A garden runs through it

By Jennifer Bain – Food Editor

How does a garden grow?

At Westview Centennial Secondary School, it grows when the dreams of adults and the green work of students align.

Westview’s garden isn’t much to look at, just rows of dirt being seeded. There’s a greenhouse, too, full of staff plants ending their winter stay, and seedlings awaiting their move to the garden.

In this garden you’ll find people like Apollo Moo. He is 16, a Karen refugee from a farming culture in Burma.

Three Karen families (19 people) tended to this garden last summer and fed themselves from the harvest.

Moo greets my questions with teenaged nonchalance.

What did they plant?

Zucchini, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, long beans and chilies. Moo’s face lights up at the memory of the chilies.

What did they do with the harvest?

“We just cook it.”

Moo, with the help of translator Paw Wah, grows animated when describing a Karen rice and vegetable dish called dakabaw.

Okay, so how does Moo’s family get by when there isn’t a garden?

“We buy from the Chinatown store — same taste.”

Where Moo is nonchalant, Naima Hassan is brash.

She’s 14 and part of EcoSchools, an environmental club that now helps with the garden and greenhouse.

Hassan can’t wait to recycle, but does not like her veggies.

“I hate everything in there,” she says of the greenhouse. “They come from roots and you eat it. That’s disgusting.”

At home, Hassan eats oranges and apples, “pasta 24/7,” rice “not so much” and junk food (as snacks, not meals).

Doesn’t she love the vegetables she is nurturing?

“Maybe the carrots. I feel love for it, but I just don’t do it.”

Fellow EcoSchools member Shaquel Miller, also 14, is more tolerant of the vegetable kingdom.

“It’s pretty good for me, as long as I’ve got dressing on the side. Ranch — it’s the best.”

Westview, by the way, is in the Jane-Finch corridor. That’s code for poverty, violence and hunger to most Torontonians, who only read about the “at-risk/priority” neighbourhood.

Principal Paul Edwards had that picture, too, when he was transferred from downtown’s Central Technical School in September. He found significant social issues, of course, but much more.

This is a public school where students wear uniforms (black slacks, white or green shirts). This is a school where parents, many of them immigrants and refugees from countries including Somalia, Jamaica and Afghanistan, demand the best for their kids.

What greets me as I walk the halls is not police (“community resource officers”) but a dozen fallen watermelon chunks, scattered on the hall floor. Westview’s nutrition program hands out a free and healthy breakfast, mid-morning snacks, as well as lunch and afternoon snacks.

Edwards arrived at a school keen to recycle, a greenhouse begging to be revived, the remnants of a garden, students needing community service hours to graduate, and green-minded teachers. He will relaunch a horticultural course in September.

“I know this sounds staged,” says Edwards, “but it’s real school-community relations in a major piece of life — creating food.”

Until now, Westview’s modest garden was driven by Qudsia Ahmad. She teaches students who grew up in refugee camps or war-torn countries and didn’t get to go to school.

A botanist, it has been her “personal passion” for nine years to scrape together seeds and soil and work with her students in the greenhouse and garden. The garden always withered in July and August, its bounty wasted. That changed last summer when Ahmad turned it over to the Karen families.

This year a charity called PACT Urban Peace Program offered support and helped the school land a $2,000 grant for seeds and tools.

PACT is the final element that makes this school garden grow. It has a Grow to Learn program with gardens in five high schools, one middle school and a 15,000-square-foot community urban farm. It expects to grow 16,000 kilograms of organic produce this year for students, community events and food banks.

“The cheapest food is food you can grow yourself,” says PACT’s urban agriculture director Eric Payseur. “The healthiest food is food you can grow yourself.”

Payseur can talk endlessly about food security, organic farming and his belief that biodiversity should be as hot a school topic as cultural diversity. He wants “25 more groups” like PACT, FoodShare and Green Thumb Growing Kids tackling gardens.

He is proud that gardens like this one fulfill five out of six of the city’s new directions for food system renewal. It helps grow a food-friendly neighbourhood, makes food a centerpiece of the new green economy, eliminates hunger, empowers residents with food skills, and connects the city and countryside through food. The only thing it doesn’t do — yet — is tackle food policy at the municipal level.

If the student gardeners’ eyes glaze over at all this big-picture talk, may they glaze while they stuff their faces with vegetables.