at Bendale Technical Institute and Eastdale Collegiate Institute
Compiled by Phil Mount, based on interviews with
Katie German (School Grown Senior Coordinator) and
Justin Nadeau (former School Food Garden Coordinator)
Except where otherwise indicated, all photos
courtesy of GreenFuse Photos
CASE STUDY HIGHLIGHTS
* Market garden project in its 5th year of operation
* Schoolyard farming social enterprise on two sites at TDSB schools
* Produce sold to restaurants, at farmers markets and into school programs
* Full-time, paid student summer jobs and training
* Produce sales over $14,000 in 2013, over $17,000 in 2014
* Full-time staff member with part-time duties at growing project
* Part of the ‘Field to Table Schools’ program, delivering hands-on food literacy education
* Organizational support and fundraising are also critical to program success
In 2010 FoodShare—a Toronto-based, non-profit food access organization—partnered with the Toronto District School Board to establish a food production garden at a Scarborough high school. The project expanded slowly, and added a second growing site on the rooftop of a Riverdale neighbourhood school. The School Grown program has demonstrated several key elements for a successful school food growing project, including incorporating production and processing into the school’s curriculum; engaging, training and employing students in the process; providing opportunities for student growth and leadership; and providing a farmer with the experience and training to grow vegetables for market.
Support and partnership with the school board and on-site staff have been important to the success of the project, as have the support and vision of FoodShare managers and staff. However, the School Grown program has flourished under the management of a dedicated farmer—Katie German—and with a reorientation for serious market garden production, providing valuable training for students from seed to sale, and valuable revenue to support the program’s viability.
… When the students saw people come by the market stand and say “What is this? Oh my gosh! It’s beautiful—I’ve never seen something like this before!”—that high standard of quality production gave a sense of meaning and ‘realness’ to the work. This food was going somewhere, and it had real purpose—so, paying attention when you’re harvesting lettuce is important, because someone is going to take this home and eat it, and pay a fair price for it.
FoodShare began in 1985 as an emergency food organization, a pilot of the City of Toronto. They have since developed into a ground-breaking charity organization and community food hub that is willing and able to work with government, community organizations, academics and private companies to advance an agenda that promotes community food security through both structural change and positive, collaborative initiatives. As an organization that has constantly battled for funding, FoodShare has also become a leader in the development of social enterprises, building and incubating numerous initiatives that not only supplement program income, but also advance food justice in the community.
A short list shows the breadth and diversity of the programs and social enterprises which set FoodShare apart as a leader in both urban agriculture and social justice: Good Food Box; Baby and Toddler Nutrition; Community Gardens; Field to Table Catering; Toronto Kitchen Incubator; Salad Bar Program; Healthy Lunch Program; Good Food Markets; Field to Table Schools; Good Food Café; Recipe for Change; and the Mobile Good Food Market. And this list contains none of the staggering number of community and municipal food initiatives in which FoodShare has played a critical, collaborative role over the years, from a beekeeping cooperative, to the Community Kitchen program and the Coalition for Student Nutrition.
FoodShare’s comprehensive approach to food in schools took shape in 1991, with their advocacy for universal student nutrition programs, and evolved into Field to Table Schools, a program that complements increased food access in schools with hands-on cooking, food literacy and curriculum development, runs workshops, events and growing projects and houses diverse training and nutrition projects including Baby and Toddler Nutrition, Fresh Produce Program for Schools, Good Food Café and the School Grown program.
When we were planning this program, my goal was that—when we go to the market—people would look at our produce, see this huge stack of rainbow radishes, or Easter egg radishes, or our peppers, and be drawn in to see the most incredible produce. And then, after, find out that it was grown by students at a school. As opposed to the opposite. So we definitely don’t want to be viewed as a charity. We want to be viewed as very professional, with the finest produce. That’s a bit of a shift from some school food gardens. —Justin Nadeau
Bendale Business and Technical Institute—the first School Grown market garden
In 2010, with the support of the principal and TDSB school superintendent, FoodShare helped to establish a market garden at the Bendale Business and Technical Institute in Scarborough. With four students and one FoodShare staff member working through the summer, they constructed the beds and set up a stand in front of the school, and another at a nearby intersection, selling garden produce from a wide variety of crops. In the second year, they expanded the first garden and added a second large garden behind the school—centerpieces of the school’s enhanced gardening program.
This project has proven mutually beneficial, making possible curriculum lessons taught in the gardens, culinary arts classes using fresh vegetables, space for growing seedlings in the school greenhouse, a demonstration aquaponics system in the green industries classroom—where the fish waste feeds greens and herbs grown on the water’s surface—and a summer market garden providing student jobs and experience, as well as revenue for FoodShare.
