By Vivian Cheung, Operations & Digital Engagement Specialist
As you may know, 2023 marks the 10th anniversary of the partnership between Fresh Roots and the Vancouver School Board, the creation and the stewardship of the schoolyard farm at Vancouver Technical Secondary School. For this important year, we look forward to exciting special events to celebrate this milestone with the community. We also wanted to use this year to reflect and return back to our roots by bringing folks throughout these ten growing seasons who have helped shaped Fresh Roots to be where we are today, as staff, teachers, participants, while also taking the chance to celebrate who they are today since Fresh Roots. As a former 2016 intern, my name is Vivian and I’m on a journey to reconnect with these rad members in our Fresh Roots community and bring us all on a blast from the past in this new 10th Anniversary blog interview series called ‘Back to Our Roots’.
Our first interview of this new series is with Gray Oron. As one of the founders of Fresh Roots, Gray returned in recent years as the Sites Manager to utilize his strengths of building communities and building nearly anything you can think of! Playing a huge role especially in the development of the site at Suwa’lkh, I had the pleasure to sit down with Gray to pick his brain as someone rich in knowledge and to reflect on his personal journey so far with gardening, building schoolyard gardens, and Fresh Roots, before he moved on from Fresh Roots and onto his next season in 2023 with a relocation to Vancouver Island.
Thanks for being here, Gray! To start the interview, in classic Fresh Roots tradition, what vegetable, fruit, or plant do you feel like today?
I feel like a storage carrot, getting sweeter with time. Maybe a little bit tougher but sweeter inside, just waiting for the right time to be picked.
So how did you get into farming/ gardening?
I was an international student doing a computer science program. Having to do many hours of full-time studies, with lots of labs, and lots of time in front of the computer and at my desk, I really needed to get out and do stuff. I actually didn’t think I could grow food in this “cold Canada” as someone from Israel, but I picked up a book by Dan Jason at a garage sale that was all about growing food in this area and I thought to myself, “Okay, that’s something I can do. I guess I can grow some food.”, that it would be a good thing to do while I’m stuck on computers all day long – to go outside and garden a little bit.
When I started doing it, I saw how it was really good for my physical health and my mental health. I also wanted to do more stuff where I could see immediate impact and results, so that really got me to do more and more gardening and farming. I didn’t really grow much food at home, so you learn as you grow, and read lots of books.
How about Fresh Roots? As a co-founder, how did that come to be?
We wanted to see how many people we could feed from this single backyard that I was already growing food at for 3 years, which was right across from Trout Lake farmer’s market. By the time that we started Fresh Roots and Ilana joined, she knew a decent amount. I would get all of the seconds and compost from the farmers, everything that they didn’t want to take back with them, and that’s how we started creating this super fertile, awesome garden and fed all of our housemates. There were nine of us living in the house at the time, mostly vegetarians and we wanted to see how much more we could feed the community out of this backyard.
We started with a small three-person CSA and then it grew into adding a few more backyards. In total, we had seven and continued to grow more food. Seeing how we can feed more of the community, that’s kind of how it started once we connected with schools and once that connection was made. For everyone, realizing the impact of it in schools and seeing how surprising for them it was that you can do things like that. If they dream it, it can happen and we can make it happen. That was really the piece that hooked me in: empowering the youth and the teachers and everybody else around.
What was that like? What was the schoolyard farm scene in schools at that time?
There were school gardens but both the policies were not quite up to date to creating a really successful one. There wasn’t much external support for school gardens, so there wasn’t that connection of having a community partner to help, so lots of school gardens were started by avid gardeners. Keen stakeholders would move onto the next job, or parents of kids who went to those schools would graduate and the parents you know moved on with them, so there wasn’t that connection and that’s a huge piece that Fresh Roots served. Farm to Cafeteria was what advocated for there to be a community partner, which was a huge piece that was missing back in the day. Community partners ensured continuity and the needed support.
As someone who’s been around the farm to school movement and the urban farming movement for many years. What are the biggest challenges you’ve seen?
There was the challenge of charting new grounds. When we started, every step was a challenge because we did a lot of new things that school administrators and other people just didn’t know how to take. It was outside of what was being done and what the rules were at the time. For administrators, it was challenging, so the ones who would let us try new things would let us do things in very small steps. They would say, “Okay, let’s try this for a year and see how it works.” and “Now we’ll take another step and another year to see how that works.” Everything took a lot of time, from writing agreements and legal documents, because everything was just all new.
Everything had to be checked multiple times by so many different people. When you come into a big system where there are a lot of rules and you try to do something outside the rules, you either do it without telling anyone or you need to jump through a lot of hoops, convince a lot of people, and wait a lot. Things like having our own irrigation systems, selling produce that is grown on school grounds, having the different programs run on school grounds that are external to the school, and even all the different rentals, having shipping containers, having benches and and just being allowed to operate on school grounds was a huge challenge at the time.
The main challenge was that it was a lot of slow progress and a lot of convincing people. Now, especially that we’ve done lots of different things and especially working with school boards through these things and seeing that it works, therefore there’s less resistance and more willingness.
What are you most excited about the schoolyard farm movement?
With this movement, lots of other school boards and organizations are now seeing the benefits. It’s really hard to imagine the benefits when you don’t see them, but now that they can see it, it seems to be much easier. There are more organizations doing the work and more institutions who are excited to see that work done on their lands so rather than resistance, there’s more attraction these days, which is exciting. The teachers, the parents, the admins, they know more of what’s possible. They can dream it while before, they saw only challenges. Now, they can dream about what can be done. They know the ways that it can work and there is less resistance and a huge movement around the country just getting school farms going, getting food that’s hyper-local grown, getting the youth involved in growing it and then cooking it up, and knowing much more about it. That’s really exciting that it’s almost normal. It seems to be on the cusp of becoming a normal thing that every school can have.
