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Roots to Harvest Case Study: Outdoor Food Literacy deemed an “Essential Service” during COVID-19

Roots to Harvest is a non-profit organization that offers employment and experiential education opportunities in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Their mission is to use food as a tool to connect people to one another and build belonging and dignity through meaningful programs, initiatives and advocacy.

Roots to Harvest’s many programs illustrate their broad mandate:

  • Youth employment – in the summer, they hire 16-30 year olds to work on their two urban farms
  • In-school programs with public schools and federally-funded schools
  • Food literacy cooking programs with newcomers, adults and youth in their industrial kitchen
  • Community initiatives in nearby drive-to first nation communities
  • Advocacy work on employment, mental health, social supports, poverty, anti-racism and discrimination

In this blog post, we’ll focus on how Roots to Harvest adapted their in-school programming in light of the pandemic.

Students in a newly established community based school in KZA cooking over a fire as part of food literacy programming.

When COVID-19 first hit in the spring of 2020, Roots to Harvest put a pause on some of their programs while they made an impressive jump to increase access to healthy food via a number of wonderful partnerships. They were able to provide well over 150,000 meals to their community between March and October 2020.

Then, when Thunder Bay schools opened again in the fall, Roots to Harvest’s food education programs were welcomed back by both the Lakehead Public School Board (LPSB) and the Thunder Bay District Health Unit (TBDHU). In fact, their programs are so valued that their work was designated as an essential service in the schools.

With support from a small community grant, Roots to Harvest decided they could continue to safely deliver their hands-on experiential education not only through growing initiatives but also through exciting outdoor cooking opportunities. 

Filleting local fish with Students in a Lakehead Public School outdoor cooking space.

They continued harvesting the school gardens with students, they brought their apple cider press outside, students made pizza with an outdoor pizza oven, and they prepared all sorts of food outside like pasta, pancakes, poutine and more. They put a large focus on traditional foods, with some students learning how to fillet fish outside, and one school even worked with a wild deer, including processing the meat.

Learning how to butcher and process deer meat with students in a Lakehead Public School classroom.

Much of Roots to Harvest’s recent programming has been centred around cooking with fire, which has proven to be a fantastic way to engage students. They bought small chairs, portable fire pits and outdoor burners, and set up cooking stations as well as larger fire pits on school properties.

They are now working to build an outdoor cooking space on the Roots to Harvest main office grounds, which will include a bread oven, fire pit, water access and wood storage. However, like many projects in 2020, COVID has slowed down the roll-out of using these, as safety protocols have resulted in limited field trips and transportation on busses.

Outdoor set up, stations are far apart to maintain distancing.

Evaluation has shown that the students absolutely love the new outdoor programming, and have said they never want to miss a day of school if Roots to Harvest will be there! 

  • 94% of students said that their attendance improves when they know Roots to Harvest will be in their classes
  • 88% of students stated their engagement in class increases when Roots to Harvest is present
  • And when students were asked what Roots to Harvest brings to their classroom experience, they stated: “It adds a chance to learn from different people”, it “brings something new to the class” and they “feel more knowledgeable about local foods”!

Q&A

To learn more about Roots to Harvest’s programs and the success they achieved over the last year, check out the Q&A below with Airin Stephens (AS):

How many schools did you work with last year?

AS: From September 2020 to January 2021, Roots to Harvest reached 474 students, with 62 classroom visits and a total of 148 hours spent on food-focused, hands-on experiential lessons in schools. 

Roots to Harvest’s school programming shifted to follow the health and safety protocols set out by the TBDHU and LPSB, meaning that during Quadmester 1, programming focused on outdoor cooking experiences with students, which was really well received by both students and staff. Then in Quadmester 2, we were allowed to be in classrooms to deliver in-class experiences, but we also continued the outdoor cooking.

Open Fire cooking with the Gete Okosomin squash with students in the KZ Lodge Land Based Learning Classroom in Thunder Bay.

Where do you get funds for these programs?

AS: We don’t charge the schools at all, so a lot of our support comes through fundraising in the community, donations and grant writing. And some of our staff are funded through the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation (NOHFC). The big money and consistent donors are important, but we also focus on smaller pockets of funding, like the one we received in 2020 from the Thunder Bay Community Foundation and Thunder Bay Rotary Club.

As one example, we received a small amount of funding ($3,000) to purchase the following outdoor equipment:

  • Outdoor portable propane griddle and stand
  • Outdoor 2 burner propane stoves (2)
  • Outdoor portable fire pit 
  • Outdoor tables (3)
  • Outdoor wash station (soap, paper towels, water containers)
  • Outdoor cooking equipment (pots and pans, utensils, mixing bowls, measuring cups)
  • Fire cooking equipment (cast iron pans, dutch ovens, fire cooking tripod)
  • Fire extinguishers and fire safety gloves 
  • 30 tripod camp chairs
  • Take away containers (Lots!)