(Photo courtesy of Denise Bonin-Mount)
Eastdale Collegiate Institute—the first School Grown rooftop market garden
The Eastdale rooftop garden has the landmark power to help FoodShare promote their programs, as well as leverage existing funds. It is also a very unique site—there’s really no other school in the TDSB’s portfolio that looks like this. —Justin Nadeau
In 2011, the science teacher at Eastdale Collegiate—a beekeeper in his spare time—requested FoodShare beehives for the roof of the school. What the FoodShare team discovered on the roof was a 16,000 square foot, open terrace area with two very large staircases that led to the roof level. The terrace was surrounded by a ten foot high wall, a classroom, a washroom in disrepair, and a large covered area. The roof was built as instructional tennis courts for a Women’s vocational school in the 1960s.
(Photo courtesy of Denise Bonin-Mount)
Eastdale is on a parcel of land that is the longest-standing school site in Toronto. But it is a small site—less than 1.3 acres—which is why they used the roof’s surface to extend the space. Eastdale also has a very diverse student population, both culturally and in learning styles and capacities. Of the 109 high schools in the city, Eastdale is eighth on the Learning Opportunities Index, a list of schools with an identified need for external resources. Staff are drawn to the school because the school has a reputation of being a place where people care, and the staff are committed to ensuring that each class has its own interaction with the roof. The rooftop classroom is a modular space that can be set up for events, for class or for office space.
(Photo courtesy of Denise Bonin-Mount)
Partnership with the School Board
FoodShare began to work with the school and Toronto District School Board (TDSB), to formalize a partnership related to that site. Previous experience told them that it was important to clarify what was possible at the location, before submitting an application for a large capital grant to re-design the site. They worked slowly and steadily on the design for the space, an approach which led to a successful funding application—and site development capital funding—through the City of Toronto’s Live Green program.
In December 2012 the city indicated that the funds would be released as soon as a partnership agreement with the TDSB was in place. However, the school board was uncertain how to approach this partnership agreement. At the same time, the TDSB faced its own funding crunch, and was reluctant to commit to a project of this scale.
Any sort of major capital project at the TDSB is required to go through something called the Central Accommodations Team meeting. Toronto District School Board is the main public board in the region, and the largest in Canada, with over 500 school properties. It is a very full table when they have these meetings. The master planner of the school board brings together all of the main leaders within the school board, and each confirms that there are no conflicting plans for the space—such as a daycare, or a planned school closure! Once approved at the Central Accommodations Team meeting, the plan goes through a series of steps—including an operations council, an administration council, and an academic council. But persistence, the support of the school community, and the committed City funding convinced the TDSB to enter into a formal educational partnership.
Confirmation came at the end of June, 2013, and the entire site was installed in July. This rapid construction was the result of a combination of careful pre-planning and extensive sketches—of the site and every piece of infrastructure required—as well as a small but dedicated group of student employees. With ten youth to help—and lots of hard labor and building—the crew removed the existing refuse and remnants from the roof, and replaced it with a fully functional rooftop market garden. The site was officially launched on October 17, 2013, at an event hosting City counselors, Ministers of Parliament, and representatives from the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Child Youth Services.
The Social Enterprise Model
The focus was “let’s create an education centre that fits into our social enterprise options”. We are trying to grow enough food, and sell enough food to help with the staffing costs—to cover as much as possible the farm manager’s position. That’s the objective. So we’re not running a kid’s camp, we’re running a production farm. —Justin Nadeau
Since 2013, School Grown has operated as a social enterprise selling produce. Prior to that season, they concentrated on developing collaborative and trade relationships, while establishing the gardens, and in 2012 they sold $1,300 of produce. With a dedicated farmer, strong workforce, carefully designed crop planning, and a focus on high value crops, in 2013 they sold $14,500—a sizeable jump. While they grew peppers and one row of basil at Eastdale, the majority of their produce—and profits—came from Bendale, with the same amount of growing space. Their workforce—including 30 students a day in term, and ten full time summer students—learn and gain confidence quickly. This allows a focus on products that get a high return, but are avoided by many farmers because they are labour-intensive (e.g. cut greens). School Grown sells cut greens to restaurants for $10 / lb. Almost everything is grown at a marketable scale: this means they do not plant just one or two pepper plants, but 120—and not 16 different varieties of beans, but a balance between variety and having enough of each variety to take to market.
For four weeks in the fall of 2014, the students organized a teachers’ Harvest Share CSA. Logistically this was much simpler than organizing a lunchtime market and, since no travel is required, easy to expand. Marketing students went to classrooms with a sample basket, to recruit teachers. Horticulture and co-op students picked the vegetables, and the marketing students created recipe cards, and delivered the produce—and used the money to buy new computers. In coming years they plan to offer the program to teachers at the other school on site at Bendale.
For the 2013 season, the majority of the food they grew and sold came from Bendale, which also served as a home base for the full-time student employees, who only worked at Eastdale a couple of days per week. In 2014 the ten full-time students and two student supervisors were split equally between Eastdale and Bendale, selling produce at two local weekly markets. Despite some hard lessons at the new Eastdale site, the final sales figure for 2014 will reach approximately $18,000.
