Program encourages kids to engage with the food system

When Kate Stenson first started as community food program co-ordinator at the Hillhurst Sunnyside Community Association (HSCA) in March 2013 one of her goals was to connect with kids. Or more specifically to connect kids with food. One year later she has a group of kids growing cooking and eating their own meals through the Kids Food and Garden Program.

“A lot of food skills that used to be passed through families are getting lost so including kids in the programming that we do is in part about bringing back that knowledge” says Stenson.

“We want kids to feel empowered to be active players in their food system whatever that means to them.”

The program teaches food skills through cooking and gardening activities but it also requires kids to work together in a team and to draw on each other’s skills.

“They all come into the program from different backgrounds — some of them have never gardened or cooked before and others have lots of experience” she says. “We try to create a space where they can share the skills that they have with the rest of the group and learn something new.”

The program started as a pilot project last summer as part of a day camp for children which is run by a neighbourhood organization that provides after-school care during the rest of the year. Stenson worked with a group of nine- to 12-year-olds once per week for an hour or two throughout the summer. She says they did several different activities including planting watering and weeding a garden then harvesting the plants.

“The few things that actually grew we harvested at the end and we got to eat them” Stenson says. “That’s where things really came together for the kids — they were so so excited about those pizzas that were loaded with kale.”

After the summer Stenson started a club for elementary students in the after-school program. For the most part the group is involved in cooking but they’ve also had hands-on experience with vermicomposting (a big hit) made veggie sushi provided artwork for the annual harvest market at the community farmers’ market and built a hydroponic window farm out of empty plastic pop bottles.

Stenson says the window farm was used to grow plants like kale and sunflower sprouts. “The kids took that on” she adds. “They created a sign-up sheet and watered it every day.”

One of the highlights so far was a field trip in September that made a lasting impression on the kids.

“We took them out to a farm just outside of the city…. For so many of them it was really a mind-blowing experience” says Stenson adding that many of the kids had never been on a farm or seen a live chicken running around.

“Months later they remember… so it clearly had quite an impact on them.”

In the fall of 2013 about 65 kids were involved and Stenson expects that to increase to 85 this year.

Stenson says the goals are to increase food skills and knowledge; leadership; access to healthy sustainable foods; and engagement in the food system.

“What’s been really interesting for me is without having a really hard-hitting approach to achieving these things they’re happening organically” Stenson says.

For example she explains when one boy was struggling to read a recipe another jumped in to help. Another time when a boy was having trouble listening another called him over and whispered a reminder about the rules.

In both cases Stenson was impressed by the show of leadership. “It really seems to be something that’s evolving in them” she says.

Teaching food skills and knowledge is more straightforward and Stenson says the kids are discovering that food comes out of the ground with dirt and bugs on it — and that’s okay. “I think there are definitely some little light bulbs going on with that.”

That awareness extends to food choices as well. Stenson sources organic food from local farms whenever possible and says that although she doesn’t feed the kids her own opinions they are starting to notice the differences between types of food and to talk about them with each other.

“They’re really connecting those dots” she says.

“If every kid in the city could be exposed to some of this that would be a great thing.”

The kids program is part of HSCA’s Community Food Program (see our story here ).