Food Forests: New Brunswick’s New School Trend

Aug 2, 2021

A new trend in the realm of school-level environmental action is the Food Forest. A Food Forest is a dedicated area of the school outdoor space that hosts an array of edible plants which work together to form their own ecosystem. A number of New Brunswick schools are working towards lessening their impacts on climate change and becoming EcoSchool Certified. For some, part of this journey has involved Food Forests, a trend benefitting both schools and local communities.

Adam Birchweaver is a Program Delivery Officer with The Gaia Project as well as a permaculture and small-scale organic farm specialist. He focuses on planning and helping NB schools install Food Forests as part of Gaia’s Sustainability in Action Program.

“It’s one of my missions in life. How can you make the biggest positive impact for the next generation? Everyone eats food, and food hugely impacts the footprint humans have on this planet. And I think one of the great things The Gaia Project has going for it is that we’ve got really great connections with schools,” said Birchweaver. “By tapping into those connections we can increase awareness around where our food comes from and how it impacts community health, [we] can build a local [food] economy, and [offer] a career option.”

Birchweaver started this mission in Calgary as an urban farmer before moving to New Brunswick where he worked with The Ville Cooperative, a community centre in Marysville with an initiative to plant school gardens with students in the spring, harvest and maintain these gardens over the summer months, and ensure a surplus for the schools when students return the following year.

“They get to see the beginning and end result, which is a hugely impactful thing for any kid,” said Birchweaver. “You don’t want to get a kid hooked on gardening by making them pick weeds like my mom did when I was growing up; it’s a matter of doing it in a way where they get to see the most exciting parts of it initially.”

These projects have expanded to various schools with each project tailored towards the needs of each specific class and school, including the installation of a hydroponic growing setup at Oromocto High School, where food is grown without soil in what is essentially fish poop water, reducing the need for land.

Since then, Adam has united forces with The Gaia Project, with a focus on helping schools plant perennial food systems, full of bushes, shrubs, trees and more, that don’t need much work. Schools can look forward to strawberries, blueberries, and fruit trees that come back year after year with a yield. Increased numbers of plant species help to reduce pest pressure, and if one crop fails, you can count on getting a harvest from something else.

“The idea of a food forest is to integrate all these edible species into the same area,” said Birchweaver. “Within a few years of planting the food forest, students can obtain food! A lot of students go to school hungry, so if they can have access to free food…then they can get nutrition into their bodies and be the best learners they can be.”

The addition of a Food Forest also adds an aspect of experiential learning. Students can look forward to gaining insightful knowledge and skill development that will help inspire them to make healthier choices for themselves and their environment. They are able to better understand where their food is coming from, how it is grown, along with how much time and effort this process takes. Students take part in the harvesting, the pruning, and the care of these species. The direct knowledge they gain will help students garner a greater respect for their environment and the food they eat.

“When I went to volunteer on a farm it was like a door was opened in my head and I was blown away. I knew this was a direction I wanted to take moving forward. That door is what I want to open for the students across our province,” said Birchweaver.

But the benefits extend beyond the school. Birchweaver claims that once the systems are established more people will benefit, extra harvests can be donated or sold at local farmers markets with monies returning to school initiatives. Food Forests also bring forth community conversations about how we take care of our land and pose questions concerning large scale monocropping and monoculture farming.

“When they see that you don’t need to use synthetic sprays to get a decent harvest, I think a lightbulb switches on and students realize there are other ways to grow food that is good for the environment and not destructive to the environment,” said Birchweaver. “Plus, when we include Indigenous perspectives into all of this, we can continue to build on our understanding of their amazing cultures. Indigenous people are the masters of sustainability and we can only learn; we have so much to learn from them in terms of growing food and our relationship to the land.”

Getting started with an initiative like this won’t cost much, just a good plot of land that gets adequate sunshine, fruit trees, plant seedlings, and some dedication. The Gaia Project has also enlisted to help schools plan these gardens, request funding and submit grant applications, going beyond the realm of education. In some cases, upon consultation, The Gaia Project has been able to uncover and begin to re-establish food systems that were once flourishing, but forgotten about.

“Think about Forest Hills [in Saint John], for example, that whole amphitheatre hill surrounding the school is covered in wild apple trees, so it’s just a matter of getting those trees pruned up, adding a few raspberries and sunchokes and they’ve got themselves a food forest! A lot of schools have that space. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to properly use it,” said Birchweaver.

At Oromocto High School the projects have continued to evolve. What was once a desolate unused patch of grass that [could have been] sprayed and over-mowed – not given to pollinators or being utilized, is now being transformed into a thriving, productive piece of land that will sequester carbon and grow food, while being an agricultural living lab.

“It was transforming something that was basically a desert into a productive space and thriving ecosystem,” said Birchweaver.

If you’re interested in installing a Food Forest, or even learning more about how to get there and the amazing impacts it can have on your school and community, reach out to The Gaia Project. We can help get you on the right path with consultations, lead you in the direction of attaining funds to help projects move forward, and plan your school’s next climate action!

Author: Ashley Anthony, Communications Manager, The Gaia Project

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