However, the social enterprise is not simply about production. At Eastdale, they have created a unique dual-purpose site, and plan to use that space both for production and as an event venue. The beds are all mobile and, using a pump truck, they can “library stack” them into a small space, and open up the center of the roof for a 150 person seating area for events. In 2014, the team added Dan’s Table Café, a special eating area constructed in memory of Dan DeMatteis, former chef at Café Belong in the Evergreen Brickworks. By day the site will host food literacy education programs with the school, and serve as a field trip destination for other schools. In the evenings, FoodShare hopes to raise money to support the program by hosting events.
Both schools use all of the seconds (sub-standard produce) from their gardens in the culinary programs, if possible. The culinary arts program at Eastdale has gone through a resurgence, and they are now preparing the meals for their school—160 students—every day. When FoodShare hosts groups, the culinary arts program is offered the catering job. They prepare and sometimes serve the food—giving practical experience to culinary and hospitality program students.
Katie German: Training to Farm for a Social Enterprise
School Grown coordinator Katie German trained as a high school teacher, and is certified to teach geography and political science. She also has experience in youth programming: at camps when she was younger and, after Teachers’ College, at FoodShare. There she ran a federally funded youth employment project, hiring youth who face systemic barriers to work in FoodShare’s kitchen and warehouse food distribution programs.
In 2012 she left the youth employment job to farm in Vancouver, where she did a full season apprenticeship with Sole Food (http://solefoodfarms.com). For the first three years Sole Food operated out of a quarter acre parking lot in the downtown Eastside, but expanded to 4 acres the year German apprenticed. The experience of building new urban farms, including four high tunnels, lots of low tunnels, and two acres of pallet boxes over a couple of weeks—all within the context of farming on parking lots—proved a relevant education. On top of a typical farm training that conveyed the importance of soils and irrigation, this training added a city-farming dimension that definitely made sense for the School Grown project; a lot of it was very transferable.
Access to water is very different in a rural place versus a former gas station. You are still dealing with how to access water, but the ways that you deal with it, the solutions, are going to be really different.
Sole Food is an employment project first and foremost. The majority of people work there because they need a job: the love of farming and the appreciation of growing food follows. German found that the ability to recognize where people are coming from, what they know, what they want to learn, and what they need to learn, transferred well to the School Grown program—because many of the students are there for a summer job, and not necessarily searching for farming experience.
Special Job Training
At Sole Food the majority of people working in the gardens live in the downtown East End—and many of the staff are also living with addictions, and working through their own recovery process. While the program was not explicitly designed for people with addictions, that was the reality. And while German was there simply as a farm apprentice, she also happened to have a background in youth training and social services—which she put to good use.
For the position, you’re there to help out. But once they found out I had that skill set… It’s like grant writing: once people find out you can write grants—I wrote a lot of grants for them. —Katie German
The two co-directors of Sole Food have complementary skill sets. One was a long time organic farmer and writer, while the other worked in jobs training and social enterprise in the downtown Eastside for many years. Together, they run a production farm that also pays attention to what supports people need, and their expectations.
In her current role as Coordinator of the School Grown program at FoodShare, German pulls on all of this experience—youth training and programming, as well as urban agriculture—to teach employability and skills training, but within the context of growing food, and running it like a business.
Justin Nadeau: Engineering a Career in Urban Agriculture
Justin Nadeau was educated as an engineer—a mix of civil engineering and geomatics—and while he had experience working with youth growing up, engineering was his career. He also had an interest in farming, but no experience. After WWOOFing for seven months in France, Greece, and Ireland with his wife, he returned determined to use food growing to build a career shift.
He volunteered at the YWCA and the YMCA, and then discovered a program where he could apply for staff funding for himself—through a youth employment program for Sustainable Jobs / Good Jobs. While this was just a fraction of a salary, it opened the side door at FoodShare, where they had written a few grants requiring a designer / builder, but did not have an employee with that skill set at the time.
On FoodShare’s community food team, Nadeau soon started to focus more on urban agriculture and aquaponics work and, for better or worse, became known as ‘the aquaponics guy’. But he found the best fit at FoodShare’s schools team, who had completed a number of smaller-scale educational gardens, and were just taking on the Bendale site. The team co-wrote a Trillium application to look at increasing production specifically at schools, and the relationships between—for example—marketing, literacy, finance, and numeracy. While they targeted schools with existing gardens, the team and the TDSB recognized the unique opportunity afforded by Eastdale.
At the Bendale market garden, the school board plans to amalgamate an academic high school (David Mary Thompson) and a vocational school (Bendale)—which currently share a huge campus—into one single high school. Bendale has a small population for the size of the building—which is why they are making these changes. Nadeau is sitting with the lead architect of the Board, and the architects who are taking the project on, and informing the decisions around the production side, since the school community demanded that a ‘farm’—as they called it—be a part of the new campus. In three years, the School Grown project has moved from “gardens by night” to having validity as a learning platform, and Nadeau now works for the TDSB in a new position with a portfolio that includes supporting market gardens!
