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Food + Schools: The results from a UBC-led four-year experiment in sustainability and experiential learning indicates that the sum of the parts is much greater than the whole.

EACH YEAR ROUGHLY two billion people are overfed and two billion are underfed by a global food system that is making measurable impacts upon our planet's atmospheric and oceanic chemistry. Though they may be planetary in scale, many of the fundamental problems of our global food system express themselves locally each day in the places we live. Food goes to waste in one family's refrigerator, while next door another family passes the night in hunger. Outside our local waterways are contaminated by agricultural run-off while our local fish, bird and bee populations dwindle. In food there is a very real opportunity to confront the macrocosm of the global food system with the microcosm of our daily lives. In this way, food is a profound learning tool.

The Think&EatGreen@School [TEGS] is a large community-university research collaboration between the University of British Columbia, the Vancouver School Board, and dozens of community organizations. TEGS seeks to understand how we can collectively impact change in the way children think and eat at school. The program's intention is not just to change how students eat, but to transform what they learn and how they learn about food and environment. As a partnership involving two large institutions of education, TEGS is unique in its focus on a direct lived experience of whole food systems. It aims to give everyone an opportunity to lead change and experience the entire food cycle with hands in the soil, in the kitchen, and in the compost.

This article describes the annual multi-day professional development gathering--the Think and Eat Green Institute. The Institute convenes educators, parents, students, urban farmers, chefs, community gardeners, food advocates and scholars to understand the entire food cycle with a large community of learners.

Think and Eat Green Institutes experientially combine the multiple facets of school food systems into an integrated whole. More than a conference, the Institute aims to create space for collaborative research into the ways we can collaboratively transform Vancouver's school food system. During each Institute, participants have ample opportunity to plant, harvest and compost in a food garden. There is always cooking, sharing and celebrating food using products from the garden, and then reflect on key learnings and how to apply them in the particular contexts of each school. Each Institute is organized over two to three full days.

Academics organizing

While the Think and Eat Green Institutes were originally started by academics, a diverse group of community organizations participate as mentors, co-designers and facilitators. Many of TEGS partners come from community-based organizations who work to support food systems integration in classrooms and schoolyards. These partners bring invaluable insights and experiences about individual, on-the-ground needs to the evolving design of each Institute. Partners from public health agencies and the Vancouver School Board's administrative offices provide connection to and insight on the institutional contexts TEGS seeks to engage. This makes the Institute relevant to those interested in promoting school food system change. Urban farmers, chefs, community gardeners, and scholars bring their own unique insights and experiences, helping us ensure that regionally appropriate contexts, skills and knowledge are included. This diverse and talented community is held in high esteem by our project's academic leadership, and our diverse partners play a key role in co-designing and facilitating every Institute.

The Institute continues to develop and evolve as a forum for multi-stakeholder collaboration and sharing. Participants sense that "there is a community here and I belong." By connecting educators, parents, students and community partners in a shared experience of the entire food cycle, an integrative system of co-learners emerges. In an integrative, holistic view, the school food system becomes a microcosm of the globalized food system. By actively living the food cycle together, we all experience ourselves as actors imbedded in this system, each with our own strengths and dependencies upon one-another.

Living the whole food cycle

Alongside hands-on experiences of the entire food cycle, TEGS roots individual participants in the reality of their own personal lives. Participants touch on each of four integral learning steps:

* Our memories--We share personal stories of our unique experiences with the school food system--where we have come from, what we know about food and its relationships to health and environment.

* Reality (of the food system) as "it is" as depicted in scholarly literature and compared to our own experiences of the food system.

* Dreams and utopian vision of reality as it "ought to be". What is our vision of an ideal healthy, sustainable school food system?

* We identify the realm of potential action for change. We find the shared visions--the common points in the collective dream--and leverage these to create the world we want.

