Britannia School Potato Farm Harvest

Out behind the Britannia Elementary School is our Potato Farm, as we like call it. Four large potato boxes provide our grade 3 and 4’s the full food cycle experience of planting the spuds in the spring, watering, mounding, watching the plants grow, digging up the spuds in the fall, then preparing and eating what they grew. For the kids, the entire process is akin to a boisterous party as the children scream with pleasure, especially when digging up the potatoes, as if they are seeking lost treasure.

Planting the potatoes starts with the grade 3’s, usually in May. By October the spuds are ready for harvesting and for those students who are now in grade 4, its time to dig them all up. This year we dug up about 100 potatoes or a milk crate full. The students will then clean, chop, and roast the potatoes along with beets, parsnips, and turnips that they collected from another garden area. Each year a new group of Grade 3’s get to learn all about potatoes. The potato planting is extremely popular for the children and provides a very practical and fun learning experience that sticks in the kid’s minds.

Most students are very knowledgeable about food growing and healthy eating. To our surprise, many describe liking veggies such as kale and brussel sprouts. However, many of our students live in apartments and don’t have gardens at home, so are super keen to work in our gardens and grow their own food.

The Britannia School Gardens are quite extensive with four large garden areas that provide food growing learning for several classes in both the secondary and elementary schools on site. Our garden programs run year round and engage about 100 students each year. The Potato Farm is our most enjoyable project, simply because the younger students are so enthusiastic and excited to learn. As an organizer, to witness this level of engagement is very satisfying.

Working with the younger students is strategic. The younger students are very inquisitive and more open to gardening than older students. The Potato Farm and other garden activities familiarize these students with the garden earlier so they are comfortable working in the gardens as they graduate into secondary school. They are also more knowledgeable and less shy and have established a good relationship with the school garden organizers.

We are very proud of our garden programs here at Britannia, which connect students directly to the land and source of food along with issues of environmental sustainability. Students are gaining important skills and knowledge that best come through such hands-on learning. For many students, their time spent in the gardens, digging up potatoes and other veggies, are some of their most memorable school activities.

Welfare Food Challenge – Day 7 (Final)

I ended my Challenge this past Sat evening, a few hours before the end of the week, at a Witness event where a feast was served. It seemed contradictory, but somewhat fitting to end my Challenge where delicious healthy food was offered and shared amongst a group of research participants and their family and friends (witnesses) who were involved in a place-based learning project exploring traditional environmental knowledge and sustainability. The dinner was amazing – salmon, wild rice, and roasted vegetables and all the more amazing when eating with a group of interesting people. Had I still been on the Challenge I would not have been able to attend the event. I would have missed this wonderful social and educational event.

Attending the feast highlights the very important social aspect of food along with my privilege. Food brings people together and I am fortunate to have ben invited, to be a part of an interesting, intelectual, and stimulating community. Food in this case signals class privilege.

I also now see how much I take food for granted. …that it will always be there for me, without fully realizing the central role it plays in my life. Ending this challenge, with its severe limitations, with a life affirming feast, reminded me that food provides us more than mere physical sustenance. Food feeds my social experience, nourishes my emotional well being, connects me to culture and identity, invokes memory and story, and so on. Food nourishes my whole being.

My partner’s diet was also compromised this week. While she was not on the Challenge, she was also affected. Since food is social we were not preparing food together. She had plenty of good food around, but the familial patterns of preparing food together disrupted her daily healthy food practice.

We need to take social responsibility for changing this system so everyone has good food to eat. Expecting an individual to live on $18 a week for food is cruel. It reduces a person to basic survival and illness at worst. Ideally, the basis of a dignified food system nourishes the whole person.

Now that I have ended my Welfare Food Challenge, I feel an increased conviction to take a hard look at the work I am doing to support groups like Raise the Rates and food justice in my community. I am very interested in the many discussions and efforts within the context of our work as community food developers with the Neighborhood Food Networks to better understand this term food justice. I am also encouraged by recent discussions globally that are now pointing the way towards a new food justice understanding defined by Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshias in their book Food Justice as “representing a transformation of the current food system, including but not limited to eliminating disparities and inequities”. This focus creates new opportunities for a deeper analysis of structural inequality in the food system. It also requires connecting food inequality to broader social policy and movements.