Student / Employee Labour
Program coordinator and farmer Katie German does a lot of the farming: three days a week starting in April, then full time from May to October. However, during the academic year, students of the Green Industries program join her as part of their course time. Bendale has two streams in the specialist high skills major: food/culinary and green industries—the latter a combination of horticulture, agriculture, forestry. At both Bendale and Eastdale, the culinary class cooks the cafeteria lunches for staff and students.
(Photo courtesy of Denise Bonin-Mount)
The relatively small green industries class—approximately 20 students per grade—helps with practical needs: in the spring, prepping beds, planting peas, and turning the compost pile. German mainly works with one teacher who has three horticulture classes a day. In June and September the students are out three days a week, while in the winter they do more things inside.
At the same time, School Grown relies on students through a summer jobs program. The TDSB runs Focus on Youth, which provides minimum wage employment funding—from the Ministry of Education—for students over seven weeks, at 35 hours per week. In 2010 FoodShare applied to have four students work as ‘summer farmers’ at Bendale. Since then, it has grown to twelve: six at Bendale and six at Eastdale, with two spots reserved for returning student leaders. This workforce is the backbone of the School Grown program—helping them to accomplish their mission of education, food literacy training, and employment skills, while also providing the labor pool that enables high value crop production.
School Grown also secured Canada Summer Jobs money to hire two additional supervisors for July and August, so that the 12 students could be split between the markets and the farm sites. During the seven weeks, students work mostly 8-3, seeding, weeding, harvesting, prepping beds, and enjoying field trips and cooking classes. When selling at the market, they learn the entire process: packing the van, setting up, merchandising, running the stall, and handling the money. The Ministry of Education, facilitated by the school board, pays all of their wages: the students are not on a FoodShare payroll, but German acts as supervisor, doing initial paperwork as well as TDSB training. On top of this, the School Grown student employees do group building and farm specific training.
For these students it’s a job—which is interesting, because some students I worked with the whole year, and then you work with them as a job and it’s very different. Same space, same people, different relationship. —Katie German
For German, the most obvious difference between students and employees is attendance and punctuality. During the 2013 school year, some students were less than punctual. And yet for seven weeks, all 10 of her students, as employees, did not miss a single day, and were never late—a fact that surprised the staffs at both Eastdale and Bendale. The students indicated that they were motivated in part by the fact that they were getting paid for their time, but also because they liked being there, and felt that they were needed. This motivation comes partly from the sense of community that School Grown has built, but also from the fact that the students are integral to both the program and market’s success—and knowing that was important for a lot of the students, who hadn’t experienced that anywhere before.
The School Grown program also receives many student interns, interested in production and urban farming skills. Often these types of internships—on organic farms—are a full-time, full season commitment outside the city, and many people simply cannot do that. In 2013, two interns from the education faculty at the University of Toronto helped facilitate the development of a composting program at both schools. Another from the University of Toronto Public Health prepared menus for the weekly cooking classes—based on what the students wanted, but also on what was growing. These interns got credit—as part of their course time. Two others volunteered for apprentice-farmer positions—to help with production and to learn urban farming. One volunteer answered a position that was posted as an internship, while the other walked into their offices. The student interns are very keen, and approach FoodShare very early—for the following summer.
The Eastdale Rooftop
At Eastdale, because it was built for rooftop tennis instruction, the loading met modern code for a green roof space. A previous project—a small 2000 ft.² terrace—absorbed a significant cost to resurface the roof and put up a guardrail. Without a pre-existing structure viable for rooftop construction, it would be impossible to justify the capital investment required to bring a site the scale of Eastdale to meet the building codes.
Modular Raised Beds
Inspired by Sole Food, they constructed a modular design of raised beds using a standard pallet collar from the shipping industry.
The real work was designing something that would last longer than one year—and perhaps for as long as five or 10 years. The wood that comes with pallet collars is single-use, and falls apart fairly quickly. They purchased high-quality, thermally modified lumber that was kiln dried to 0% moisture—eliminating the sugars and cells that would rot—and then injected with moisture in a controlled way. This makes the wood more beautiful, slightly more brittle, but also gives it a 30-year lifespan. Their design includes a recycled plastic pallet as the base, and acting as a subfloor for drainage; a double layer of weed cloth on the pallet, stapled to the side; and the kiln-dried lumber on top. (See the video in the Online Resources section).
All of the modular raised beds at Eastdale were brought up to the roof whole: nothing was built on site. In order to afford raised beds on this scale, FoodShare does all of the building. To avoid insurance or safety issues that arise when building on-site, Justin and James Davis—another Field to Table Schools staff member who works on school garden projects—and a few volunteers built all of the raised beds at the Brockton TDSB site, which has a woodworking shop in the basement.
In early 2014 FoodShare raised over $20,000 on 229 donations in an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign (See the Online Resources section). They used the money to buy a new van and ‘bionic’ cargo bike with bike trailer, to transport their School Grown produce to the Wednesday market, and to some restaurants.
