Cultural diversity and food diversity
In our school gardens we grow a wide variety of edible plants, including some foods that aren’t usually available in the big supermarkets. In recent years our garden has featured calalloo, West African huckleberry, sunchokes, coriander, okra, and Poona Kheera cucumber, to name a few. This diversity of food plants, and inclusion of foods that aren’t found in mainstream food stores, is particularly important to the families and children in downtown Toronto because they come from such a diversity of cultural and geographic backgrounds. By increasing the diversity of food plants in our gardens, we’re making them more welcoming for a greater number of families from the surrounding community.
Native plants and First Nations heritage
School grounds can be home to many native plants. Some of these are widely considered weeds, but they have real nutritional and/or medicinal value, and are also valuable nectar plants for wild pollinators. Through growing, using and eating the native food plants we can become more aware of First Nations history, and learning about native plants can give us a chance to honour the cultural heritage of the First Nations.
New immigrants and homegrown food
Food diversity is also important to people who have come to Canada from other countries, who face barriers in trying to access foods from their home culture. Sometimes new immigrants have difficulty finding places where they can purchase foods they are familiar with from ‘back home’; and when available, these foods are often overpriced, or may not be fresh. Another barrier is the lack of knowledge and experience about how to grow these foods in Canada, although it is possible to grow many of them at home. By cultivating diverse foods on our school grounds with the children, we’re helping to increase access to culturally appropriate food.
In many cases, mainstream supermarkets don’t sell all the edible parts of food plants. When food plants are mass produced and mass marketed, a large portion of their edible parts goes to waste. Since we have the whole plant at our fingertips in the garden, there’s more opportunity to get nutritious food, and we’ve learned a lot from cross-cultural exchanges in the garden. For example, mothers from Bangladesh taught us to harvest sweet potato leaves, parents from the Philippines showed us the value of collecting tasty leaves from pepper plants after the fruits have all been picked, and Tamil mothers shared a recipe for carrot tops. Everyone’s nutrition stands to benefit from sharing recipes and harvesting techniques across cultures.