Being on the Welfare Food Challenge has helped me to better understand the challenges that those on income assistance face. For one week, I embodied the struggle which made it a bit more real for me, though fully grateful that I have stability in my life. And with this stability and privilege, I will continue to work for a more just world as an ally to my friends and fellow community members who themselves are struggling.

Welfare Food Challenge – Day 5

Am relieved to have gotten through the day given that this was my most physically demanding day. On top of work, I found the energy to cycle over to the Vancouver School Board rally in protest of the provincial government’s firing of that Board. Funny how the issues are connected – a provincial government that has little regard for poverty reduction nor public education.

Anyway, back to the Challenge. My co-worker Kathy Whittam, who is also on the Challenge, again shared me some of her food, which again, helped me through the day. I guess this is what people in this situation do….they help each other. Kathy, her husband and daughter are all on the Challenge and she says it is a bit easier for them having $54 for the week and being able to stretch that money further…for example, finding a large bag of potatoes for a few bucks, like bulk buying. Kathy also took more time to source out the cheapest food she could find. I have actually been under budget for a few days, so was also able to splurge a bit tonight and roasted up 2 full potatoes with ketchup. Wow, what a treat….two potatoes.

My understanding from today is the importance of sharing. I alluded to this in my previous post where I mentioned the need to better redistribute food surplus, to work towards creating a sharing economy in which we take care of others based on free access to food. This is a notion that has become more clear to me recently when challenged by First Nation leaders who I work with, that food security is not simply a right, as defined by some legal principal, but rather a responsibility, and one of four core values in the Aboriginal world view –  the three others being respect, wisdom, and relationships. We have the responsibility to ourselves, our families, our communities, and the land.  It also entails mutual accountability, reciprocity, maintaining a healthy, balanced life as well as showing leadership through modelling wellness and healthy behaviors (First Nations Health Authority). When I see First Nations standing up for the environment for example, I better understand that this commitment comes from an awareness of one’s responsibility.

Welfare Food Challenge – Day 4

It was a rough day. Woke up nauseous and with mild headache and brain fog. It is not unusual for me to have days like this. My health is a bit of a roller coaster, but this morning seemed extra rough and quite possibly exacerbated by this shitty diet. I am also reminded that I don’t digest beans very well, which I will spare you the details of needless to say that I have a sensitive gut.  So what do I eat for protein?  Anyways, I felt better as the day progressed and had enough in my budget for a decent evening snack that included a handful of hazelnuts, a few Tbls of chia seed and coconut milk. It was enough to stave off hunger….until morning.

Fortunately, my work week is pretty easy, which is lucky cause work can include a fair amount of physical work and long hours. Having said this, tomorrow is our school garden day, which includes some physical work. Then Friday will be easy but Sat I booked a landscape work party at the co-op where I live in which we will be building new raised garden beds. I am a bit worried whether I will hold up.

I imagine that being on income assistance or disability and eating poorly would make it hard to pull oneself together, to get out and find work, to simply get through the day without the physical (and mental) energy.  This reminds me of a participant in our Bulk Food Group who is a senior on a meager pension and who called me up and basically told me that she was starving, in the very real sense. Her doctor had told her that she was severely malnourished and needed to start eating properly again. She had very little money to buy healthy food, and for whatever reason was not accessing such food from anywhere.  Her health was compromised and she suffered from a number of chronic ill health conditions. To declare oneself as literally starving in Canada should be an oxymoron.  Good news is that she is feeling much better since accessing fresh produce through our program. She always comes to pick up food and is consistently enthusiastic, positive and extremely grateful for the food.

I am also thinking more about how our commodified food system has really created this messed up two tier system in which there are those of us who can afford healthy food and those who can’t (or many who can only afford healthy food some of the time). At the same time, we have a tremendous surplus of food and up to 30% (maybe higher in some places) wastage. There is no reason why people should or need to go without, especially if we were to find a way to redistribute this surplus food through a redistributive or sharing model. Rather than food as a commodity, good food should be freely available to all as a right or responsibility.

