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Teaching Gardens: Using Permaculture to Teach Kids Practical Lessons
A wonderful article describing organic permaculture teaching gardens used to help teach children via experiential means the lessons they need - in a practical garden setting:
Sowing the Seeds of Food Security
By FIONA MACKAY
Published: New York Times - November 27, 2011
CAPE TOWN — At primary schools in South Africa’s impoverished Cape Flats area, teachers are using organic vegetable gardens to help children learn science, geography and economics — and to unlearn hunger.
Schools Environmental Education and Development (SEED) is a nonprofit based in Cape Town that creates learning gardens as part of their Organic Classroom Program, in partnerships with schools in South Africa’s poorest communities.
Founded in 2002, SEED trains teachers to design, plant and nurture a garden according to permaculture principles, which encourage a sustainable approach to agriculture modeled on the ecosystem.
Produce from the gardens goes to the school’s cafeteria or home in parcels with the students for their families.
“Our aim is to connect children back to the ecosystems that support them,” said Leigh Brown, SEED’s co-founder and director. “And with permaculture comes the added benefit of food security, which is critical when the statistics are that 25 percent of kids in townships go to school too hungry to learn.”
SEED is working with 34 under- resourced schools around South Africa to deliver its Organic Classroom Program, a three-year-long primary-school curriculum. Facilitators are contracted to work alongside teachers after their training, helping instructors to plan lessons that follow the national curriculum, as well as the development of the garden.
Many schools in South Africa are critically understaffed and SEED is conscious of teachers’ workloads. The design of the garden feeds into math lessons on measuring and mapping; building indigenous windbreaks becomes a lesson on meteorology and plant species. At harvest time come classes on health and nutrition.
The third year of the program, called Green Abundance, explores income-generation projects with the children in lessons around economics and business management.
“Just selling a bunch of spinach is not the most profitable, so we teach them about making value added-products, such as herbal teas, preserves and creams,” Ms. Brown said.
Currently, SEED is establishing the Rocklands Urban Abundance Center, an educational set-up in the Mitchell’s Plain neighborhood of the Cape Flats that will teach permaculture and environmental sustainability to a broader audience.
Applications for the Organic Classroom Program were arriving from schools in the city’s affluent southern suburbs, “but it is difficult to justify spending funding money there. We go where the need is greatest,” Ms. Brown explained. “The Rocklands Center will be the learning interface for those schools and anyone else who wants to learn.”
Adding to SEED’s permanent staff of seven and its network of teaching facilitators is a continual stream of enthusiastic volunteers and field workers who arrive via international placement programs like SAGE-Net and the research partnerships SEED has established with Stanford University in California and the University of Cape Town.
Financing comes from a variety of companies, foundations and charities including Peugeot, the South African National Lottery Board and Eskom, the South African public electricity supplier.
Support from government and education ministers is verbal only, Ms. Brown said. “A lot of the time nonprofits are carrying out the will of government,” she added.
SEED is not alone.
Townships like Khayelitsha and neighborhoods in the Cape Flats are all built on stretches of near wasteland, where homes are crammed next to one another, the earth is more sand than soil, and strong winds often blow. Greenpop is a tree-planting social enterprise that is beautifying these areas, starting with the schools.
One of several urban greening initiatives in the country, Greenpop is gaining attention from media and corporate sponsors for its gung-ho attitude toward mobilizing volunteers for tree-planting days — largely from among Cape Town’s privileged youth.
The jet-setting documentary filmmaker Misha Teasdale inaugurated Greenpop last year with the aim of offsetting his own carbon footprint with a day of planting 1,000 trees.
Since then Greenpop has rallied 900 volunteers to plant nearly 10,000 trees in activation days at socially and economically deprived schools around the Western Cape Province. Trees are donated by individuals and companies, at the cost of 75 rand each, about $9.
Greenpop will often work in partnership with SEED, for instance to make wind barriers.
They raise awareness by holding concerts or organizing madcap cycles through traffic at rush hour. “Our mandate is green pop — making greening popular and fun,” said Lauren O’Donnell, one of the co-founders.
