Project Name: Seed the City
Organization: LifeCycles Project Society
Seed the City is a program for high school students where they can gain work experience in gardening and farming, earn credits towards graduation, and become part of the local food movement in their city. This project is transforming underutilized school grounds into food-producing micro-farms. LifeCycles has partnered with the Greater Victoria School District, Saanich School District (two of the three school district surrounding Victoria British Columbia on Vancouver Island), and TOPSOIL Innovative Urban Agriculture, from Victoria, BC, to grow large amounts of nutritious food on school grounds using an easy-to-maintain system that can be integrated into meal programs and teaching practices. By locating productive micro-farms on school grounds, we are increasing access to healthy food, creating inclusive learning environments, and introducing students to career pathways in horticulture and food systems. These on-site micro-farms help to build food literacy, enhance the well-being of students, and provide a training site for the next generation of farmers and food leaders. This model brings young people into direct contact with innovative food systems with the belief that experiential learning at schoolyard farms will transform the way that young people understand our local food system, and the ecosystems that support it. This influences their future career choices, health outcomes, eating habits, and engagement as citizens.
How It Started
The idea for this project sprouted during a chance meeting between LifeCycles’ Program Manager and the founder of TOPSOIL Innovative Urban Agriculture, an urban farming business located in Victoria, BC. TOPSOIL converts underutilized urban spaces into productive food growing areas to supply produce directly to restaurants and the local community. The initial vision was to test out TOPSOIL’s above-ground farming methods for producing large quantities of food on school grounds. With schools being amongst the largest landowners in cities, we saw a unique opportunity to create a scalable model that could produce large amounts of nutritious food while connecting thousands of young people with the skills needed to implement food systems change.
Based on LifeCycles’ past experience with school garden approval processes, we believed that TOPSOIL’s modular system might be easier for district administrators to support as it can be installed or removed in just one day. By using this model to demonstrate the benefits of large-scale food production, this project is working to create a shift in land-use practices on school grounds. By integrating these micro-farms into school communities and curriculum, we are working to advance systemic change at the District and Ministry levels.
The hope for this project was that we could provide educational experiences for students and teachers while growing food for the school community in a way that generates revenue to help sustain the project. After several conversations, LifeCycles and TOPSOIL decided to apply for funding to launch a pilot project at Reynolds Secondary School that would include the installation of a micro-farm, the delivery of a summer work experience program for high school students, and educational workshops during the school year. Because of LifeCycles’ long-standing relationship with the Greater Victoria School District, we were able to gain district approval to carry out this project. LifeCycles’ Program Manager (Leah) had been supporting Reynolds Secondary’s schoolyard gardening initiatives for several years which made it fairly easy to expand on existing relationships, infrastructure, and programs. We launched the pilot project in the spring of 2019 and have continued to build and develop this program for the past 2+ years.
Specific change objectives
- Integrate our local food system with the education system
- Shift policy and practice at School District and Ministry levels to prioritize and invest in programs that will help build healthier school food environments
- Create mentorship opportunities for high school students to learn about post-secondary programs and careers in agriculture, food security, & related fields
- Develop circular economy and business model to help sustain this work
How It Works
During the school year, students from partner classes at the school participate in hands-on learning at the micro-farm sites where they help to grow food for school meal programs. The micro-farms are managed by LifeCycles, and the food is sold to each school’s individual meal programs with revenues being used to cover maintenance costs. Our goal is to create a circular economy where the price of the produce covers the maintenance of the site. During the summer, LifeCycles delivers an 8-week work experience course where students earn high school credits through growing, cooking, and selling food that is produced on school grounds, and participating in field trips and workshops at local farms.
This project has four key activities:
- Food production at school-based micro-farms
- Distribution and sales of produce to school communities
- Summer work experience and mentorship program for high school students
- Food literacy workshops for classes during the school year
Since launching our pilot project in 2019, we have established micro-farms at four school sites across three districts. LifeCycles operates and manages food production and education at three of those locations, with the fourth being managed by a district-hired Garden Educator. During the pilot project year, all activities were being managed and delivered by LifeCycles Program Manager. It quickly became clear that this project required a larger team, and we were able to secure funding to hire additional staff. Our team now includes a School Farm Coordinator, an Education Coordinator, and seasonal staff who support our summer youth program and food production activities. Our School Farm Coordinator manages all of the planning, production, and maintenance of the micro-farm sites. They also lead harvesting workshops with students during the school year and manage the distribution and sales of school-grown produce. Our Education Coordinator plans and delivers food literacy workshops and co-leads the summer work experience program with the Program Manager.
In the spring and fall, LifeCycles delivers curriculum-linked workshops at our partner schools (where the micro-farms are located). These sessions engage students in learning about agriculture and food systems through harvesting and maintaining the micro-farm sites. Any class at the school who would like to engage in the garden or micro-farm sites are able to request these sessions, usually amounting to 35 sessions a year across three partner schools. The harvested produce is then sold to the school’s cafeteria program and is purchased using their existing food budgets. This revenue is then utilized to cover the maintenance costs for operating the micro-farm sites which helps to sustain LifeCycle’s site management and the delivery of educational programming.
