There are many ways to empower people, says Tshepiso Senetla, Eduplant Co-ordinator at Food & Trees for Africa. It could be through money, it could be through opportunities, but she maintains that empowering people through skills “takes the cake”.

The COVID-19 pandemic showed us that skills allow people to adapt in the face of crisis, especially when resources and opportunities dry up.

Food gardens: Vital for community nutrition

When schools closed during South Africa’s first hard lockdown in March this year, educators and learners were locked out of their EduPlant food gardens. For many, these gardens are a vital source of food and nutrition for the community surrounding the school.

The EduPlant programme, run by FTFA since 1994, is the country’s longest-running and most impactful school greening and gardening programme. Endorsed by the Department of Basic Education’s National School Nutrition Programme, EduPlant offers schools in under-resourced communities and townships the resources, training and support they need to develop or improve their food gardens.

“Our garden contributes to our nutrition programme,” explains an educator from a school in Makhanda in the Eastern Cape. “It also helps us with fundraising and we also share with our neighboring community which helps us to safeguard our school.”

Community interaction is at the heart of EduPlant, says FTFA food programmes manager Robyn Hills. “We find that schools whose gardens incorporate community support also have better relationships with their neighbours,” she says. “You can imagine why – if your immediate community is invested in the school grounds, it reduces negligence, truancy and vandalism.”

Educators take their EdPlant skills home

A study by the Human Sciences Research Council estimates that about one in three South Africans went to bed hungry during lockdown. Many of these people were children, who relied on school feeding programmes and gardens for food.

Without these vital spaces to grow food, educators began turning their own gardens into food gardens. “That was amazing,” Tshepiso says. Lockdown made school gardens off limits and those that continued were not producing as much as they usually would, but the skills that EduPlant had given people echoed through local communities.

Ms Busi Maditsi, an educator at Elizabeth Matsemela Secondary School in Soshanguve in Pretoria, turned her attention to her own garden, drawing on the skills she’d learned through her participation in the EduPlant programme. In July, during harvest time, she shared her produce with her community as part of her Mandela Day service.

For Tshepiso, this reminded her why her job is important. “EduPlant is changing people’s minds, it is changing their mindset, it is empowering them with skills,” she says.

A skill every person should have

The pandemic highlighted the importance of food security, and that everyone needs to know how to grow their own food – even if it is in their back garden or in pots. People are often told that they should grow food because it will make them employable or because it is a way to make money, Tshepiso says. “It’s more than that,” she says. “It is important to teach it as a basic life skill, not just a career choice.”

That is what EduPlant has worked at for more than two decades: empowering learners and teachers with the skills and know-how to grow their own food.

While the fruit and vegetables fill the empty stomachs of learners, the gardens provide them with much more. A teacher at a school in Bushbuckridge in Mpumalanga says that they use the gardens for teaching in almost every subject “from science to art”. “Learners are also taught to become responsible caretakers and they have an opportunity to engage in agricultural practices on a small-scale, learning about the responsibility and impacts of land cultivation.”

Choosing the best school permaculture garden

The two year EduPlant programme culminates in a competition to honour the best EduPlant permaculture food gardens of 2020. This year a virtual competition was held inviting participating schools to enter online by submitting a video of their school food garden, as well as photos showcasing how the garden contributes to the school feeding scheme.
42 schools were selected as finalists in this year’s competition. The judges panel (made up of partners, EduPlant trainers and the host organisation, Food & Trees for Africa) then went into intense deliberations to decide which school will be awarded the coveted prize “best permaculture school garden in South Africa”. Click here to see who the winners are!

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