School Gardens – Growing the Future

September 9, 2020

Some media attention has been given to one positive outcome from COVID-19 – people being inspired to try and grow their own food. There is also a strong movement in Australia and indeed around the globe for school gardens – their contribution to diversifying diets, promoting healthy eating habits and improving nutrition among schoolchildren as well as other benefits relating to climate change adaptation, ecoliteracy and greening school spaces.

Tania Paul, the coordinator of our NT program, is working on a school garden project supported by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) with Charles Darwin University (CDU) and other partners in Papua New Guinea (PNG). In this blog, Tania explains the project, working hand-in-hand with high schools and primary schools to strengthen agricultural education, provide nutritious meals to students, and educate them on good nutrition. Since COVID-19 struck, the project is having some additional benefits, with employment for those hit by the economic strain caused by the pandemic.

Tania is the team leader – horticulture and aquaculture in the School of Primary Industries at CDU. Tania has worked for many years in the region, and is also involved in a separate but related project with the World Vegetable Center, and another project to improve PNG women’s leadership skills, also supported by DFAT.

Since COVID-19 hit, many families in PNG have lost jobs and income, local markets have closed, and supply chains for fresh food have been disrupted, causing a lot of hardship to the most vulnerable across PNG.

CDU has been working with a local team of PNG agriculture graduates setting up a “School Garden” pilot in Lae District, Morobe Province, drawing on years of experience and research developed in the Northern Territory and across the world with CDU and our research partners. This activity is part of the PNG-Australia Partnership for Development.

The plan was to adapt the ‘School Garden’ pilot so that those hardest hit in the community are paid to work on setting up horticultural plots, fish ponds and poultry sheds in local high schools and gardens in local primary schools.

Community workers preparing garden beds at a Lae high school

The workers are set up with bank accounts, given financial literacy training, and provided with the PPE needed to protect them from COVID-19.

It’s a great opportunity to help the local community who are suffering under the economic strain caused by COVID-19 and also set the schools up for a better future. We are partnering with the Lae City Hands Up Program and Lae City Chamber of Commerce, with many other private businesses generously supporting the project with donations and in-kind support.

The project will provide a boost to local food production in the short term and local food security in the long term, as the gardens will supply some nutritious food for the kids attending the schools, and any surplus will go into local markets.

The school farms are set up to be financially self-sustaining, so it’s a very cost effective and sustainable way to run a project. Once initial costs are met and the teachers trained up, the schools are able to maintain the farms themselves.

Our long term goal is to work with the schools and teachers on boosting agricultural education, equipping high school kids to make a decent living from agriculture with better entrepreneurial and business skills and uptake of new ideas and technology.

In the past PNG had many successful agricultural high schools, so we are working to understand what made these schools so successful and how the current agricultural teaching can be revitalised to produce graduates ready to set up small businesses and contribute to growing PNG’s agriculture sector.

Our other long term goal is to improve the nutritional awareness of primary school kids using gardens as a teaching resource. The project will use these gardens to reach out to students’ families in local communities, to improve nutritional knowledge, water, sanitation and hygiene in the home.

This is a pilot, so what we learn through this process in this first phase will help to shape and adapt how to approach the next phase to ensure that it is beneficial to students and the community and is sustainable.

Hopefully, down the track, we may be able to involve some Crawford Fund student awardees in our project!

The school gardens community worker employment project is to be launched on Thursday 10 September at Lae Secondary School. Further details are here.