How One Local Business Turned Unused Space into Gardens that Give Back

We love the work done by FoodShare. This local non-profit has been creating innovative programs since 1985 to ensure food security for everyone in our city. One of their signature initiatives, the School Grown Program, provides access to food and income for Toronto students. An urban schoolyard farming project, grows vegetables and fruits on school rooftops and lawns to create student employment and access to healthy food.

To date, the School Grown Program has employed 108 high school students, paid out $200,000 in youth wages, and grown $68,000 worth of fresh produce.

Higgins Event Rentals, a local family run business and FoodShare sponsor, was inspired to do some giving of their own. They worked with FoodShare and had Toronto students repurpose unused space at their Etobicoke head office into produce-yielding gardens. Not only did the four gardens installed at the front of their building transform the space, revenue from the installation of the gardens will go to the School Grown Program.

Debbie Wolgelerenter chatted with Andrew Zimbel from Higgins Event Rentals and Katie German from FoodShare about food security, community, and more.



CHEW STREET: I understand that Higgins Event Rentals has long been a supporter of FoodShare but that this was the first time the two organizations have collaborated on a School Grown program project. 

AZ: The Higgins Family has “We Care” as one of our Core Values. To us that means caring about the events we supply, the customers, our staff and suppliers as well as the greater community.  As an example of this core value, Higgins Event Rentals has been a supporter of FoodShare through its Recipe for Change event for many years.  

Higgins Event Rentals Instagram.

Higgins Event Rentals Instagram.

We were so inspired by the event, we asked our favorite question: “Can you tell me more about what you do?”  Our contact, Heidi Pyper from FoodShare, told us more about the School Grown Program.  Having moved to a new 55,000 square foot building with lots of green space, we thought that buying a garden from the School Grown Program would benefit both the students involved and our community of chefs, caterers and employees. 

Our intention is to allow our chefs to come and harvest herbs and vegetables once they have grown. We are also using this opportunity to spread the message of FoodShare to our community of customers and influencers.  

CHEW STREET: What is an easy tip people or businesses can integrate into their day that could help increase food security in Toronto? 

AZ: I have two tips that business can integrate into their day that could help increase food security in Toronto. 

The first is to plan ahead.  If you plan your event with enough time, caterers can source products locally and have time to customize menus to suit the season. 

The second tip is to hire and buy locally. Food security, in the end, comes down to people having enough money to buy enough to eat.  By hiring locally, business provide employment and employment allows citizens to buy the food they need.  It is a nice circle.



CHEW STREET: How did the School Grown program get started? Was it easy to get schools and students on board?

KG: We started at Bendale BTI when a really engaged principal and teacher were looking for a community partner that could turn the vacant green space into a market garden that would provide hands on curriculum connections for their horticulture classes to use.

This grew into three sites and a youth employment program that also provides credit opportunities for students at these three schools. The gardens now also engage the business, foods, photography, science, language, arts and co-op classes.

CHEW STREET: I remember taking home ec in high school, but not learning very much about where my food actually came from. What are some things schools could be doing to improve students’ agricultural knowledge in general?

KG: A growing project goes a long way! Indoor hydroponic tower gardens, a few raised beds — it doesn't have to be big. We work with 30 students a year in the employment program, but all of the youth in the school get to see food growing from seed to harvest just by coming to school every day with our garden beds out front. 

Higgins Event Rentals Instagram.

Higgins Event Rentals Instagram.

CHEW STREET: How can interested businesses and organizations get involved in the program?

KG: Buying a garden from School Grown or purchasing our produce provides a revenue stream for our programs that helps immensely. We would love to build more gardens for businesses across the city.

We always welcome donations as well. Every dollar goes a long way in our program because we can leverage each dollar into more funding for youth wages and more revenues from produce sales. 

CHEW STREET: What impact does the School Grown program have on the communities it serves? How does it address issues around food security?

KG: We believe in providing paid employment for School Grown students so that they can make their own food purchasing decisions. Students are also gaining the invaluable skills of being able to grow and cook their own food.

We also spend a lot of time thinking critically about our food system and the importance of working towards food justice and food sovereignty for marginalized communities. 

CHEW STREET: What is your long-term vision for the School Grown program? Are you planning to expand even more schools? More businesses?

KG: We are currently looking to establish a larger flagship school site that has much more room to expand our crop offering. We've reached the peak of what we can grow in our current space restrictions. We are excited to think of a larger scale site that could have more perennials, root crops, cut flowers and gathering spaces. 

We would love to sell more garden boxes to more businesses! We welcome all inquiries — get in touch! 


 

Further details about FoodShare’s Field to Table Schools and School grown program can be found at www.foodshare.net/program/schoolgrown

Debbie Wolgelerenter, Chew Street's newest contributor, lives and works in Toronto and has a passion for social good.  She is a Senior Advisor within the Ontario Public Service and volunteers her time with causes that relate to gender equality and diversity.