At the end of the 2014 season, FoodShare bought an automated irrigation system, which will be installed on the roof at Eastdale in the spring of 2015. The money for this purchase is part of the original Live Green capital budget. This will provide a more constant and less labour-intensive source of water for the site. The Bendale site has hose connection points in front and back, providing access to water without going into the school.
Soil purchases at both sites were part of their first-year funding. Bendale’s triple mix soil came through climate change action and education funding. Bendale was built on solid ground—former farmland. The growing sites are in-ground, with good soil contained in only slightly raised beds. The Board wanted clear boundaries between the garden and where people walk—so the beds were a compromise between production and student traffic. At Eastdale, the TDSB paid $18,000 for engineered soil. It took 2 ½ days to blow 155 cubic yards—approximately 155 tons—of soil from trucks in the parking lot, up a hose to the rooftop.
FoodShare also has a strong composting program, with a master-composter who produces tons of compost at FoodShare, which they work it into the beds. Any soil amendments are paid for through sales—part of the cost of production.
Seeds / Seedlings
Bendale has a small greenhouse, with space to grow seedlings, and while the School Grown program produced some of their own seedlings in the past, efforts were not consistent until 2013. With German’s input and guidance, they grew all of their own seedlings where they were going to be planted, including peppers and cucumbers at Eastdale, where science students started seeds in their classroom. The students at Bendale did many trays of tomatoes and other seedlings, as well as summer seedlings for fall production. In 2013 they had extra tomato seedlings in the spring, which were sold at the market. In 2014 they intentionally produced extra seedlings for sale, to make use of the greenhouse space at FoodShare—which is very under-utilized—and take advantage of the early spring market, when they do not have as many for crops for sale. In 2014 James also put together a little snap-to greenhouse with the students at Eastdale. They also use a small grow-hut for seedlings, donated by the Science department.
The first year at Bendale was entirely funded as a climate change action and education project. At Eastdale, School Grown received site development capital funding from the City of Toronto’s Live Green program, and teamed this with an on-going Trillium grant called The Whole Nine Yards. The latter is a 4-year program focused on making school grounds more productive, and finding the systems to help the gardens and indoor growing projects become self-sustaining—either through formalized selling at a market, or within a school, or both. That program allowed many of these projects—including Bendale, Brock Public School, and Eastdale—to increase in scale.
The Whole Nine Yards provided funding for Nadeau’s staff cost—to come up with the concept, design, and eventually build Eastdale. The Trillium funding is a large part of this Live Green project because—in Nadeau’s experience—capital grants never include enough staff funding to complete a project.
Counselling Foundation of Canada works with employment counsellors, and have funded FoodShare’s youth employment programs in the past—and over the next three years will pay half of German’s salary to document FoodShare’s approach and lessons learnt, and to write a manual or handbook about what is replicable and scalable. Part of this funding covers documenting and sharing—crop plans, and lessons—through videos, webinars, and other means.
The other half of German’s salary is a mishmash—money from Slow Food Toronto ($3,000) or a fundraising dinner ($1,500). By raising funds through market sales of School Grown produce, FoodShare hopes to rely less on these much needed and appreciated—but time-consuming—funding sources for their core program costs.
In 2013, from January to November it cost $50,000 to run the whole School Grown project—including the money for German, the Canada Summer Job student manager, and the money for the student programming. The Ministry of Education provided $20,000 for the students’ wages, Canada Summer Jobs paid $4000, and then FoodShare chipped away with other sources of funding. While the program covered its costs, they are still assessing internally what that means. Many of those costs were paid out through other funding sources (Whole 9 Yards, Trillium), which makes the calculations for the following year’s money—where it comes from, and into which account it goes—all the more complex. And that $50,000 does not include Eastdale, because it was a separate capital project, and in 2013 it did not actually make much money.
FoodShare is always on the hunt for ways to pay for staffing costs. The Field to Table Schools team has five staff, and each year they fund themselves through a patchwork of over 30 grants. The program recently received the Toronto Community Foundation Vital Ideas award of $30,000 plus KPMG business support, which includes business plan development, and assistance identifying and articulating returns on investment. Alterna Savings contributed $5,000 for programming—cooking classes and workshops. They have also recently received Ministry of Education funding to promote healthy eating in secondary schools, for a project creating mobile school carts, but also to pay wages for students hired to manage the compost, and work before and after school at both Bendale and Eastdale.
Each one of these grants comes with different deliverables and different objectives. As a result, this is not a simple model to describe or communicate to other community initiatives that are looking to identify the resources required to initiate and sustain similar programming. “First, make yourself just like FoodShare”.
The Well-connected Chef
When I would make deliveries, the chef there—Oliver—would make me go into the kitchen, he would make everyone stop, and he would hold up fistfuls of arugula and say “Tell them about this! Where does it come from? How do you grow it? What does it taste like?” … It was very much a farmer and chef connection. —Katie German
In the winter of 2012, School Grown coordinators met with Chef John Higgins, the Director of the Chef’s School and Chef’s House restaurant at George Brown College, which sees a high volume—and makes a different menu—every day. They showed him pictures of the Eastdale rooftop design and students, and told him the story—and he decided to buy whatever School Grown has for sale. There is a natural complementarity in a partnership between School Grown—training students to be farmers—and Chef’s House, training students to be chefs.
