ intake of fruits and vegetables. Gardening also engages students in light physical activity, builds teamwork skills, and may even have mental health benefits.

    With a little creativity, school gardening activities can be linked to virtually every subject in the curriculum:
  • Health and Physical Activity – have students use the food they’ve grown to cook a healthy meal
  • Science – use the garden to teach students about the impact of climate on plant growth
  • Math – have students measure and chart plant growth over time
  • Social Studies – have students draw maps of the garden
  • Language – have students write a report on what they learned from working in the garden
  • Art – have students make collages from leaves or seeds
     For schools, health units, or individuals who would like more information on starting a school garden, here are some great places to start:
  • FoodShare’s Good Food Machine program provides schools with a tower garden, mobile kitchen, educator support and training, and a (U.S.-based) curriculum package
  • Sustain Ontario’s Edible Education Network is a place for groups involved in children’s food literacy education share resources, ideas, and experience
  • There are several helpful free guidebooks for Ontario schools wanting to start a school garden:
                o   Seeds of Success: Hamilton’s School  Garden Kit
                o   Digging It: A Guide for Greening School Grounds in Peel Region
                o   A Guide to School Gardens (Durham Public Health)

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