During each Institute, participants reflect and share their own personal memories and experiences, set individual and group intentions, discuss current realities, and begin to work together to create a shared vision for themselves and the Vancouver school food system. Each Institute also enables participants to touch, taste and feel a microcosm of a healthy local food system. The venue of each Institute was chosen to provide contact with seeds, with soil, with diverse and lush food gardens within an educational institution; various technologies and kitchens were used to process and cook foods, some of which we had harvested ourselves that day. All waste was returned to compost systems that we physically dug around in, to help recycle nutrients back into the soil that grew our food. It all happened in a local educational institution (at UBC in the first three years and at a Vancouver Secondary school in the fourth year).

Key achievements so far

The four Institutes sought to find collaborative solutions to help increase knowledge of and understanding about the connections between food, health and the environment. Each Institute offered a combination of meetings, streamed workshops and activities relevant to both elementary and secondary schools and curricula. Workshops and activities focused on different components of the school food system, including: food gardens and orchards; composting and waste management; food procurement, preparation and consumption; curriculum and pedagogical innovations; and school food policies. The Institutes have had several key achievements during their first four years of delivery, including:

[check] Heightened educator and student knowledge and confidence in participating in school food system change;

[check] Created a means to highlight and share educator and student leadership success stories;

[check] Each Institute engaged more than 100 people in hands-on learning in the garden and kitchen, with opportunities to harvest, eat and compost high quality local food; Provided a forum for multiple stakeholders of the food system in schools to discuss the connections between food, health and the environment across the food system in schools;

[check] Increased the capacity of individual school teams to build relationships within the Think&EatGreen@School project. In turn, this helped increase school food systems activities throughout the school year;

[check] Exposed key challenges and opportunities in creating school food system change;

[check] Established the legitimacy and efficacy of the Think&EatGreen@ School research project among a broad network of stakeholders while creating a compelling reason for it to continue.

The road forward

While overwhelmingly successful as a forum for deepening skills and experiences to help promote healthy, sustainable school food systems in Vancouver, the Institutes were expensive and originally dependent upon one-time research grant funding. Costs of organizing a multi-day professional development training experience with dozens of stakeholders and many local experts are significant. The TEGS project spent roughly $40,000 ($10,000 per year), a difficult sum to meet for most school boards, including Vancouver's.

We are excited by recent collaborative developments in Vancouver, supporting continued professional development and teacher education around school food systems change. Various stakeholder groups, including the Vancouver School Board, Vancouver Coastal Health, the City of Vancouver and the University of British Columbia continue to support in-service teacher education and are working to keep the Think and Eat Green Institutes active, despite our one time research funding coming to an end. What appears to be emerging is a collaborative approach, where small community organizations and individual champions are supported by larger regional institutions, to ensure the experience of the Think and Eat Green Institutes can be something accessible to all teachers. Over four years, TEGS witnessed a significant growth in food literacy and food skills in the community of learners who regularly attended the Institutes. Teachers reported feeling more confident in tending schoolyard gardens, and began to understand the complexity and nuance of our local and global food systems. Early conversations were very basic, with many participants needing explanations of simple tasks like how to plant a seed, or harvest a head of lettuce. Knowledge about how food is produced and distributed was often very limited.

As our community of learners grew in knowledge and experience, the conversation about food systems developed in complexity. We began covering the nuances of seed saving, and having long conversations juxtaposing the challenges of producing volumes of food through urban agriculture with the environmental and social impacts of much modern agricultural production.

For better education about healthy, sustainable food to take root, teachers will need to understand and be comfortable engaging with every aspect of the food cycle. This will require that both in-service and preservice teachers are given regular opportunity to engage in learning opportunities like the Think and Eat Green Institute. By learning with life and actually touching and tasting whole food systems, educators enrich their capacity to increase food literacy and understand the social and environmental contexts of healthy school food.

The community is diverse and passionate. Many Vancouver organizations will continue to fight for resources to support school food system change in K-12 education. These stalwart community partners work closely with many dedicated educators and students. They continue to play a key role in supporting systems-based food education and training in schools. As research and university learning shifts to become more community engaged and relevant, there ought to be more resources and support to continue to grow and develop school food system learning in Vancouver.