In 2014, the School Grown students were treated to a staff lunch at Chef’s House. All had a three-course meal, each dish including School Grown produce. They were also taken on a tour of the campus—for many, their first experience at College.
In 2013 and 2014, the majority of School Grown sales were at the East Lynn Park farmers market. The farmers market is medium-sized, and in the East End—close to the subway station, important for the students, and with a lot of community support. East Lynn Park is a My Pick market—which means Farmer’s Markets Ontario certifies each of the vendors through their My Pick program, and each pays $600 to sell at the market. This certification has been a challenge for many urban farms—since the registration forms are set up for rural farms—but once School Grown became a My Pick farmer, the venue and program became a co-marketing asset.
School Grown also added a second market for the seven weeks of summer employ-ment. The students learn the most transferrable job skills at the market—so selling at two markets a week means each student has more opportunities to work a market shift. In 2014, School Grown sold at Fairmount Market, which was close enough to Eastdale to bring all of their produce and supplies to the market by bike. As well, Lazy Daisy café—situated between Eastdale and the farmers market—takes a mix of greens every week, and pays in cash—a perfect low energy, low maintenance customer.
Since they have no control over how many customers come to their market stands, in 2015 they hope to encourage their existing customers to spend more by increasing the number of products, and adding variety.
Resources Needed to Sustain the Project
All of the money that School Grown makes from production pays for youth employment and programming. Along with the Counselling Foundation of Canada funding, School Grown would like to secure funding to allow students to come back and work in leadership positions for the summer program. In a pilot in 2014, two students returned as leaders. One has since graduated, and works three days per week with School Grown. Ideally, funding would provide a means of keeping students involved, and growing with the project. Another possibility involves creating an annual winter position for a student to conduct program review and curriculum development for the farm.
They are also looking to get some funding to put in a shipping container—a ground-level storage space, with a pop-up market, roll-up sides, and windows that open on the side. That would solve an access problem at Eastdale, where students and staff often come back from the market late at night. A designated entrance for the School Grown Rooftop—through the rear stairwell—would also improve access, as would an elevator to the roof level. Many other improvements to the roof area are planned—including renovating the multiple person washrooms, adding a glassed shelter to the covered area, and installing a full-sized teaching kitchen and student-run Café.
Future Community Connections
Eastdale’s School Grown Rooftop was funded and built by FoodShare, with buy-in from the City and the school board, and will continue to serve as a platform to bring in community partners. The connection with George Brown College’s culinary program will grow, as will connections with other community partners—including health agencies and art collectives.
They will also collaborate more with other schools. Field to Table Schools facilitates workshops on the food system for students and teachers—which happen either in their classroom or at FoodShare—and can now happen at Eastdale, where there is a classroom on the roof level.
Black Creek Community Farm is an example of the next scale up in production, and in the design phase, Katie German put together the School Grown farm plan with support from Everdale—the lead organization in the Community Farm. School Grown anticipates future collaboration—the School Grown students did a tour and workday at the Community Farm, and some are hoping to apply for jobs in the coming growing season, after finishing a summer with School Grown.
We’re trying to figure out how you can take a site that’s very attractive, that also is a very effective platform for programming, and use that to help to sustain that program better. —Justin Nadeau
Eastdale has the landmark power to help FoodShare promote their programs and leverage existing funds to build even further. A teaching kitchen on the roof at Eastdale would be another very ambitious project, but at the rooftop launch, many within the school boards expressed interest in providing the funds for such a project.
Other changes will come from enlarging the site, refining the production, adding a few more features of a social enterprise, and having that feed back into staffing costs. They can also take advantage of connections (e.g. Chef’s House) to host fundraising dinners that are low input, high return—delivering the equivalent of 200 hours of labor costs, for 20 hours of work.
By leveraging the promise and cachet of the site, School Grown looks to place—and maintain—a full-time educator and farm manager on-site at Eastdale. After increasing into a whole new scale—of production, style, technique, and also staffing—FoodShare faces the challenge of refining their model to account for and properly compensate their farmer for the time that a farmer needs to farm.
They have plans for a large covered area on the rooftop that would allow them to grow—and teach—all winter long, as well as a kitchen, and washing station. It is a matter of demonstrating and finding support within the school board—from those who see the value in this—and seeking external funds if necessary.
It’s an opportunity to create a unique space within the school and the school board, working with the culinary program to encourage students to eat their meals on the roof, create a sense of pride within their school—and change the perception of Eastdale in the minds of students and the broader community.
Value-Added Production and Sales
Bees are definitely another of their future plans. Schools are a tricky location to introduce bees, but for now they are pursuing the possibility of maintaining hives off of school property that students could visit on field trips. Since German has beekeeping experience—and the science teacher at Eastdale has decades of beekeeping experience—honey is one potential value-added product for School Grown that would have significant financial return. The certified kitchens in the schools and at FoodShare are important assets that allow the students to preserve hot sauce, dill products and green tomato chutney. Bernardin—a long-standing supporter and sponsor of FoodShare—occasionally supplies jars for free, which is always helpful.
