Growing Food in Schools To Kickstart Urban Agriculture
One of the best ways to kickstart a local movement is to provide early access to training. I saw this firsthand when culinary teacher and Pastry Chef Kelly Hobbs’ culinary students won more than 28 awards between 2009 and 2017. After graduation, a sizable number of them enrolled in post-secondary programs and picked up jobs in local restaurants. As it turns out, there are benefits to graduating 30 culinary students each year. While not every student becomes a chef, perpetually releasing culinary graduates into the world has an incredible impact on the local restaurant scene. What if gardeners, food growers, and urban rewilding advocates took the same approach by advocating for school urban agriculture projects and programs?
Why School Programs Are Important For Urban Agriculture
Unfortunately, there aren’t many post-secondary options for urban farmers, and most urban kids haven’t been exposed to agriculture as a potential career. Urban kids aren’t exposed to urban agriculture because urban ag isn’t common; urban ag isn’t common because kids aren’t exposed to it and don’t view it as a potential career. Schools don’t teach urban farming because there’s a lack of skilled practising farmers, and there’s a lack of trained farmers because it’s not something we teach. The way I see it, school urban agriculture projects can kickstart the local food movements by:
- Introduce students to urban agriculture as a viable career pathway.
- Teach students valuable skills.
- Provide a safe space for exploration and failure.
This last point is worth touching on as businesses are less capable of making mistakes. Whereas crop failure could spell doom for a small business, it’s another learning opportunity in the classroom. For urban agriculture to grow, prospective farmers must have spaces where failure is an option.
9 School Urban Agriculture Projects
1. Vegetable Production
When you think about urban agriculture, you might be picturing mounds of carrots, heads of broccoli, bunches of chard, and bags of cucumber, in other words, vegetables. Growing plants can be as simple as throwing potatoes into a bucket or as extensive as cultivating a garden or raised bed at the school. If you’re studying food security and nationalism, why not recreate a victory garden at your school? The challenge of vegetable gardening is that it often requires regular maintenance throughout the summer months, so consider partnering with the immediate community to form a joint school and community garden.
2. Herbs and Microgreens
While herbs and microgreens are technically vegetables, they’re not grown to maturity and, thus, are easier to grow when you’re short of time and space. To create a successful microgreen farm, you only need a shelf, a little soil, seeds, and a well-lit window. Harvest and replace every few weeks.
3. Aquaponics and Hydroponics
For the technically inclined, consider building a school aquaponics or hydroponics system. Ideal for a shop, horticulture, or science class, aquaponics and hydroponics involve growing plants without soil in a recirculating volume of water. In an aquaponics system, fish waste provides nutrients for the plants. Working systems can be as simple as a modified fish tank, a timer, and a grow light.
4. Orchard Production
If your school has space, consider perennial food production such as berries, fruit trees, or herbaceous plants like rhubarb and asparagus. A perennial food orchard or food forest can be a separate site or part of your school’s landscaping. Fruit tree production is a long-term project but a very rewarding one.
If you’re near Edmonton and are looking for trees for your school, connect with Shrubscriber. Shrubscriber is a distributed urban tree nursery and community that provides free trees for local schools and community groups.
5. Plant Nurseries
Just because you don’t have room for an orchard doesn’t mean you can’t grow trees and shrubs. Since 2014, I’ve been growing hundreds of trees in my backyard at a density of about 25 trees per square foot. You can start a nursery in your classroom or school with a few pots, seeds, or some cuttings. Repot plants as they mature and sell them as a fundraiser.
In 2021, I started Shrubscriber to crowdfund trees for school and to teach community members how to grow trees. In 2022, we began providing tree propagation kits to Edmonton classrooms. If you want to join our community or get a propagation kit for your classroom, learn more at Shrubscriber.com.
6. Classroom Mushroom Cultivation
While mushroom cultivation is an urban agriculture blind spot, there is a growing interest and potential. Since mushrooms eat waste and don’t require space and sunlight, they’re an exciting opportunity for school urban agriculture. Pick up a copy of Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms (PDF) or The Mushroom Cultivator (PDF). If you’re looking for mushroom spawn and culturing supplies, check out Fungi Perfecti.
I enjoyed working with a student interested in growing oyster mushrooms at school. We picked up a kit at a local store and set him free to experiment. A few years later, while attending Olds College’s Brewmaster program, Alex came up with the idea to grow oyster mushrooms on the brewery’s spent grain, a waste product of the brewing process. Alex has since turned this into a business.
7. School Beekeeping
Not many schools are keeping honeybees at this point, but I suspect it’s a matter of time. Since becoming legal in Edmonton, I’ve received an ever-increasing number of inquiries from schools and, between 2015 and 2019, taught a Youth Beekeeping Club for Northlands. There are some obvious concerns about keeping bees on school grounds, but much of the concern has more to do with perceptions than reality. I recommend enclosing any school hives in a protected area, but that’s as much about protecting the bees from kids as it is the other way around. Either way, beekeeping is an enriching experience with multiple ties to the curriculum.
I’ve been teaching beekeeping courses for many years and moved my classes online during the pandemic in 2020. You can connect with local beekeepers, take the courses, and share resources at The Bee Community, otherwise known as BeeComm. I am considering opening up a space for teachers and students, so if your school is interested in keeping bees, let me know.
As with beekeeping, there aren’t a lot of schools tending flocks of chickens. Also, like beekeeping, animal husbandry has many links to existing curriculum. If your city doesn’t yet allow chickens, don’t be discouraged – talk with the school administration about your plans and map out the educational benefits before contacting the city. City officials will often make concessions for educational institutions.
9. Urban Agriculture Resources
One of the most impactful things a school can do is support other schools, gardeners, and potential urban agriculturalists by providing access to resources such as land, tools, and infrastructure. If your school has a woodshop or welding class, consider building and selling garden infrastructure such as raised beds, cold frames, garden trellis, and backyard greenhouse kits. In addition to providing hands-on building experiences, an affordable supply of materials could mean a world of difference for a young urban agriculture movement.