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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.

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