If this was just about money, we would just sell cut greens to restaurants. But that would be boring, and the students wouldn’t learn as much. So, it’s a balance between a variety of produce, so that the students interact with as many types of growing as possible—things that vine, things that are bushy, things that you trellis, things that they eat and that they recognize—a balance between that programming / learning piece and choices that support the economic requirements of the project.
The School Grown market program focuses on growing produce of a higher value, more densely and more frequently, making use of shoulder seasons and multiple sowings, doing less of the things that don’t result in a high return—but, at the same time, keeping a diverse market garden and market stand. This means doing things at a scale that makes it marketable, and having a steady supply of something: planting 100 pepper plants, rather than 10—as a demonstration—that they could not sell to a restaurant or at a market. They use the same rationales for deciding which things will be cut from the garden for next season, because they did not grow enough to make sense.
Another big challenge is that most nonprofits run on a 9-to-5, 37.5 hours per week schedule and payment structure. While there is some flexibility available using lieu time, after a farming season of long work hours, internally they are still trying to work out 1) how to achieve balance in a program that has both social needs as well as farming needs, and 2) how to cover the staffing requirements, and pay as close as possible to a livable wage in a city like Toronto. This is the purpose behind the move toward a social enterprise model for School Grown.
Eastdale is in a very dense urban area, with not much property to work with. Since the roof can only be accessed through school, they are still working through how and when they can access the space. Bendale is in Scarborough—one of the original suburbs of Toronto—and on a piece of property where three schools share between over 33 acres. In two or three years, the physical space that FoodShare is using at Bendale will all be gone, when the campus is rebuilt to balance the changing needs of the schools. However, the plan is to replace the current gardens with twice as much land, and a much more efficient farm. Ideally they would double—or more—the lot size in the new Bendale configuration, which means that they will be able to produce more and sell more, but at the same staffing levels.
Since the lot size—the roof—at Eastdale is fixed, the new Bendale site offers the only means of increasing the scale of operations without adding another growing site, and potentially over-stretching staffing and budgets, as every site with youth requires a site manager.
Successes and Challenges Overcome
Ramping up production means ramping up opportunities for you to fail. We probably have a list about 10 points deep—what we wouldn’t grow, how we would refine production. —Justin Nadeau
From a production perspective, the program staff learnt a lot about choosing crops, matching crops to location and microclimate, timing plantings, the appropriate density of seedlings for a given space, and where to start the seedlings. For example, the seedlings could only be started in a school where the team would have constant access, for watering purposes.
At the same time, they experiment to test the limits of the growing site and to understand market potential. They have also planted dwarf fruit trees—peach, cherry, and quince—to understand what will grow on a rooftop. Similarly, they have planted 92 blueberry bushes in raised beds, treated the soil to be more acidic, and are looking for plants that will thrive in this acidic soil.
The rooftop is hot and dry, so while others had difficulty producing peppers in 2013 because of frequent cold summer conditions, on the rooftop they produced the nicest peppers (and basil) at the market. But in the same conditions the beans were shocked, and never made it.
In 2014, the main problems in the first full season at Eastdale were learning how to adapt to the soil, and how to find an appropriate balance with irrigation. As mentioned earlier, FoodShare bought an automated irrigation system in late 2014. This will combat the naturally hot and windy conditions on the roof. The system will also allow for fertigation—automatic injections of compost tea. In 2014 they applied compost tea via foliar feed, but manual application runs the risk of losing out to other priorities, whereas in the irrigation system, it will happen automatically.
In 2014, the peppers and strawberries thrived in the hot, dry rooftop conditions, and the tomatoes produced an acceptable crop. German moved crops that suffered from flea beetle from Bendale to Eastdale, but the pest found its way onto the rooftop. The good news: in 2014, they learned many lessons about what does not work. Next year, they expect to increase sales by building from those lessons.
They also built low tunnel frames for the modular raised beds, but it is very windy on the rooftop, and the first attempt—in the fall of 2013—failed for lack of proper fasteners to hold down the plastic tunnels. With proper clips, they have been able to extend the season with row covers and low poly tunnels.
Farmers Market Lessons
In 2013, the School Grown project looked for a second farmers market. While there were a few weekend markets that they felt they could sell well at—given their story, and the quality of their produce—they decided to avoid asking the students to work weekends, and paying for a permit to access the school buildings on the weekends—to access the fridges with their produce. This limited them to weekday, East End, public transit-accessible spaces. For a while in 2013, they sold at one market that was costing more money to go to it than they made. However, they were quick to recognize the fact that the second market was not going to work, and come up with a different plan. They also recognized that they put a lot of research into the first market—who was going to be there, what type of attendance it had—and then added the second without as much care. That second market was not as well managed—a lack of advertising meant poor patron attendance, and many of the vendors stopped coming. In three weeks, the number of vendors dropped from twelve to four. In 2014, they added a second market—Fairmount Park—that was well managed and had plenty of community presence. Research in market selection can make all the difference.