Welfare Food Challenge – Day 3

I cannot live on one meal a day as I have been trying, apart from a coffee and butter in the morning. It means going a full 24 hrs before the next meal and today, by noon, I was so hungry, my stomach actually kinda hurt. I will need to eat smaller amounts through the day to get by. Thankfully, Kathy, who I work with and who is also on the Challenge had some extra food (I don’t know how) and shared it with me so I was able to have two meals today. Apparently it is not cheating if someone else who is on the Challenge shares their meal. Anyway, I thought is was very generous of her.

Apart from feeling very hungry much of the day, which is no fun, my energy has been holding. I added some nettle tea to my menu today, which will provide me with good general medicine. Talking about medicine, I am on number of supplements, so if there is one thing that I am cheating on this week, it is that I am not prepared to give up my supplements needed to maintain my health (remember the chronic inflammation). These include magnesium, vit d, glucosamine, trimethylglycine, licorice extract, black radish root, seriphose, melatonin, and some other compounded anti inflammatory supplements. The value of these alone likely exceeds the $18/week.  I manage to stay relatively active and healthy, I work full time plus, and I remain generally close to a 1 or nil on the pain scale most days (was not always as good). Imagine, for those on welfare who are also ill or struggling like I am with ill health. Not only can they not afford healthy supplements, but the food they are eating is making them sicker.

If any of you are unfamiliar with the Food Costing In BC 2015 published by the Provincial Health Services Authority and previous editions of the Cost of Eating in BC by the Dietitians of Canada, I recommend reading these. They essentially cost out the “average monthly cost of a nutritionally adequate, balanced diet in BC based on the National Nutritious Food Basket” in various regions of BC, including Vancouver. “The average monthly cost of a nutritious food basket for a reference family of four in British Columbia in 2015 is $974”. In Vancouver, the cost increases to $1,011.  Most importantly, there are serious negative effects on physical and mental health when people cannot afford a healthy diet and as the Dietitians state “it is timely for further income and disability assistance reform so that more British Columbians can afford sufficient healthy food and meet their nutritional needs”.

The Challenge is not really about how I am going to make it through the week. I will be just fine thank you to a secure job and co-op housing. The Challenge is about raising awareness of the need to raise income assistance levels. The question is what is it going to take to achieve this?

Welfare Food Challenge – Day 2

Started the day as usual with coffee and 2 tbls of butter for healthy fats and calories. Then another lunch of beans, rice, and small handful of veggies to last me the rest of the day. Like yesterday – just one real meal. I was also able to squeeze in a spoonful of cashew butter. But like yesterday, am feeling very hungry as I write this. I am not clearly not getting enough to eat.

Here is my lunch. Looks alright, but remember it’s my only meal of the day.


So what about calorie intake…am I getting enough energy. Apparently I need a little over 2000 calories a day at the current time. I guess if I don’t eat the calories, I start to burn stored fat. Since I am pretty slim, I am not looking to loose weight. I did a simple calculation of my calorie intake today and it was less than half of what I need for a relatively low exercise week. I expect that my energy will start to fade by weeks end.

The Grandview Woodland Food Connection runs a Bulk Food Group. Participants pay $14 for two large bags full of fruits and veggies, which works out to a 40% average savings over retail. We further supplement this food with Greater Vancouver Foodbank donations and Choices Food Market “rescue” food that is organic but slightly blemished, ugly, or near or past best date. Participants leave with alot of food, and for some, this food is the difference between eating reasonable well or needing to go to a food bank.

Participants in this program are all struggling financially, however one defines this. Some are students, some in low wage jobs, on income assistance or disability, a number are pensioners. What is rather shocking is how far participants are traveling to access food through this program. I ask them, “is it worth your time and energy to travel so far”, and without a question, all answer very much so.  Some are coming from Burnaby, Little Mountain, South Vancouver, and the Downtown Eastside. One of our participants has a severe disability and requires a walker. Sometimes she travels by bus, and sometime uses Handidart. She travels from Little Mountain (Main Street) area where she says there is no food as affordable as our bulk food program (even though there are food programs in that area).

My heart really goes out to this woman, who despite her disability, has such difficulty accessing food. And here are many other stories like this.