“Our generation wants to give back,” she continued, “but there is an aversion to just giving out money. Buying a tree and receiving its GPS coordinates once it’s been planted feels very tangible.”
Employees from Cape Town’s largest companies, like the supermarket chain Woolworths, are also getting involved, as businesses pay Greenpop to facilitate teambuilding days around tree-planting.
Employees get back to nature planting trees with children, learn about sustainability, and the company can tick its corporate social responsibility box in the process.
“Companies like it because their employees are experiencing first hand where the investment is going,” Mr. Teasdale said. Once the trees have been planted, a monitoring process ensures their survival. “We generally plant the hardier indigenous trees first,” Mr. Teasdale said, “and will come back with fruit trees if those survive, so there is an incentive to look after them.”
Fruit trees can generate from 20 to 100 kilograms, or 45 to 220 pounds, of fruit each in a season, becoming a significant fresh food source for a school.
Children are assigned a tree to look after and must each bring in two liters, or one-half gallon, of gray water — recycled from the bath or sink — to water their trees every two days.
“When we return, a lot of the time they have built rockeries around the trees or tied ribbons and written their name on the poles that support them,” Ms. O’Donnell said.
At Oval North, a high school in Mitchell’s Plain, the olive trees that were planted are beginning to bear fruit and an environmental club has been formed to oversee recycling and generate funds to buy fertilizer.
“This is a poor and gang-infested area in which there seems to be a very low regard for life in general,” said Na-aim Kassiem, the school’s headmaster. “Trees and the resulting ecosystem create an awareness and admiration for living, and this is something we have incorporated into our life-orientation classes.”
Soil for Life is an nongovernmental organization that is helping township residents grow vegetables on the land around their shacks, and also at some of the most under-resourced schools. The group teaches a 12-week permaculture course that equips individuals to grow their own organic vegetable garden and offers follow-up workshops on subjects like nutrition, canning and preserving, and pest control.
One vegetable garden at St Andrew’s Primary school in the South African west coast fishing village of Saldhana Bay is feeding the whole school, and 150 other hungry children in the area.
“There is great poverty in Saldhana as the fishing industry is collapsing,” explained Pat Featherstone, director of Soil for Life. “We had a one-year contract to develop their gardens but we can’t walk away now. Somehow in a year all you do is raise awareness. You have to keep building on that,” she said.
Soil for Life teaches children in their school gardens after class or at one of their food gardening enterprises, but the aim is to take the gardens’ bounty home.
“That is where they are really going to benefit from the food, because you don’t have to buy it, you don’t have to travel to get to it, and you can share it with your neighbors,” Ms. Featherstone said.
The grandfather of this urban agriculture movement is the organization Abalimi Bezekhaya, which means “farmers of the home” in Xhosa.
Established in 1982, it is only since 1994, and the end of apartheid, that the organization has been working in a formal developmental capacity.
The Abalimi movement provides food security for families through microfarming, largely at the home, and on community allotments. It supports 3,000 farmers who each feed on average five family members.
“Fresh, organic vegetables are being eaten by 15,000 people as a result,” said Rob Small, the movement’s director.
“It’s an amazingly cheap model,” Mr. Small said. “It costs just 20 rand, or $2.50, per family member a month, which makes it incredibly sustainable.”
In 2008 some farmers at the community allotments started to produce more vegetables than their families could eat. Abalimi’s response was to set up Harvest of Hope, an organic, seasonal vegetable delivery service that now supplies almost 400 of Cape Town’s affluent households with fresh produce weekly.
“These farmers are earning between 600 and 2,000 rand each a month,” Mr. Small said. “Two thousand rand is a significant amount of money to some people in South Africa,” he added, “and they are earning this off tiny pockets of wasteland.”
While the micro-farming movement is largely dominated by mothers and grandmothers in the communities, according to Mr. Small, 18-to-30-year-olds are beginning to get involved now, as they see an opportunity to make money.
Likewise, Ms. Brown is seeing an increasing number of applications for the Organic Classroom Program from secondary schools. A positive development, she said, in an environment where drug abuse and gang warfare are commonplace.
“It’s because the children from the programs in the primary schools are moving up to high school, and they want gardens there too,” she said.