Given all of the restrictions in schools due to COVID-19, school food champions in Ontario are doing what they can to figure out how to continue to advance food literacy programs.

Sustain Ontario’s Edible Education Network hosted a lively webinar on November 17, 2020, to discuss School Food Programming in Ontario in a time of COVID-19, with a particular focus on food literacy education. A webinar recording is now available here.

Before separating into breakout groups for further discussion, Sustain’s 4 panelists shared the innovative ways they’ve been able to adapt their work and keep students engaged during these difficult times:

Sunday Harrison, Green Thumbs Growing Kids (GTGK), Toronto

  • Like all of the speakers, Green Thumbs Growing Kids had to quickly pivot their in-school gardening and food literacy programs at the start of the pandemic. 
  • With support from TDSB’s Sustainability Office, they were able to keep gardening at their partner schools from May onward for the sole purpose of growing food, which was donated to local charities / families. In June, they hired six summer staff through Canada Summer Jobs to help cultivate the gardens and manage produce deliveries. They also brought some produce to farmers’ markets once they were able to open.
  • In addition to continuing growing, GTGK has seen a lot of success through developing online learning opportunities. All of the speakers agreed that teachers and parents are hungry for resources! 
  • Ohemaa Boateng, GTGK’s Garden and Food Educator, has been partnering with teachers and students to produce a virtual classroom with various workshops:
  • They’re offering numerous programs, with a popular one teaching students how to grow microgreens. GTGK provides a pea shoot growing kit for each student, and then once the pea shoots have grown, their nursing students deliver a nutrition workshop. The program incorporates social and emotional expression, as well as science and nutrition.
  • Sunday also highlighted their after-school online program for refugee kids that includes a mindfulness component, titled Lives Rewritten in Mind, Body & Spirit:
  • GTGK has been engaging teachers and students through a mapping tool as well, specifically with garlic planting. They use an App called Garden Planner available through Mother Earth News. GTGK provides students with the garlic, and Ohemaa created a garlic planting video for teachers to play for the students. One teacher used the garlic planting to incorporate procedural writing too. GTGK also has an Urban Trees from Seed program that distributes kits to students.
  • Sunday says that they are conveying the importance and safety of outdoor education and being out on the school grounds (when the weather permits).
  • Access Sunday’s Masters in Environmental Studies research paper here, which looks at implementing school community gardens in Ontario:

Andrew Fleet, Growing Chefs! Ontario, London – see Andrew’s slides

  • Growing Chefs! Ontario also worked quickly to adapt and move their food literacy content online to fulfill at least some of the programs they had already scheduled.
  • Originally, they had staff shooting videos on their phones that they were posting to a Facebook group. The interest and engagement was immediate: the group quickly grew from two dozen to almost 2,000.
  • As staff were able to come back in May, they were grateful to receive some funding to build a second program facility, which led to an impressive setup for live video broadcasting. (While it’s been incredibly helpful, Andrew says you don’t need this professional setup to offer a virtual program — the content is most important!) The setup consists of multiple camera angles, including an overhead camera, that can be switched seamlessly to offer helpful closeups for cooking instruction. Graphic and text capabilities that integrate into the live broadcast have also allowed them to cut down on printed materials. With this setup, they are offering live Zoom cooking classes as an after-school program, where children receive ingredient boxes at home to cook alongside detailed instruction.
  • Growing Chefs! Ontario has also developed a resource video section for parents and teachers, with topics including: getting started cooking with children; working with knives/safe choppers/peelers & graters; strategies for introducing new foods to your children/picky eaters; how to organize cooking activities for children of different ages; and dozens of instructional recipe videos.
  • This set-up has enabled them to create new partnerships and connect with more audiences that were previously out of reach. If you’re interested in partnering with Growing Chefs! Ontario, get in touch with Andrew at
  • They have also developed lesson plans designed for JK-Grade 12, which will be available for teachers across the province on their new website, to launch soon. Pilot lessons that they gathered feedback on included lessons on food systems, edible art, worm composting, reducing food waste, growing a classroom garden, history of food preservation and more.

Leila Mireskandari, Kids’ Growing City, GTA – see Leila’s slides

  • While Kids’ Growing City would normally be in schools delivering their garden programs and in-person teacher training, they were already active online prior to COVID, offering online classes, workshops and clubs since 2014.  
  • But when schools closed down Kids’ Growing City put the focus on their OASIS Box Subscription Club, which offers an online resource library for parents. (At the time of the webinar, they were serving 50 families.) 
  • Parents who were also teachers then asked if they could use the material from the boxes when they began teaching online. 
  • You can see numerous videos designed for parents and teachers on their website here:
  • Kids’ Growing City also put some money toward collaborating with teachers to develop an In-School Hybrid Program with interactive, hands-on lesson plans. This includes synchronous Zoom/Google classrooms, recorded lessons, and online teacher training, offering lesson plans with curriculum connections.
  • Leila pointed out that these new programs, lessons and collaborations will be able to live on post-COVID, reaching more schools and teachers!
  • Access Leila’s Masters research paper here, which looked at obstacles and solutions to school gardening:

Elle Crevits, Parkdale Food Centre, Ottawa

  • Elle spoke to Parkdale Food Centre’s educational Growing Futures program, and how they have been retooling their program since September.
  • Understanding that teachers are in need of content, they began making educational videos with their phones, tripods and some inexpensive video-editing software they taught themselves how to use. The content is focused around food justice and accessing good food.
  • They offer two one-hour sessions on back-to-back days. On day one, teachers show a pre-recorded video made by Parkdale (with built-in pauses for pacing), and the students are given a hand-out for individual reflection and prompts for class discussion. The hand-outs have worked really well and give students time to work at their own pace. On day two, they show a pre-recorded video of a local food leader (like a farmer or a chef), and then provide the students with meal kits to put together at their desk, alongside video instruction. They then conclude with a live check-in / Q&A.
  • Recognizing it’s hard to connect through a screen, Elle and her co-worker Karin have really put effort into making the videos fun and engaging for students.
  • Like all of the speakers, they’ve been receiving great feedback from the online content. In addition to more easily reaching more students, another benefit has been increased evaluation opportunities. They have more time in the live video portion to gather rich feedback and they are also able to draw evaluation through the student handouts.

All speakers demonstrated there is no doubt a demand for educational resources. Teachers and parents are excited to have new content to deliver, and students are eager to grow, cook, eat and learn about good food. It’s inspiring to see the ingenuity of these organizations and individuals so quickly retool their programs to keep students engaged in food education.

The Q&A portion begins at 00:46.10, where Sustain’s speakers shared a bit more on challenges, funding, future plans, and tips (tips like: keep lessons clear, simple, and targeted at your specific audience).

We encourage you to watch the full webinar recording and check out each of the websites linked to above, where you’ll find some of their educational resources.

Thank you again to all of Sustain’s speakers, and thank you to all who joined them and shared their ideas as well!

If you’re interested in learning more about how we can advance food literacy education during these times, be sure to join Sustain Ontario on January 20, 2021, for another webinar.

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