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Jan Wong: how the rise of horticultural training at Toronto schools is bad for students

“We observe cosmic cycles, the moon cycles,” explains Eva Cabaca, the school’s gardening teacher. “We are healing land with special preparations. We are sensitive to the seasons so that everything works in a harmonious way.” When I ask if the students also learn to butcher the chickens and goats, she recoils. “No! No!” she says, shaking her head. Waldorf students brown bag lunch, so they rarely eat the produce, except at a single “harvest” dinner to which families are invited each fall.

Winchester Junior and Senior Public School, which serves Cabbagetown and St. James Town, has one of the city’s biggest school gardens, an 11,000-square-foot plot where portable classrooms once stood. That’s because a charitable eco-organization called Green Thumbs Growing Kids, which focuses its efforts on inner-city schools, has been working with Winchester for 10 years.

In the 2009–10 school year, the Grade 7s and 8s at Winchester built raised vegetable beds using clay blocks. The Grade 3 curriculum includes a section on plants and soils. Meanwhile, almost half of these third-graders failed to meet the provincial standard in 2010 in reading, writing and math. Nearly two thirds of the 380 students at Winchester speak a language other than English at home, and many of them are on a breakfast program. Clearly, these are among our most vulnerable students.

Even if you accept that gardening has some redeeming educational value, students aren’t getting the straight goods. On a sunny noon hour in the garden, I’m speaking to Sunday Harrison, the executive director of Green Thumbs, when a little girl runs over to report an imminent atrocity: a little boy is about to squish a snail. “We don’t kill it,” Harrison says firmly.

After the kids leave, I double-check exactly why we don’t kill snails. Because they’re good for the garden? “Actually not,” says Harrison. “They eat the leafy greens. But these kids grow up in high-rise buildings. It’s more important to teach them about habitat than pest management.” I sigh. After all those years blindly following Mao, I’m allergic to propaganda of any kind.

At least the cafeteria at Winchester uses the produce it grows, mainly because 150 students depend on the $3 lunch program. “I have to disguise Swiss chard before I throw it in the pasta,” says Charmyne Urquhart, the head chef. “The hand blender is my best friend.”

Here’s my problem: if knowing how to grow a potato is part of a good education, then we should also be teaching kids to fix leaky toilets. And that’s why I think Bendale Business and Technical Institute gets it right. Located in the heart of Scarborough, the high school offers a wide range of technical subjects, including carpentry, hairdressing, auto mechanics and, yes, plumbing. Bendale also teaches horticulture—serious horticulture, on its acre of gardens. Once the budding farmers harvest the produce, the business students sell it at an on-site market. Any surplus goes into the cafeteria kitchen, to be prepared by student chefs.

Bendale’s horticultural students get summer jobs at Sheridan Nurseries and Rouge Park. Landscaping companies hire them as soon as they graduate. Several students plan to attend Niagara Parks School of Horticulture. One freshly minted grad, 18-year-old Jeremy Sales, just started a degree program in horticulture at the University of Guelph. He told me he plans to be a farmer.

Bravo for Bendale. But it isn’t the average Toronto school—it’s a shining exception. For those of us who don’t intend to be farmers, let’s stop mucking around.