Fresh Roots school food program adapts to pandemic by delivering harvest banquet

Students still reaped crops in food gardens but spaced further apart

Chef TJ Conwi and Natasha Sawyer are pictured at the Italian Cultural Centre where they prepared meals for school children in Vancouver, B.C., last week. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Fresh Roots, a Vancouver-based non-profit group that teaches kids about growing and cooking food, usually hosts its annual Schoolyard Harvest Dinner at this time of year but because of COVID-19, they have to do things a little differently.

“We usually have a beautiful, outdoor long table dinner at David Thompson Secondary School which is gorgeous and in the farm and everyone can come participate and eat there. This year that was not possible,” said Alexa Pitoulis, interim executive director of Fresh Roots.

Instead, the big dinner was prepared at the Italian Culture Centre and sent out to participants Thursday. Participants in the youth program called SOYL who worked on the outdoor farm in a physically distanced way will share their experiences through an online presentation.

Alexa Pitoulis, interim executive director of Fresh Roots, says the group has adapted to changing circumstances because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

It’s one of the ways the organization, which converts schoolyard space into food gardens as well as other educational programing, has adapted to COVID-19.

For instance, its LunchLAB in-school meal program was switched to an out-of-school program, providing more than 5,000 meals to 260 families each week.

Chef Natasha Sawyer, a chef-in-residence at LunchLAB, says there’s a huge gap in a lot of people’s knowledge about where their food comes from.

“Fewer and fewer families are cooking at home. I think a lot of kids don’t necessarily get exposed to where does your food comes from,” Sawyer said.

Volunteers with Fresh Roots pack meals destined for families across Vancouver at the Italian Cultural Centre. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Chef Natasha Sawyer is a chef-in-residence with the LunchLAB program which serves in-class meals to students. During the pandemic, the program switched to serving families meals at home. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

During a normal year, she works with teens to prepare two meals a week at school. She says the program has already had “a staggering impact” on those students, and she would love to see it expanded.

“The food knowledge, the skills that we’ve passed on, this is something that could benefit every student in Vancouver,” she said.

Chef TJ Conwi and Natasha Sawyer are pictured at the Italian Cultural Centre. Both chefs work with kids in the kitchen in order to teach them how to prepare food and where it comes from. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Another chef,  TJ Conwi, says kids are willing to learn about growing and preparing food from a very young age.

“The one thing I learned doing this, we need to give our kids more respect,” Conwi said, with a laugh. “They actually step up when they need to do it. I have kids who are able to cut, able to prepare, able to clean up and actually clean up and do lunch service which is mind boggling to me because I have a Grade 3 [kid] as well and I didn’t realize he could do all of these things.”

Volunteers with Fresh Roots prepare meals for school children in Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Pitoulis says the non-profit has an essential role to play in educating children in the city.

“Kids and youth gain all sorts of skills such as self-confidence, self-esteem, [from] the magic of seeing something that you’ve planted grow and being able to eat it and cook with it themselves,” she said.


Fresh Roots On The Coast

On The Coast with Gloria Macarenko

Farms and gardens are bursting with produce now which means it’s a great time for a harvest dinner. A local non-profit called Fresh Roots hosts one of those every August to raise funds for their school educational programs. But they’ve had to do things a little differently this year. Our story producer Rachel Sanders went down to the Italian Cultural Centre this week with mask on and microphone on a long boom pole to find out more.

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Scout List Vol. 569

FARM DINNER | Speaking of making the most of summer, how about putting some time aside to savour the bounty of the season? If you hurry (ticket sales end Friday, August 7th) you can still score a Fresh Roots Farm Schoolyard Harvest Dinner – a summer harvest box filled with everything from an elegant amuse bouche, charcuterie board fixings, and a delicious main course through to dessert (cheesecake), wine, beer or kombucha and flowers for the table. Have a look at the full menu here. This will be a tasty meal. Spread a blanket on your deck, back yard or living room floor and enjoy! The Schoolyard Harvest Dinner is a fundraiser for Fresh Roots and funds generated from the dinner directly benefit its SOYL (Sustainable Opportunities Youth Leadership) program, which engages and empowers youth to learn about working together to grow food. Good food for a great cause. Do it! Find out more.



Fostering a connection to food among youth, Fresh Roots takes its summer fundraising dinner online

Here’s a chance to support the way young people learn about food while enjoying a sumptuous, seasonal meal at home.

by Gail Johnson on August 4th, 2020

Fresh Roots Urban Farm Society helps schools throughout Metro Vancouver build community by growing food. And to keep young people connected to what’s on their plates in the era of COVID-19, its annual summer fundraiser is going virtual.

Founded in 2009 by Gray Oron and Ilana Labow, Fresh Roots builds school gardens, with the produce that pops up going to school cafeterias, neighbourhood houses’ food-security initiatives, and a weekly Salad Box program for East Vancouver families. The nonprofit organization also employs youth through its Sustainable Opportunities for Youth Leadership (SOYL) program. Participants learn about where food comes from and how to grow and prepare it.

For the last three years, the group’s SOYL fundraising event has taken the form of a long-table dinner at David Thompson Secondary School. Since that’s not on the menu for 2020, the team has announced the Schoolyard Harvest Dinner At-Home Edition, taking place next Thursday (August 13).

Participants will receive in advance a summer harvest box filled with everything they need to create a seasonal summertime meal (with vegetarian or nonvegetarian options available).

Menu highlights include a locally sourced charcuterie board and profiteroles stuffed with Fresh Roots herbs and Salt Spring Island Goat Cheese. The main course consists of sous vide Organic Ocean sockeye masala and Legends Haul sirloin, Fresh Roots harvest salad, zucchini Palak paneer terrine, carrot vindaloo vinaigrette, atchara relish, and wheatberries.

Summer cheesecake topped with raspberry coulis from Olera Organic Farms finishes things off, with beverage choices featuring wine from Marquis Wine Cellars, 33 Acres Sunshine French Blanchè beer, or Bucha Brew kombucha. The meal kit also includes a bouquet of flowers for the table, cookies from Susgrainable, and a few surprises.

The festivities kick off at 6 p.m., when guests will gather online featuring kitchen tips and tricks from chefs TJ Conwi and Natasha Sawyer. SOYL participants will talk about their experiences with Fresh Roots, then people will sign off to enjoy their dinner at home.

Tickets start at $150 (plus taxes and service charges), which includes dinner for two plus wine, craft beer, or non-alcoholic beverages. Funds support the SOYL program.

“There is a great need, this summer in particular, for spaces for kids and youth to safely connect and learn,” Alexa Pitoulis, interim executive director of Fresh Roots, said in a release. “Our annual fundraising dinner provides critical funding which allows us to support more than 6,000 kids and youth annually—teaching them how to grow their own food, how to cook that food, and how they can engage with the land and their communities.”

For more info, visit Fresh Roots.