Summer Work Experience Program
In July and August, we deliver a program for high school students where they can gain work experience in gardening and farming, earn credits towards graduation, and become part of the local food movement in their city. During this 8-week program, students build community and transferable skills through growing and selling food that is produced on school grounds and participating in field trips and workshops at local farms. A video about this program is available at: https://youtu.be/-4XewRo3G8Y
Students attend the program 2.5 days per week where they work at the micro-farm and raised-bed garden at Reynolds Secondary. These sessions build community and horticultural skills through engaging students in growing, harvesting, preserving, cooking, and marketing local foods. Throughout the season, guest instructors are invited to teach workshops on topics such as irrigation, fruit tree pruning, and vermicomposting so that students can gain a broad skill set and build relationships with community experts in specific fields. We also lead sessions on food preservation, DIY herbalism, and specific gardening techniques. During our half-days, we take field trips to visit other urban farming initiatives so that students can explore a diversity of methods and approaches to agriculture. Each week, 2-3 students participate in selling school-grown produce through operating a market stand at the Oaklands Sunset Market. This program is promoted through SD61’s high school careers teachers and overseen by the District Vice-Principal of the Pathways and Partnerships Program. Students receive a Ministry approved course credit for their participation and LifeCycles receives some funding from the district towards the cost of operating this program. Collaborating with Pathways and Partnerships to ensure our project met the Work Experience (WEX) criteria was essential in implementing this program. These include meeting their minimum 100 hours of works experience over the course of the program, doing on site safety training, and liaising with the District Vice-Principal of the Pathways and Partnerships Program.
Successes, Challenges, & Lessons Learned
Seed the City (STC) Work Experience Program
Over the past three years, our summer work experience program has been successful with creating transformative experiences for youth from diverse backgrounds. By partnering with the school district to deliver this program as an accredited high school course, we have been able to legitimize this program at the district level and have created a positive incentive for youth engagement. This partnership also provides some funding and administrative support to help sustain the program delivery.
Summary of key successes factors and outcomes:
- Student feedback shows that this program results in personal growth, development of lifelong skills, pre-employment training, and shifts perspectives.
- Other organizations and districts are reaching out to LifeCycles with requests for information about how to replicate this program.
- The program has resulted in students gaining employment and choosing to pursue post-secondary programs and careers in food security and agriculture.
- Community and relationship building is central to our program design, and the program is built with the trauma-informed practice framework.
- The program is free for students and includes a wide range of learning experiences across numerous topics of interest and provides opportunities for working independently and collaboratively.
- We have successfully produced large quantities of food on school grounds and have integrated this food into learning experiences and school meal programs. There is evidence of this being a promising practice model.
Challenges and Lessons Learned:
- Change at the School District level is very contingent on people in positions of leadership, and leadership roles are constantly changing (every 3-5 years). This is risky as the loss of key champions can result in a shift in readiness and the stalling of momentum. We are focusing on broadening that system change buy-in and working to move beyond individual champions by supporting the development of committees and policies.
- Systemic change in schools is slow and there are many competing priorities for human and financial resources. We have learned to budget more time and resources for the relationship building and protocol processes.
- In one instance, district leadership selected one of the school partner sites but this resulted in difficulty with onboarding teachers as they didn’t have personal buy-in and were not adequately consulted on the project. We have learned to ensure we have both high level and direct engagement and will prioritize working with schools who request the project, have committed champions, and an understanding of how food will be integrated into meal programs.
- It is difficult to do a ‘one size fits all’ approach with schools as there is so much variation in context, community, physical infrastructure, needs, etc. We are still in the process of testing and developing our project to create a model that is both scalable and adaptable.
- Development of robust partnership agreements is important for clarifying roles, responsibilities, and expectations of partnership between our organization and school communities.
- Ensure that program coordinators or managers have good mentorship and support inside and outside of the organization to help guide decision-making and strategic planning.
- It is often tempting to write funding applications without a clear plan about how a project will be implemented. Make sure that plan is in place and that partners are engaged before you endeavor to fund a project.
Today’s youth are seeking opportunities to engage in solutions-oriented livelihoods that address the twin global crises of climate change and biodiversity collapse. They learn about the impacts of the global industrial food system but are rarely exposed to the growing number of local food initiatives that improve the health of our communities and environment. Even fewer opportunities exist for young people to explore urban agriculture as a viable career pathway.
Over the past few years, we have been testing a multi-faceted program and have been learning from the various successes and challenges we’ve encountered. As we enter our final year of a three-year grant cycle in 2022, we will be tasked with refining the program model into something that can be sustained beyond this core funding. This is a perennial issue for non-profit organizations who rely on grant funding as many funders are not willing to cover operating costs for ongoing programs. As such, we are working to develop the social enterprise aspect of this program and collaborating with partners to envision a regional vision for school-based food programs.
This initiative is supporting the transition to green economy careers, addressing farm succession planning, and giving youth a tangible way to address the global climate emergency. This program meets many current needs and provides young people with opportunities to gain lifelong skills and build meaningful connections to the land. The global pandemic has also illustrated the need for a more robust local food system and the benefit of having food production infrastructure embedded in school communities. We are excited to be working with school districts to develop innovative programs, and to reimagine land-use planning on school grounds.