Taking chances, thinking outside of the box, being a “rebel” for schoolyard farms, within reason of course. Tell me more about that.
We’ve encountered a lot of people who were willing to think about education in different ways and not with the horse blinds or in the box. That’s a big piece of how Fresh Roots got its way – taking risks. I slowly left my comfortable software job to work in a farming not-for-profit and we worked for free for quite a few years. There were people willing to take risks with us as well to make the dream happen.
One example is Queen Alexandra Elementary. There was a derelict garden that was created and the parents and teachers and principal moved on to different places, so there was just no one taking care of the garden anymore. It was quite big and so it just ended up being a place where you would find trash and needles, so students were just told not to go into the garden and stay on the playing field. They had to get people to walk through every morning and pick up all the different things that shouldn’t be there.
We were farming right across the fence in a backyard, right next to the school, when we were introduced to the principal. The principal saw the garden next door and said, wanted to re-create what we had on the other side of this fence so the space could be used for learning from rather than a space that is a hazard. It was outside the lines to allow us to sell food from that produce from that garden, but we are allowed to do that because we needed that. The principal was someone who was not gonna follow the rules entirely and take a little bit of a risk on us. They saw beyond the rules and saw it could be really good for the students as a really different way of youth learning and experiencing food, something they wanted to have that in their school and to have that for their students.
I want to highlight that you have a talent for creating engaging school farm gardens spaces as well as empowering youth by stretching them to do things that they’ve never done before or that they would do. Any stories and advice?
We had a student on the Delta site doing the SOYL program. As a participant, I got her to help me build some tables that held a bathtub so that we could wash things. She really was not that great at it at first, but she really by the end of it had a lot of fun and really enjoyed using the impact driver. Every time she would see me afterwards, she would ask “Are we using the impact driver today? Can I use it?” She helped the other students use the impact driver and showed them how to do it. A year later, she showed up as a mentor facilitator and helped some students use an impact driver again and was really really happy and proud about it. I remember after that first day, I think Tathali got a message from her mom saying how excited she was and how she was so proud of herself when she came home. She told her mom and her mom didn’t think she would have ever been able to do something like that. It just opened her mind to what her daughter is able to do and it was just really sweet to find this place where these students can shine, be happy, and be really proud of themselves, even run home to tell their mom, “Look, I can do this and I’m good at it.”
There are lots of youth who don’t fit in within the regular school system. They’re not the leader in the classroom or maybe they’re one of the worst students at doing math, while sitting in chairs. Whatever it is, when we take them outside and give them an opportunity to learn that is different from the classroom, they might realize that it’s something they’re good at. They are not necessarily the most comfortable being outside in the dirt using power tools, and so there are a few key things to note. You want to make it easy for them. If I want to teach someone how to use power tools or if I want to teach them about plants, remove any other barriers. We want to make it comfortable for them to be out there. We have nice pathways so their shoes don’t get super dirty to help make things simple and comfortable.
Another key is that I try to make them understand that failing is okay, and that if they’re not good at something, that’s an opportunity to learn. There’s a quote that I really like from a teacher that I worked with at Suwa’lkh a long time ago. She would say, “Fail is an acronym for first attempt in learning”. I really like that and it’s true. I would always remind youth that they may be walking now but when they were a baby, they really sucked at walking. They had to try over and over again and eventually, they were good at it and now they’re not thinking that they suck at walking. No, they’re good at it, so in the same way, keep on trying to make them feel comfortable at failing and trying again, knowing that that’s an opportunity to learn. Trust them and give them clear instructions.
Once they’ve learned whatever they learned, try to get them to teach someone else. They’ve just learned how to do that, so they’re going to be way better at teaching it than me because they know the challenges of learning how to do something. Get them to suddenly become the leader so that they can transfer it to someone else, and so on. I find that it really helps students to find different places where they can be leaders or be the best at, and it doesn’t matter what it is. It could be digging. It could be using an impact driver. It could be anything. I’ve encountered lots of students that felt like they might suck at everything, suddenly when they realize that they’re good at something, they start thinking, “I could be good at things” rather than “I suck at everything”.
Any final thoughts about your journey or advice for folks looking to get into schoolyard farms?
I’ll say two things. One, I’m really proud of the culture we created at Fresh Roots, where everyone from the youngest participant, to the facilitators, and to our senior staff, everybody is encouraged to learn and try new things and make mistakes and grow – pun intended. That’s something I’m really proud of. That culture is still going and is really a value that is deeply rooted within Fresh Roots and how we operate.
For advice, I think it’s really important for people to find partners who really fully appreciate what they are giving to the school and to the school community in a way that the can get support and get barriers removed rather than erected, so that they can go on and do this very important and really hard work without having to fight the system. That would be very hard, exhausting, and unnecessary. If the people who want you to work and create a school farm or educational farm or whatever that is just want it as a green greenwashing and just pretend and don’t actually walk the walk and really make your life easy, then it’s just not worth it. You’re working too hard as it is and it seems like there are more and more organizations who are willing to appreciate and support this important work, so work with them.
We are so grateful for the ways that Gray has been part of the Fresh Roots community, whether as a mentor, colleague, and friend. Gray, you will truly be missed and we wish you all the best in your next adventure! If you would like to reach out to Gray with a message of gratitude or to share a memory you’ve had with him, feel free to do so through this form: https://forms.gle/zzymiYjFTw9erzjg7