Community gardens have recently taken off as a way of engaging communities in the local food movement. Not only does it raise awareness, community gardens can also serve as a learning tool for schools. The Safa and Marwa Islamic School (SAM) in Mississauga, Ontario received a grant from TD Friends of Environment in 2015 towards the creation of their own gardening space. Khaleafa.com has the opportunity to speak with Nisreen Shawahneh, who was instrumental in coordinating the project, to learn some successes and challenges in creating a community garden in a school environment.
a. How did the idea for a community garden first come about, what was the motivation?
At Safa and Marwa Islamic School (SAM) our goals are to deliver a ‘living’ curriculum that ensures the spiritual and academic success of our student body and to build a sense of comradely and community amongst our students, parents and staff. Every year our team brainstorms projects that would help us meet these goals. It was in one of these sessions that the idea for a community garden was born. We recognized that building a community garden would bring to life curricular concepts allowing students to cement their learning in the classroom by living examples in the garden. From a spiritual point of view, having a garden would allow students to understand the importance of stewardship and the environment in Islam. Furthermore, having a garden that was not owned and manned by one, but the entire school community brought teachers, students and staff together to work towards a common goal. It was heartwarming to see the way harvests were enjoyed and celebrated by all involved.
In addition to being motivated by our goals for students we were also cognizant of the fact that having a community garden would complement our healthy living and physical education program nicely. Prior to having our community garden our student body has regularly participated in the 60 second kids club, we are currently ranked 10th in the Province. We would also have healthy eating competitions across the grades. We hoped that the addition of the garden would give kids the push they needed to begin eating healthier in their day to day lives.
b. How have the students been involved?
Students from Junior Kindergarten to grade 8 all participated in the community garden. Each class was assigned a plot to plant in. Students chose what to grow; the school provided the seeds and the seedlings. Students, with the help of their teachers, planted the seedlings and seeded the seeds. Students, watered, weeded and took care of the garden the whole season.
In addition, we conducted workshops for both parents and students on how to establish and run their own gardens at home. The presentation was delivered by Ms. Nisreen, the Garden Coordinator. The agenda was as follows:
- General information for parents and students on how they could begin their own community gardens in their neighborhoods.
- General information for parents and students on how they could begin their own community gardens in their backyards.
- General information on the different types of plants that could be grown year-round.
- General information on the tips and tricks of gardening.
c. What was involved in planning the project?
To plan the project we put together a planning team that consisted of members from administration, teachers, auxiliary staff, parents and students. The following diagram depicts the team and their tasks in terms of planning the project.
d. What were the greatest hurdles?
In bringing this project to fruition, there were several hurdles. Following are the greatest hurdles we faced and we feel that these were all equally challenging:
·Finance: In Ontario, private faith based schools do not receive any public funding. Therefore, all the money that is generated to operate the school is derived from tuition. It is difficult to allocate tuition money to a project such as this because there are often competing needs that take precedence such as those related to the facility infrastructure and those related to curriculum delivery directly. Although there are many grants available through the Government of Ontario that could fund a community garden, they are often only open to publically funded schools - which we are not. We had to be creative in finding a grant. We are very appreciative of the grant we received from TD to deploy our garden.
·Space: We are at capacity in terms of student body because SAM has consistently been named the top Islamic school by the Fraser institute. Space is over utilized and therefore to carve out space on our grounds was extremely difficult. It required re-planning our play areas and putting in another outdoor rotation for our students which resulted in an overhaul of the school and classroom schedules. It was also challenging to convince some school members and parents that the reutilization of the space would add more to the curriculum then the original play space.
·Manpower: Maintaining a garden (watering, weeding, harvesting, replanting) and asking teachers to integrate curriculum related to the garden day to day was extremely challenging because both are time consuming and rely on volunteerism.
a. What has the response been to the project?
The garden has received so much love and support from students, staff and parents, especially around harvest time where everyone gets to taste their success. Our garden has inspired parents to create their own gardens. Following are some testimonials:
I love the garden. I planted it, watered it and picked it. It was fun in the garden because I saw plants grow - Hannah, Grade 6
I love being in the garden. We picked basil and onions and many more. There were even carrots, being in the garden made me feel free and happy - Mustafa, Grade 4
The garden was the best. I especially loved when it was time to pick the plants. I even got to sell it. I loved the garden - Adam, Grade 3
I got to pick plants from the garden. We even bought some. I ate carrots, too. They tasted amazing - Leena Grade 1.
b. Have you been able to incorporate parents and other groups into the project?
We have successfully been able to engage parents during garden planning and planting. We did not incorporate other groups into the project.
c. How does the garden sustain itself over the summer?
SAM operates a summer program that incorporates a unit on community gardening. Students in this program maintain the garden over the summer and are supervised by the summer teachers and administration.
d. What happens to the produce in the fall?
Throughout the summer and fall produce is harvested and, depending upon the yield, either sold to parents during school fundraisers, distributed to student volunteers and those who have completed a related curricular unit, donated to families in need and shared with the entire school in our ‘welcome to school’ fall barbecue.
a. Have you included any spiritual or religious programming into the garden? If so, what has the messaging been?
Our community garden helped us explain Islam’s ethos of environmentalism and stewardship to our students using a hands-on approach. In Islam humans were created to serve God (Allah) and work towards creating the greatest good for all his creations which includes the earth and its environment. Caring for the earth is our shared responsibility. Our department of religion began incorporating what it means to live a sustainable life into religious curricula as follows:
- Allah created us directly from the Earth and we must therefore be stewards of the Earth by taking care of it and protecting it in a sustainable way.
- We have undertaken a trust with our creator to protect the planet and contribute to and sustain its resources responsibly.
- We must treat all creation including the natural world with justice.
- We must recognize that Allah has created the world in a balance and we must work to sustain that balance.
- We must live a simple lifestyle – which includes growing our own produce.
b. Are multiple grades involved in the project?
Yes, multiple grades were involved in the project namely: junior kindergarten, senior kindergarten, grade 1, grade 2, grade 3, grade 4, grade 5, grade 6 and grade 7. Each grade was assigned their own part of the garden and were responsible for caring for it.
c. How do you see the garden growing in the future?
Thus far, we have planted produce that was quick and easy to grow in our garden. We planted: tomatoes, curled parsley, basil, strawberries, carrots, sunflowers, corn, peas, beans, green onion, hot pepper, bell pepper, cucumber, potatoes, beets and Swiss chard.
In the future, we would like to plant our garden by theme. For example, we would like to plant a salad garden, a salsa garden, a fruit salad garden etcetera. In addition, we are looking to move our school to a new location to continue to deliver quality curriculum. Whereas a community garden would never have made it onto our list of ‘must haves’ for a new property in the past; after our project, we have decided that our new location would never be complete without space for a new community garden.
a. What have been the biggest challenges and what were the lessons that were learned in creating a community garden?
As mentioned in 1d above the biggest challenges were finance, space and manpower. The lesson we learned were as follows:
- Finance: When establishing the garden, we factored in the cost for building the garden however we did not factor in the cost for continuing to maintain and sustain the garden.
- Space: We could have collaborated with our school neighbors and shared property to build a larger garden which would not have compromised out play area.
- ·Manpower: We need to build capacity around having more consistent volunteers for the garden and demonstrate to teaching staff that taking their students out to the garden is worth the time it takes to do so. In addition, we learned that it is important to ensure that those that tend to the garden document what they have done so that it can be passed on to those who take it over the following year.
b. Can you provide any advice to other groups looking to start their own community garden?
Be cognizant of our lessons learned.