I can’t say enough about relationship building. Relationships are key and help build the support for future funding.

Can you speak a bit more about these important relationships and what partnerships were helpful in making all of this happen?

AS: It was pretty easy for us to jump into this outdoor programming because of our long-standing relationship with the school board and health unit. We’ve built these relationships over time and that’s what made this year run so smoothly. Our experience with the pandemic would have been fundamentally different without our existing relationships with teachers, administrators, communities and agencies. 

For example, Roots to Harvest has worked with some of the foods-based courses and teachers in Thunder Bay for years and so we trust and recognize each other’s work. With a relationship at our foundation, Roots was able to experiment with these teachers and classrooms during the pandemic, knowing that everyone would uphold a standard of safety. 

Likewise, Roots to Harvest has been working in partnership with other Northern Indigenous communities and Indigenous-led organizations and have been able to foster creative solutions and programming in communities. For example, Roots was hired to be part of a program to subsidize student education in a northern community when a school program was established there rather than having students attend school in a nearby town. Weekly, facilitators would drive 2 hours to the community to attend and deliver food education programming, as well as to provide a weekly snack and breakfast food bag (through funding from the School Nutrition Programs) for kids and their families during a stressful and difficult time. The community trusted Roots to Harvest to help provide a meaningful program for students.

Who did you work with to follow safety guidelines?

AS: The Thunder Bay District Health Unit’s (TBDHU) schools team decides what is allowed with things like mask wearing, eating in cohorts, etc. For instance, the TBDHU has said that we could cook the meals on school property, but not eat it there. So we’ve had to build food skills through the cooking process and then portion the food into containers for students to take home.

How did you get permission to have fires on school property?

AS: We have a fire permit with the City of Thunder Bay to build fires at schools, and of course there are guidelines to follow like having a concrete pad and water buckets on hand. The fire department is very supportive and we regularly communicate with them to let them know when we’re having fires on school property. 

Cooking over a fire has been a huge hit with the students – they often want to linger and tell stories with each other (while safely sitting 2m away from each other).

Outdoor cooking over fire- set up with masks, tripod chairs, portable meals.

What were the biggest concerns or challenges to overcome when you transitioned to outdoor education?

AS: Our biggest concerns were tied to environmental and policy factors, such as weather, COVID outbreaks, and the rapid changes the school board was making to COVID protocols.

When we moved to purely outdoor initiatives, we needed more preparation time and equipment to make sure that students had positive, memorable and safe experiences. Thunder Bay gets cold, so during the winter months facilitators needed to take extra precautions with outdoor cooking. Proximity between students was always on facilitators’ minds and they regularly reminded students about the larger perspective of the pandemic.

Finally, the Roots to Harvest team was in constant communication with teachers, administration and other relevant institutions to make sure that outdoor cooking would be possible (for example, informing fire departments that an outdoor fire would be present on school property).

Are you still running programs indoors?

AS: In fall 2020 our work with schools was outside at our portable outdoor classroom, and later on in the fall we began running programs inside schools in the classrooms. During this time we followed all the new school safety protocols for COVID and food safety. Currently, as of March 2021, Roots to Harvest is not running any programs indoors as we are in lockdown state and students are not in schools. We anticipate being back in the schools when students go back to in-person learning.

What activities did the students seem most excited about?

Using the Apple Cider press with youth.

AS: Students really enjoyed cooking and being around an open fire. There’s a communal element to gathering around fire — conversations happen while cooking, preparing and enjoying foods. The fire went well with outdoor pizza baking too, where students prepared doughs and sauce from scratch and assembled their favourite ingredients to be fire-baked in an outdoor oven. 

Students also enjoyed a lot of food processing, such as filleting fish outdoors, or processing apples into a freshly pressed cider. 

Ultimately, a highlight for many students was the recognition and practice of turning a food from its source into an enjoyable meal.

What tips would you offer to other schools trying to implement outdoor cooking initiatives?

AS: One big learning was to have a clear and concise policy & procedure for Roots to Harvest staff to follow that addressed concerns and put practices in place to ensure the health of everyone involved.

Facilitators and teachers also shared realistic expectations and concerns surrounding outdoor food programming to students. This let everyone understand upfront what was and wasn’t safe or possible. The transition was also easier once we had established a few favourite activities, gotten familiar with equipment and organized that equipment. 

Finally – we know that COVID-19 has been hard on everyone, and many students have been stuck on screens for online learning for days on end. Simply having a chance to do something hands-on, tactile and generally enjoyable through food was what allowed us to be flexible and adaptable and make these in-person workshops work with our partners.

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