Infrastructure and appropriate resources for holding professional development of this scope are significant. The collaboration and engagement of institutions such as UBC and the Vancouver School Board are crucial to ensure the long-term duration of such initiatives. The university has long played a critical role in teacher education and has significant potential to develop long-term support for food literacy and systems thinking in the Vancouver School Board. The scale of food literacy education that Think and Eat Green Institutes provide requires close collaboration between UBC and the VSB. The significant outcomes achieved over a brief four-year period demonstrate the potential that Think and Eat Green Institutes have to further grow and support school food system change.

There is a growing appetite to change what K-12 students learn at school about food, health and the environment. Educators at all levels value the collaboration between the university, educational, municipal and health institutions, as well as the network of community-based organizations working on food sustainability, public health and environmental issues.

Continuing to convene and facilitate such collaborations is key to creating a culture of sustainability in schools. After four years, the Think&EatGreen@ Schools project cultivated a foundation for educators and students to become active in their local food system and understand how this positively impacts the global food system. The relationships and connections to a large community of learners, which TEGS garnered, are a rich social capital for its next iteration.

A vision where schools become a perpetual experiential training ground for tomorrow's food system stewards would be the sweetest dessert today.

Alejandro Rojas is a professor emeritus from the University of British Columbia, Faculty of Land and Food Systems. He was the principal investigator of TEGS from 2010 to 2016.

Matthew Kemshaw is a father, educator and seed advocate who lives in the territories of the Lekwungen People (Victoria, BC).

Elena Orrego holds a Master of Anthropology from the University of Toronto and is also an herbalist. She was TEGS project manager from 2010 to 2016.

Brent Mansfield is currently director of the BC Food Systems Network, where he focuses on developing healthy, just and sustainable food systems. He was the TEGS community liaison and food policy research lead from 2010 to 2014.

The photos are all grabs from the Think and Eat Green at School Embrace Change video noted below.

For more information and updates on the Think&EatGreen@School project and new iterations of the Institute, visit

To dig deeper into data from the program see Rojas, et ah, "Insights from the Think&EatGreen@School Project, Canadian Food Studies, 4:2 (2017)

To see first hand the impact TEGS has on students, teachers and environmental organizations, watch Think and Eat Green at School: Embrace Change,


FOOD LITERACY IS MORE than the individual skills required to cook a good, nutritious meal. It happens when students genuinely appreciate the complex social and environmental contexts of our global food system, while learning to appreciate the joy and beauty of gastronomy. Supporting student understanding of large and complex food systems will require changes to the existing ways Canadian students learn about food.

In their Nutrition & Dietetics review of "Adolescent food literacy programs" Natalie Brooks and Andrea Begeley demonstrate that K-12 food literacy programming normally focuses on practical cooking and/or food preparation skills for younger adolescent age groups. Such programs focus upon the individual skill-building aspects of food literacy.

Brooks and Begely also note that these programs often do not engage the social and environmental contexts that influence students' lived experience of food, nor do they support understanding of where food comes from and its broader cultural and ecological impacts. Meal times at school are too often structured with buzzers enforcing transitions between learning and play. The environments in which students actually engage with food are rarely considered. Yet we know that students are constantly learning. In his classic book Earth in Mind, David Orr further explains: by what is included or excluded, students are taught important lessons.

Of course the contexts in which we eat are educative, and we eat every day. The daily act of eating is where food literacy begins--with an awareness of and connection to whole food systems--from experiencing where food is grown and produced, to how it is shipped, by whom it's procured, and why it's prepared, consumed and disposed of. The Centre for Ecoliteracy has four key principles in food systems inquiry:

* Nature is our teacher;

* Sustainability is a community practice;

* The real world is the optimal learning environment;

* Sustainable living is rooted in a deep knowledge of place.

Combining these principles with experiential food systems learning can help turn every meal into an "A-ha" moment. They have inspired our own systems approach to food literacy and continue to guide our work to support professional development programming in schools.
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Author:Rojas, Alejandro; Kemshaw, Mathew; Mansfield, Brent; Orrego, Elena
Publication:Alternatives Journal
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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