InsideToronto Article: West Humber students grow food for the hungry

West Humber students grow food for the hungry

Raising veggies after classes grows new skills for students, bounty for local food bank
The Farm’ at West Humber Collegiate is growing a whole new breed of farmers – socially and nutritionally conscious high school students.

Sitesh Patel is among some 20 West Humber students who take time after school to tend to the corn (nibbled by roaming deer), tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, beets, pumpkins and a dozen other organically grown produce in the new schoolyard garden, nicknamed ‘The Farm.’

Callaloo, a leafy green, is especially popular among the neighbourhood’s Caribbean community.

West Humber’s harvest is delivered twice a week to neighbouring Thistletown Food Bank in Jamestown. Produce from a similar garden at Sir Sandford Fleming Academy goes to North York’s Second Harvest Food Bank.

“It’s very good. Clients like the fresh vegetables,” said Eda Black, assistant coordinator with the Jamestown Crescent food bank, noting there is also a desperate need for donations of baby formula, diapers and peanut butter.

New clients flood the food bank weekly in the wake of the economic downturn, Black reported.

“There are so many new people,” she said. “Some people come and cry on our shoulders. They’ve never been to a food bank before. The economy is so bad.”

West Humber created a second garden for nearby Youth Without Shelter, a north Etobicoke-based emergency residence and referral agency for homeless youth ages 16 to 24.

Recently, teachers acquired and installed a greenhouse in the garden.

Patel is learning some green thumb tips he now imparts to his father, whose garden the Grade 10 student regularly helps tend at home.

“I think it’s great. It’s a lot of fun,” said Patel, 15. “We get to plant different things, learn new skills, meet different people. It’s also very good that we’re helping out the community.”

The urban garden is part of Grow to Learn. It took root at West Humber in north Etobicoke, as well as at Fleming in Toronto’s Lawrence Heights neighbourhood this past spring.

PACT established the program. The charity develops and delivers youth crime prevention programs.

Initially, PACT worked with the courts offering community service programs for youth who had had run-ins with the law. PACT has since expanded the program to help neighbourhood youth find a passion.

“The best prevention is getting youth early to ignite a passion and lead to higher education or employment opportunities,” David Lockett, PACT co-founder and volunteer president said in a statement. “Youth need to be channeled into skills-based community programs and given a chance to find that stepping-stone path to their futures.”

In the future, PACT hopes to open the West Humber and Fleming gardens to the community said Eric Payseur, PACT’s urban agricultural director, who also heads the West Humber project.

“It’s part of a larger movement to get vacant land at schools used for a public benefit – food,” he said of the urban garden project. “It teaches kids, ‘We can help take control of our neighbourhood and our community.’ We provide a safe place away from home. It’s giving youth and the community ownership in this.”

West Humber principal Naeem Siddiq said ‘The Farm’ is a good fit for his students, who already benefit from a year-old vegetable program. On lunch hours, teachers and student volunteers cut up carrots and celery, seal them in baggies, and make them available to students free-of-charge.

“We’ve heard enough naysaying,” said Siddiq, noting some unfairly feared students would vandalize the garden. “When it does work, kids get a sense of pride and accomplishment. These kids are the best behaved and most polite of any school I’ve ever worked in. Once kids come here, they want to stay. There’s an assumption it’s unsafe, there are issues, but it’s quite the opposite. Those are negative stereotypes we need to challenge.”

PACT helped with funding to pay three students to prepare the garden this past summer. PACT’s Payseur said Toronto District School Board officials are investigating the opportunity to make the gardens into cooperative education programs to allow students to earn credits.

Next year, PACT intends to expand the program to 10 more schools.

Gideon Adjei, five, joined his West Humber-run preschool friends and planted carrots and made two colourful scarecrows for the garden.

“I planted carrots and saw sunflower seeds and peas,” he said.