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Five ways an environmental non-profit can increase the resilience of schools – and surrounding communities

FTFA has been working with learners for more than 25 years.

Environmental non-profits are vital if we are going to save the planet from catastrophic climate change and ensure that fewer people go to sleep hungry – by cultivating the next generation of farmers, and, more generally, people who respect and care for the planet.

Food & Trees for Africa (FTFA)–a leading Section 21 Non-Profit Organisation that addresses food security, environmental sustainability, and greening–has been working to make Africa’s food system more resilient, starting at schools. This year, FTFA turns 30 and has helped thousands of schools around the country.

  1. It’s not just about growing food, but that can really help – especially in a crisis

Environmental education at a school level is about much more than growing food, but the food itself doesn’t hurt. For many school learners, their FTFA-partnered school gardens are an essential source of nutrients–and sometimes their only source of fresh fruit and vegetables.

More than half of South Africa’s children continue to live below the poverty line, according to Unicef. And chronic malnutrition is an underlying cause for half the childhood deaths in SA. Food gardens in schools are one way in which to begin tackling this problem, and to feed children the healthy and diverse meals that they need to learn and grow. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing poverty and hunger. During the lockdown in South Africa, millions of people went to sleep hungry. In response to the pandemic, FTFA launched the Grow Your Own initiative, inviting people around the country to apply for seedlings to grow food for themselves and their communities. To date, it has disbursed almost 720,000 seedlings. Through this effort, FTFA was able to bring healthy, sustainable food to South Africans who needed it most.

  1. Understanding environmental responsibility is now a critical job skill

The worldwide zeitgeist has shifted from environmental exploitation to stewardship, says Robyn Hills, Head of Programmes at FTFA, which is extending into every area of business and employment. Learners that are equipped to deal with that imperative – or better yet, take a leadership role on it – are at a significant advantage.

That is as true in South Africa as elsewhere.  

 “South Africa is not exempt because it’s an emerging market,” says Robyn. “The next generation of young people in South Africa need skills and they need to know about the environment they’re part of.” 

  1. “Living” classrooms offer a different context for learning traditionally important lessons in a new way

Gardens are a different style of classroom, says Hills, and learning goes beyond the immediate skills they acquire there. “Children in a garden are not just learning about food production; they are learning languages, maths, natural science–all of those skills need to be applied in a garden.”

FTFA has been running the EduPlant programme since 1994, and has seen the impact its efforts have had in schools in under-resourced communities. These interventions include empowering learners and teachers with the resources, training and support they need to develop or improve their food gardens. 

  1. Some children learn in the garden, but everyone in the school – and beyond – gets an education

EduPlant facilitator Bharathi Tugh has been with EduPlant since 1995, and says its reach goes beyond the children in the garden at any one time.

 “The entire school may not have been hands-on with the garden, but every child is exposed to the concepts, from how a seed germinates to climate change to mathematics by counting in the garden.”

In the last 15 years alone, FTFA and its facilitators have reached almost 30,000 schools, training educators and learners on how to develop their own food gardens. Every two-year cycle, FTFA facilitators have overseen upwards of 300 new schools to improve their productive food gardens and increase their resilience.

People are often told that they should grow food because it will make them employable or because it is a way to make money, says Tshepiso Senetla, a co-ordinator at FTFA. “It’s more than that,” she says. “It is important to teach it as a basic life skill, not just a career choice.”

  1. When communities suffer, schools can become anchors in a storm

During South Africa’s hard lockdown in 2020, FTFA (as an essential service provider) distributed more 126,000 additional seedlings to help school food gardens meet the greater demand for food in their communities. 

The schools transformed from places of learning to lynchpins of food security. “2020 really highlighted the resilience of teachers and learners,” says Bharathi. “A whole new dynamic evolved: the skills transferred from the schools to the surrounding community. People went home and started to plant.”

During the pandemic, many teachers who had been trained through FTFA programmes were able to set up their own home food gardens to support the most vulnerable in their communities.

“We find that schools whose gardens incorporate community support also have better relationships with their neighbours,” says Robyn. “You can imagine why – if your immediate community is invested in the school grounds, it reduces negligence, truancy and vandalism.”

These gardens are evolving into food security hubs in their communities, she says.

To help FTFA continue empowering communities, you can donate as an individual or corporate. Contact us directly if you’re looking to further support greening and food security programmes.

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