The School Grown program could also improve and expand credit options for students. Currently, students can either participate as part of their coursework or—in the summer—opt into a two-credit co-op. In 2013, three of 10 students got two credits alongside their paid, full-time summer job. In 2014, four students received co-op credits. They are developing other ways to give more specific credits during the fall and spring—for example, they added a full day four credit co-op in the fall of 2014, and took on two full time co-op students at Bendale, who work one day a week at the compost program, and manage the farmers market, with the part-time graduate.
Eastdale has also added a new Seed to Market course combining Environmental Science and Media, which has 15 students enrolled—a large class size for Eastdale. The students receive credit for maintaining the garden, crop trials, experiments, new techniques with seeds, and then documenting the experience. The course involves field trips—to Black Creek Community Farm, for example—where they learn about urban agriculture.
For high school students, the paid work is important—and will always be a key piece of the production gardens—but the other currencies for high school students are credits and volunteer hours. School Grown offers both, and in 2014 developed the Seed to Market combined Environmental Science and Media course at Eastdale. They would like to find other interesting ways to work with the schools and teachers to strategically develop course and credit options that complement student needs and requirements.
In 2014 they also developed a graduated system for returning students, with a leadership program. In their second summer, two students were hired as leadership staff, running the processing tent, along with other responsibilities. According to German, this second level serves two ends: not only do students start as learners and end as leaders, but the development portion fills a current void in the program. Many students loved it—and then it just ended. For those who find they are doing well in the program, this option provides them a way to stay connected.
Relevance to Other Projects
While their flagship site at Eastdale is unique, its success has shown that even the most challenging food production sites have promise—and that the same design could easily be built at ground level, in a tennis court or parking lot. While the latter may offer challenges for water or other utilities, in many ways—including delivery of soil and raised beds—ground-level construction would be much simpler.
With their experience, School Grown staff can now professionally consult on projects to help others get started—by identifying assets, selecting potential funding sources, or designing their sites. They now have schools coming to them, applying for grants that enable School Grown staff to use their skill set and experience to design and build the production site, which the school then operates—so that it is not a FoodShare project. For example, James helped in the construction of a terrace rooftop at Queen Victoria Public School, through the Live Green grant, as a paid consultant. These consultations have extended beyond schools. While they were reluctant to consult on projects that did not involve schools and children, an eager staff member at a long-term care facility purchased a consultation in their 2014 Indiegogo campaign. Others have asked them to come to their cities to share what they do.
While it is a fine balance to extend the consulting activities without taking away from their school-focused programs, at the same time their consultation fees help to provide funds that supplement those same programs. This would allow School Grown to grow without requiring more staff time, or increasing the number of project sites.
Developers with an interest in creating rooftop Farms have also consulted with them to explore challenges and benefits—including how to turn food waste into both compost and reduced tipping fees. For Nadeau, these conversations have suggested interesting options for private sector viability: “If you replace the rooftop pool with a rooftop farm, do the condo fees go to compost and a farmer—instead of chlorine and pool cleaner?”
These conversations link the School Grown program to societal debates over the viability and efficacy of urban agriculture—and for Project SOIL partners, to questions over the viability of institutional food production programs. Through important relationships with school board leaders, a careful balance of program staff and students, and a diverse set of supplemental funds, FoodShare continues to develop a program that not only serves important institutional goals—including experiential education, food literacy and skills training—but also produces large quantities of fresh food on site, and much needed sales to supplement program funding.
It is clear that support at the board level is critical to their success, which begs the counterintuitive question whether these types of initiatives are more likely to succeed when initiated by organizations external to the public school board. While it is easy to find numerous examples—across the province—of school gardens at private and Catholic Board schools, the typical response to similar initiatives at public boards has been obstruction. Notable exceptions include Canadian Organic Growers’ Growing Up Organic program—with over 30 school gardens in the Ottawa area—and FoodShare’s School Grown, in partnership with the TDSB.
An external organization as partner addresses one of the most commonly identified issues to plague school gardens: the lack of a reliable workforce in the summer months, when the gardens need the most attention. In fact, as Nadeau suggests, this problem will resonate for most institutions: “It’s one thing to set up a really nice space, but then how do you link that space to a program or a person wanting to farm?”
That is, while numerous benefits to on-site production may be evident, lack of dedicated staff and/or experience may dissuade many advocates at institutions across the province. FoodShare has shown that creative partnerships with external organizations may allow institutions to experiment with food production, establish revenue-generating projects with diverse benefits, and plow hypothetical fields for School Grown program graduates.
FoodShare Indiegogo Transportation Crowdsourcing Campaign:
Sole Food Street Farms: http://solefoodfarms.com
FoodShare’s School Grown Program: http://www.foodshare.net/schoolgrown
The Construction of the School Growh Rooftop: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_CYgrEXASqQ