Stephen Skoutajan has been running a food based learning program at Devonshire Community Public School for eleven years. He is a pioneer in developing innovative and inspiring initiatives that promote healthy food, sustainable communities and are directly linked to the curriculum. Stephen also has many more years’ worth of ideas stuffed in his back pocket just waiting for the right time.
Using food to build strong, caring communities is a priority for Stephen’s classroom. Giving students opportunities to have positive interactions with their local community helps them feel grounded and connected. Stephen wants to make sure that “kids walk out of school knowing there is a place for them.” He believes this is a vital piece of ensuring positive, lifelong mental health.
As part of Stephen’s commitment to good food and community connection, he and his Grade 5 class take an annual walk around their neighbourhood. They meet local businesses and learn about who is in their neighbourhood. One of the innovative projects led by Stephen in partnership with Growing Up Organic was a neighbourhood walk that ended with a stop at the Parkdale Market to shop. The students interviewed the different market vendors asking them a series of questions about where the food came from. The students then selected local farmer vendors and made their purchases. Back in the classroom, they used their fresh vegetables to make delicious green tomato salsa and a giant Greek salad which they shared with students from Connaught, a neighbouring school. Stephen said parents were amazed at how excited their kids were about salad. “Wow” said one parent, “my kid never eats salad.”
Cooking from local ingredients is another one of the pieces that Stephen integrates into his learning about community. Whether the food comes from Devonshire’s Itty Bitty Garden in the City, built with help from Growing Up Organic, their classroom Tower Garden or from a local farm, learning how to prepare healthy food is an integral thread running through all of Devonshire’s projects. Students are taught how to wash, chop, and cook healthy ingredients to make easy and delicious meals such as gazpacho soup. These are life skills that not many students learn in elementary school. Recently, the class participated in a knife skills workshop run by the Parkdale Food Center. According to Stephen, “when kids have opportunities to be involved, food is fun and less of a problem or hassle.”
For many years, Stephen has been the initiator of many of the food related programs at Devonshire. Devonshire is a French Immersion school where each class spends half their day working with the French teacher and the other learning in English. This limits the time Stephen has to dig deep into these initiatives. However, this past year, Jenny Dunlop began teaching French immersion at Devonshire and is excitedly working with Stephen on initiatives to teach students about community and healthy food. Not only do they together have more time to dive into more involved projects but, as Stephen admits, it is great to have an ally.
This year, Stephen and Jenny’s grade 5 students are participating in the Good Neighbourhood Project. Students visit the Parkdale Food Center every month to take part in workshops where they learn about local issues such as homelessness and food insecurity. The students are also involved in change making initiatives such as the crockpot project, which distributed crockpots to people in need. As part of the crockpot project, students prepared dry ingredients for crockpot soup. Each student made eight packages to give out and one for themselves to take home. Through this project, the students learn more about being part of their community as well as the importance of good food.
Devonshire is also taking part in the Parkdale Food Center’s Growing Futures Project a social enterprise project centered around local, fresh, healthy food. Through the Parkdale Food Center, local businesses are linked with neighbourhood schools to sponsor the purchase of a Classroom Tower Garden. Devonshire is partnered with the local businesses Happy Goat Coffee Company and CakeLab who supplied the school with two tower gardens. Devonshire students grow lettuce, basil and other greens throughout the winter months. The first crop last year was harvested, weighed and bagged by the kids and then sold to the parents and other community members. Seventy percent of the proceeds went back into the outdoor school garden and cooking program and the rest to the Parkdale Food Center. The second harvest this year will be sold through Happy Goat Coffee Company to be shared by their patrons. Through this program, students learn about small businesses and growing healthy food. They gain experiences as entrepreneurs and have opportunities to give back to their community.
Stephen and Jenny believe that Ottawa needs more opportunities for teachers, community members and organizations to get together and share information so that more students can learn about food literacy and connect to their communities through food.
Story: Allegra Newman
Photos: Stephen Skoutajan