Edible Profile: Farmers In The Playground

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Author: Josie Di Felice

Posted: September 6, 2013

Categories: Edible Education Network / Edible Education Project Profiles / Food in the News / Good Food Ideas for Kids

‘Dirt Makes You Grow’ in Muskoka/Parry Sound
By Kelli Ebbs, Common Roots Food Collective, farmersfeedus@hotmail.ca

Two years, two schools. Growing vegetable gardens, raising chickens, culinary exploration, hundreds of kids, teachers and parents and a group of dedicated mentors and volunteers. This is, so far, Farmers in the Playground, as we continue to grow.

This Fall, The Common Roots Food Collective enters into its 3rd year of programming, growing food gardens on school grounds, taking that food into the kitchen, sharpening the knives, preparing and sharing meals together and teaching mindfulness as it relates to our food in every way.

We’ll start and end with the story of the chicken.

We introduced a group of Grade 3 students to a one-day-old pullet. A meat bird, although this is not how I introduced her. After she was awed and adored, I asked the kids if they knew why I was raising her. Reluctantly, a few put up their hands. “Eggs?” said one student. “No, any other guesses?” I replied. Silence. “OK, who here eats meat?” I responded. All of the students raised their hands. “Who here eats chicken?” I continue on. There was the imminent and unanimous light bulb moment and then an outburst of reaction. They all just got it.

After an energetic discussion and question period about where our food, all of our food, comes from, I asked another question: “Who here feels really uncomfortable right now about what we’ve just come to realize?” Not surprisingly, every student raised his or her hand.

And so the discussion, lessons, experiments, growing and eating began, with an entirely new realization about where the food that we buy at the grocery store, at our farmers markets and grow in our own yards and farms comes from and how it affects us and the planet – the big picture.

The course outline is fluid; the students guide our teaching every day.

We spend 1 full day in each school for approximately 12 weeks per year. In the fall, our “old farmers” (now in gr.4) introduce the “new farmers” (new to gr.3) to the garden. It is a momentous time, as the students have been away all summer and are returning to pumpkins growing onto the soccer fields and plenty of harvesting to be done. The older farmers mentor the younger and, throughout the year, this is the hierarchy. Once the fall harvest is complete and the storable food preserved, the 2 grades prepare a delicious harvest meal for the school. They make soup, bake bread, and serve the bounty. After all of the garlic is planted and kale is covered in straw, they work together to clean up the garden, mulch and put it to bed for the winter.

Springtime brings us back for the next round of “new farmers”. We teach a wide variety of subjects in and out of the garden: soil exploration, seeds and sprouting, composting, pollination, building garden beds, garden structures/design, wild edibles/foraging, stewardship and our global footprint. We combine this with culinary skills ranging from using knives and baking bread to preserving and celebrating food at the end of each day. We bring the students to local farms and visit a farmers market if the timing is right.

The support of school principals, teachers and parents as well as the support that various funding bodies have provided over the past 2 years is what drives this initiative. It is an initiative that we strive to keep growing and continue to nurture. We aspire to see and mentor the growing of food gardens and food mindfulness in every elementary school within this region within 5 years.

And back to that chicken. That pullet returned every week for 10 weeks; everyone aware of its ultimate destiny and growing more comfortable with the idea. We charted its growth and observed its changes over a 10-week period. We taught them how to raise chickens, right in their classroom. They understood why. After 10 weeks, the kids said their farewells and then asked one final question: “When are we going to eat it?”. “Harvest Chicken Soup in the fall!” we replied, to the cheers of 45 new little farmers.

The Farmers in the Playground team is diverse. Apart from the experts who are invited in (bee farmers, chefs, agri-food businesses), Kelli Ebbs has a background in nutrition and programing for an outdoor education center in B.C. and currently grows and raises food on a small 10-acre farm in Parry Sound region, Collette Lalonde has a degree in Holistic Nutrition and teaches cooking classes and Sue Smith is a Master Gardener and runs a market garden in Baysville. Between them, they raise and feed 8 children. The Common Roots Food Collective is working steadfastly on building The Muskoka-North Food Co-op. The hope is that the proceeds from this social enterprise will fund the steady growth of Farmers in the Playground and more worthwhile food initiatives.