“Let us eat healthy food!” chants a group of Scarborough elementary school students, while hoisting a sign that uses “lettuce” as a clever twist on the slogan.
The students from Burrows Hall Junior Public School gathered outside the Scarborough Civic Centre Friday morning to raise awareness about healthy eating and the current food-literacy curriculum across Canada. The main event: a “plant-in,” during which the students planted a variety of vegetables and herbs – an activity they’ve learned through the gardening program at their school.
“Good food keeps my body healthy so I can do sports and stuff, and learn at school and not fall asleep,” said Grade 6 student Gayathiri Balakrishnan.
The plant-in was led by Action Against Hunger Canada, the Canadian chapter of the global humanitarian organization Action Against Hunger, which works in nearly 50 countries. The local branch currently runs nutrition-education programs at Burrows Hall and another school in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood. The students participated in the media event to bring attention to the nutritional disparities faced by many Canadian children and to encourage other schools to engage in similar initiatives.
“We have this impression that kids don’t want to eat spinach and broccoli,” said Danny Glenwright, executive director of Action Against Hunger Canada. “But the fact is, if they’re involved and engaged in growing it, then they actually do want to eat it.”
Mr. Glenwright noted that one in six Canadian children do not receive nutritious food and that 13 per cent of Canadian households don’t have access to healthy food options.
While many students are aware of the benefits of eating healthy, Mr. Glenwright said that the real challenge is the accessibility of these options.
Over the past year, Action Against Hunger Canada has funded a pilot project called Generation Nutrition at Burrows Hall and Driftwood Public School in North York. The program required students to create a school garden featuring a variety of fruits and vegetables, including peppers, spinach, and tomatoes, in 40 eco-friendly garden boxes. At the end of the school year, Action Against Hunger partnered with renowned chef John Higgins, director of the George Brown College Chef School, to teach the students how to turn the produce into healthy meals.
“They reap the rewards of their own learning, which makes it that much more powerful,” said Carmen Oliveira, the special education and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) teacher at Burrows Hall.
Ms. Oliveira, who oversees the Generation Nutrition program at the school, said the initiative has had a positive impact on the students by showing them the benefits of proper nutrition and teaching them how to produce the food they eat. She said the program has even inspired some students to help their parents cook at home.
“I live in an apartment, so I never get to plant or anything,” said Grade 6 student Maitreyi Thiphaharan, “But then, when you’re getting your hands dirty in the soil, it’s actually really fun.” In addition to planting tomatoes, Maitreyi also grows a variety of herbs, including cilantro and dill.
To sustain the students’ interest in gardening in the coming months, Ms. Oliveira started the Adopt a Veggie program, in which parents applied to babysit the plants over the summer. According to Ms. Oliveira, those parents who signed up to watch the plants were more encouraged to start their own gardens.
Action Against Hunger is already working with other schools across Ontario, including a school in the Indigenous community of North Spirit Lake, located north of Red Lake, Ont. They’ve also secured funding to run plant-in programs at schools in Alberta.
“In a few generations, we’ve become so far removed from the food that we eat,” said Mr. Glenwright, adding that the program is looking to expand to a number of schools across the country.