Hort Journal: How This Urban Farm is Bringing a School Community Together

By: Michael Casey MAIH RH0106

This article first appeared in the February 2020 issue of Hort Journal – visit www.hortjournal.com.au for the full edition.

 

Today we are confronted with many new environmental and social problems that we have in some cases never seen nor experienced. From water shortages and in Melbourne lower than normal rainfall, increased summer fires, an urban sprawl that is moving at an unprecedented rate and food security issues that accompany this desire for land, we are not short of witnessing the effects of the Anthropocene era that we have now entered.

What I do see with my work with schools and currently with one school in particular, is that the students are ‘hungry’ to learn more about how they can assist with change and how their passion can work towards greater awareness and help for our changing world.

Introducing Food Gardens

Three years ago the introduction of food gardens to the school grounds at Catholic Regional College in Sydenham, and their use in the students’ education was just seen as another teaching aid. Now, however, the passion and desire to grow more food, understand food security, the concept of paddock to plate has allowed myself alongside the school and more importantly the students to create a 4000 square meter food garden comprising of a citrus orchard, raised planters, wicking garden beds, open garden beds and container gardens all providing seasonal fruit and vegetables to the school community and the onsite café and restaurant.

The Garden That Brings People Together

This garden is now seen by the school community as not only a teaching garden but a place to visit, understand, taste, socialize, rest and communicate in. This garden has brought the school community together. It has given voice to the students who regularly share the information via social media or through the school communication avenues, teachers are embracing the garden and using it for their own classes (hospitality, business studies, etc.) and more importantly, it gets the parents involved who both visit the garden and receive regular bundles of excess crops brought home by the sons and daughters.

I’m currently working with Year 11 and 12 VET students (Vocational Education & Training) running both the Certificate 2 Horticulture as well as combining it with my ‘Naturing Education’ which is a mentoring and skills-based program promoting both industry and life skills. Together we have been managing the urban food garden inside the school grounds. The need for the introduction of a sustainable urban farming model and more importantly the teaching and promoting of social responsibility was close to my beliefs that, to educate these students about the future issues we face was to first have them understand the fundamental basics of current food production, consumption and waste.

Understanding the Concept of Paddock to Plate 

The students needed to analyse what they have been taught by society regarding food production and harness both the ways food and waste were dealt with and how current methods need to change to a new more sustainable model. To start with I had the students understand how long it takes to grow food and the concept behind seasonal produce. They needed to understand how long it takes plants to grow from seed to plate as this was new to them.

What society has taught them is to take for granted that food will always be on the shelves at supermarkets and I needed this to be totally removed from their everyday thinking. The students also needed to experience consumption of foods from the consumer angle and in this case the school café and restaurant that required vast amounts of food for their menus and feeding hungry customers.

The students were able to see first-hand how much work went into the growing of a certain crop and how far that actually went in regard to feeding a room full of people. The growing of food also included the hospitality students who would work alongside the horticulture group. Here the two trades can meet and discuss their needs and wishes with seasonality of foods, taste, quantities and varieties all discussed between these two professions. This is where the school garden has allowed the two classes to benefit from both the knowledge of the ‘grower’ to the experience and knowledge of the ‘preparer’.

 

Horticulture and hospitality students working together in the food garden (Image: Michael Casey)

 

This was made clearer when we asked the students to bring their families to a dinner at the restaurant. The students were asked to invite their families along to both showcase their work in the garden throughout the year and to see first-hand how the paddock to plate concept works and to how much time, labour and resources goes into producing a crop for consumption. The shock displayed by most students was that the restaurant had taken most of a certain crop from their garden that had taken 14 weeks to produce leaving them with little extra for future use, and this was for one night at the restaurant.

Not only did the dinner highlight the use and consumption of food but it allowed for the parents and the students to sit at dinner and hear stories and discussions from their parents about their own experiences growing food both currently and when they grew up. The stories of their parents going out to the backyard to pick food for dinner was a concept unfamiliar to most of these students.

What I think was the most amazing part of this sharing of information was the different cultures sharing how the growing of food is so important to them and their communities. It also allowed the students to understand some different crops that are the backbone to some people’s diets.

The garden recently received the Best Edible Garden Award in the 2019 Victorian Schools Garden Awards. This award goes to not only the students who worked tirelessly on the garden throughout the year but also to the school community that understood the need for a garden like this to exist. My visions for this garden and the students that work in it is to be a champion of urban farming in school communities and to have the education of food security and climatic issues be taught at an age that gives these students hopefully new career paths to pursue.

 

Michael Casey pictured with VET students at the recent Victorian Schools Garden Awards (Image: Michael Casey)

 

I acknowledge that today’s children are the creators and leaders of tomorrow and food security, sustainability, social responsibility and entrepreneurship sit within their reach. I’m here to help them harness and embrace this.

Michael Casey is National President of Australian Institute of Horticulture and Director of Evergreen Infrastructure and MJC Horticulture and currently sits on the council with Therapeutic Horticulture Australia. He can be contacted at president@aih.org.au or Michael@evergreeninfrastructure.com.au

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