Cost of food sparks new life in Kelowna schools

Normally, when the cost of lettuce, tomatoes and a slice of bread go up, little more than murmurs of complaint ring through the grocery store.

  • Mar. 12, 2011 8:00 p.m.
Grade 9  students Kelsey Tobin and Cole Geisler of Glenrosa  Middle School work together to construct  garden composting frames.

Grade 9 students Kelsey Tobin and Cole Geisler of Glenrosa Middle School work together to construct garden composting frames.

Normally, when the cost of lettuce, tomatoes and a slice of bread go up, little more than murmurs of complaint ring through the grocery store.

Yet when Loblaws announced it would hike food prices last week, it was national news.

And the situation isn’t much better in any other store. “Since January, I don’t think we have an item here that hasn’t gone up,” said John Ames of Snowcap Interior Foods in Armstrong.

Over the 26-year history of the company, the supplier has produced baked goods to be sold in Interior stores, following the ebb and flow of global food prices as they buy their ingredients in bulk and pass the cost on to consumers. Where he can get a deal, he does, said Ames, although this year the deals just are not there.

“It’s two main factors. It wasn’t a good growing year in the world, which doesn’t happen very often, and the price of oil just won’t stop rising,” he said.

Normally, issues like drought or storms, which can devastate one area’s crops, average out around the world.

One farmer’s gain is another farmer’s loss and where his food costs may go up in one area, a bumper crop offsets the problem in another.

Ames’ costs are still well below where they were in 2008; and yet, it does appear life on this planet is changing.

Food security is the issue of the hour.

Food for thought

This fall, when the non-profit Community Action Toward Childrens’ Health (CATCH), a coalition of stakeholders working to improve children’s health, and the Interior Health Authority released the annual State of the Child Report, the five-page leaflet contained an alarming point.

The cost to feed an Okanagan family has risen 38 per cent in five years, taking an average grocery bill from $632 to $872—a mind-blowing spike when compared to the rate of inflation.

“We have had a national policy on relatively inexpensive food, which is a good thing; but as support for supplementing those costs is slowly getting eroded, what we’re seeing is the cost of food going up,” said medical health officer Dr. Paul Hasselback.

The cost of food is an extremely complicated issue, but the effects are simple.

At the end of the day, the families who already have less, said Hasselback, cannot afford to pay and kids suffer without the nutrition needed to learn effectively.

Mary Anna Cimbaro says her home economics students at Glenrosa Middle School know this.

“As kids get older, money becomes a reality to them and whether they have it or don’t have it,” she said. “With all the global unrest, there’s been talk about all different kinds of economic issues.

“We sometimes don’t think kids are aware of those things, but I think they are,” she added. “I think they are becoming concerned.”

Next fall, when Glenrosa Middle’s students return to class, part of their day will be spent on the grass just off the parking lot where a new learning garden is being assembled. They will learn issues like food security.

After travelling to the United States to visit High Tech High—11 San Diego schools operating on the cutting edge of an educational philosophy that tries to prepare kids for the 21st century by incorporating real-world, experiential learning—Cimbaro and science teacher David Currier developed their own food security-based curriculum.

The goal is to use the daily challenges their students face in their lives to illustrate some of education’s staples—biology, chemistry, math and home economics.

It’s the perfect time in a child’s development to approach this type of learning, according to UBCO professor Veronica Gaylie.

Gaylie has literally written the book on learning gardens and the benefits they have for middle school students.

When she released Learning Garden: Ecology, Teaching and Education two years ago, it was so popular the publisher was sending copies to Japan.

“We don’t talk about hope very much in teacher education,” she said at the time. “The garden gave us a way to do that.”

Gaylie’s second book, Roots and Research in the Urban School Garden, is due out this season.

This time, her work is grounded in the idea that not only do middle school-aged children connect with concepts better when they’re outside, incorporating ecological ideas, but they’re probably primed to understand food security.

Their psychological development is just reaching a stage where they can really empathize and connect with social issues. The concepts really resonate for them.

In researching the book, Gaylie met with students in several inner-city neighbourhoods, particularly in California, where kids were working to understand where food comes from and how they can improve their own lot with something as simple as a garden plot.

In the growing city, access to healthy food, at an affordable price, is a critical challenge. “I would say, it’s the most important issue in terms of sustainability today,” said Gaylie.

Three-quarters of the world’s population exists in cities. UN predictions from 2004 indicate the urban population in developing countries will hit four billion, with eight of the nine mega-cities increasing to populations in excess of 20 million by 2020, she pointed out.

Trucking, shipping or flying food into these sprawling urban centres will be expensive, particularly when one considers climate change will likely have a dramatic effect on what is grown and where.

Around the world, sustainability experts, activists and even farmers themselves are starting to push for food production in the city.

It’s even a major topic in Kelowna where urban farmers are now growing and selling produce at the farmers’ market off small plots, like a neighbour’s garden, and politicians from the city level to provincial MLAs are starting to debate how to deal with small independent growers and their needs.

Getting down and dirty

Given the nature of this valley and its unique layout that has traditional farming space in the middle of the city, one would think Okanagan students would have a pretty good idea of where their food comes from; but not so, says Cimbaro.

“It is surprising how many kids don’t know where their food does come from and can we get it locally and support our farmers?” she said.

Cimbaro is busy picking recipes where all the food can be locally sourced, teaching kids what they can use to replace cinnamon from miles away in their apple crisp and where to buy local oats.

This is part of the hook that got Interior Health to award their small garden project grant funding to pay for their composters.

“It’s actually nutrition month and their project fit right in,” said Rose Soneff, a community nutritionist who was given the job of overseeing the distribution of $66,000 for sustainability-type food security projects within the health authority.

The school’s project will work on all the middle school students’ food skills, she pointed out. They will learn about the components of soil, how to compost, the chemical reactions occurring, the water cycle and so-forth; they also plant the garden, harvest the food and learn to cook it.

“We know there’s a lot of health benefits when people are cooking together. They tend to eat healthier, with more vegetables and milk products, and it’s working on their social skills because they’re talking and creating together,” she said.

And the educational benefits—the hard numbers school principal Jamie Robinson must give to the school district—are astounding when this type of approach is applied.

Since the school’s focus on experiential, real-world style learning began three years ago, the school has made major gains, he said.

The number of kids with grades in teh range of C+, B and A- in math has risen from 51 per cent to 77 per cent in three years; in English from 57 per cent to 79 per cent over the same time period; and in science from 53 per cent to 76 per cent.

“Teachers are working to make curriculum more interesting and intellectually engaging to the kids. They’re working to make it more authentic, involving community experts in different fields, so that the kids get to work alongside the experts in a hands on way,” said Robinson.

It’s happening in the garden just outside his window.

The CUPE workers on site agreed to let the students help with anything they can learn from as the garden is built. The teachers are hoping to snag an expert from the Central Okanagan Community Gardens to work with the kids on the compost.

There had been a groundwater leak in the building where the garden will sit and the materials needed to build the garden are costing the district less than replacing the status quo now that the leak is fixed.

And for those students whose families might already be having trouble making ends meet, there is an added bonus. “Ideally we would like the kids to be doing this at home. You talk about the price of groceries going up, well here’s something we can do right here,” said Currier.



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