School garden programs grow resiliency

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The Gulf Islands School District has made a remarkable achievement in becoming the first in B.C. to have a garden at every school. As is becoming clear, the value lies not just in being first but in providing just the right tools for current times.

Salt Spring Elementary School parent Robin Jenkinson reported on the progress being made at district schools in a delegation to the Gulf Islands school board on May 13. As she observed, the benefits of growing one’s own food have become even more pronounced since the global pandemic hit, while outdoor learning will be an important resource elementary schools can turn to once students start to return in June.

“In this new COVID world, outdoor learning is safer and school gardens provide great spaces for that. It’s remarkable that all the primary schools have active gardens, as well as SIMS and GISS,” Jenkinson said. “With the climate change emergency coupled with this global pandemic, the practical skill of growing food is very important . . . Investing in school gardens in partnership with our islands’ many generous and supportive farms and community groups is a great way to build Southern Gulf Islands food security and climate resilience in a safe way for all.”

SD64’s school gardens have connected across schools these past years thanks to Jenkinson. With grant funding, she and others have created gatherings and a website to share school garden successes, events and resources at www.schoolgarden.ca. At every school, gardens have been kept going by volunteers. Many have been in place for some time. For example, Mayne Island’s outdoor classroom and teaching garden was created to commemorate the school’s 125th anniversary in 2010.  

The School Gardens Program’s ongoing work includes updating case studies on local school gardens, creating a seasonal activity guide with current events and news, and holding learning circles with school garden champions and community supporters. The program sponsored a garden-based learning workshop with BC Farm to School for 10 teachers on the district professional development day in February.

Since schools have been closed, project leads have also been supporting growing at home. The SSE Gardening Group made four videos with teacher Linda McDaniel and distributed home garden grow kits to 40 households with burlap sack potatoes, pollinator May Day gardens and sunflowers, with squash and beans coming next. Jenkinson said she’s heard back from some parents about how their kids have brought home helpful information on things like soil building and how to make an efficient compost pile.

While Jenkinson’s report to the board focused on the elementary school level, Gulf Islands Secondary School principal Lyall Ruehlen said the high school’s garden program championed by culinary arts teacher Mark Kilner is also in high gear. In fact, with the greenhouse producing so much, the school will be looking at how to donate produce to community food programs.

“We won’t be having salad bar lunches at the cafeteria here any time soon, but I think reaching out to families in need and our essential services workers is the next step,” Ruehlen said.

Jenkinson told the board that annual financial support from the district for gardening programs, as well as funding for a garden-based learning facilitator, could help all programs thrive. It is probably not going to be available for now, as superintendent Scott Benwell pointed out the district is coming out of financial protection and has declining enrolment and other uncertainties ahead. However, ongoing funding may be possible following the district’s configuration review.

Grant funding, especially that related to COVID-19, might also be available. Jenkinson said that school gardens are a good fit for some of those programs. 

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