Growing Healthy Ideas: the impact of school gardens on health, food security, and rural sustainability

Apr 22nd, 2014

By Cathy Newhook

Growing Healthy Ideas: the impact of school gardens on health, food security, and rural sustainability

Growing your own food was, for much of this province’s history, a means of survival. Just 50 years ago, the yields from backyard vegetable gardens were a staple at ‘Sunday Dinner’ tables around the province, but a generation later much of that tradition has been lost and most of the food we place on our tables has been shipped long distances and grown in large-scale commercial farming operations. In the last few years however, there has been somewhat of a gardening revival taking place. Growing your own food is fast becoming the ‘hip’ thing to do.

For a school in Harbour Grace, however, this gardening revival is old news. St. Francis School opened the first and only greenhouse of its kind in the province nearly 20 years ago. 

“In a lot of ways the greenhouse at St. Francis was ahead of its time,” said Emily Doyle, Memorial University Community Health PhD student, recently completed a study on the facility with funding from the Strategic Partnership – Harris Centre Student Research Fund as part of her broader research on school gardens and their benefits to health, food security and rural sustainability. “It began with a focus on creating opportunities for students to build agricultural business skills.”

The programming has evolved over the years, as the school has changed from a high school to an elementary school, but the high-tech modern greenhouse structure has served as a constant motivator to generate educational programs that benefit the students and broader school community.

As part of her research project, Ms. Doyle investigated how the project started, what different models it has explored over the years, what factors have helped keep the program running (what factors have challenged the program), what the benefits to the community (students and the broader community) have been and what factors are necessary for the program to be sustainability.

“I was trained as a teacher, and during my education degree I saw a great need for opportunities for students to learn about gardening and growing your own food,” says Ms. Doyle.  “It’s not just about teaching health in health class. It’s about having healthy meals, healthy school food policies, and healthy family-community interaction in our schools. While agricultural knowledge disappears, youth are at risk of being increasingly unhealthy possibly due to a more sedentary lifestyle amplified by unhealthy diets. I think gardens are a model way of enabling that kind of comprehensive approach to health.”

When funding is available, the program at St. Francis School aims to get students (kindergarten to grade 8) out of the classroom and into the greenhouse. The 100 x 40 foot structure is attached to the school and is often filled with vegetables that the students have grown from seed. Students are able to monitor the growth of the plants while learning about soil and nutrients and watering techniques.

“Students benefited from hands on and cooperative learning, from exposure to healthy food and the raising of ecological consciousness,” said Ms. Doyle. “Students also became exposed to the agricultural potential of Newfoundland and Labrador. In many cases, the people I talked to in the study felt that the types of lessons that students learned in the greenhouse should be a normal part of the educational experience of students.”

Further to the impact on students, the study also showed a positive impact on the school and broader community.

“The greenhouse helped to create, and depended upon, an enriched partnership between the school and community,” Ms. Doyle said. “By forming connections with other schools in the region and engaging in learning projects with the whole community, the greenhouse helped to build community capacity which has potential implications for community health, rural development and youth engagement.”

Ms. Doyle recently presented her research at a Harris Centre Synergy Session at Memorial University’s Grenfell Campus to an audience of educators, researchers, and policy makers. She also shared her research with several educators operating school gardens in the Corner Brook area and connections were made during the session for continued knowledge sharing and collaboration.

“This study clearly shows the potential benefits that school gardening programs offer in rural environments,” said Ms. Doyle.  “Although this pilot research is a preliminary stage in my research program, there is enough valuable material to promote and support the creation of school gardens in this province so more kids can learn the value and tradition of growing food and food sustainability – and get their hands dirty outside the classroom.”

Watch the Synergy Session presentation online here.



The Harris Centre

230 Elizabeth Ave, St. John's, NL, CANADA, A1B 3X9

Postal Address: P.O. Box 4200, St. John's, NL, CANADA, A1C 5S7

Tel: (709) 864-8000