By Matt Styslinger
Southeast of central Cape Town, South Africa is a large, flat swath of land known as the Cape Flats. The area is home to around 4 million people and unemployment is around 40 percent. As many as 25 percent of students in the Cape Flats are undernourished.
South African non-profit organization School’s Environmental Education and Development (SEED) has established its Organic Classroom Programme in 21 Cape Flat schools. The project aims to improve food security in the Cape Flats by engaging students in environmental sustainability and teaching them how to practice permaculture—a holistic agriculture system that mimics relationships found in nature. SEED’s Organic Classroom Programme is a winner of the 2010 Sustainability Awards presented by Impumelelo—an independent awards program for social innovations in South Africa.
“Permaculture looks at ecological habitats and applies them to human habitats,” says SEED Permaculture Designer, Alex Kruger. Kruger says that sustainable food gardening is a starting place for students to learn about larger environmental sustainability issues. “It addresses an immediate need. And it also brings biodiversity back into these schools, which are quite barren.”
The Cape Flats environment can be harsh on crops. Soils are sandy and high winds are prevalent. But by planting windbreaks around the perimeter of food gardens, planting in formations that channel rainwater to crops, and adding organic compost, SEED is encouraging students to take on the challenge of growing their own food. “We learn about perennial winds and climate, and we plant thick indigenous windbreaks, which are needed for the Cape Flats,” says SEED Director Leigh Brown. And SEED also teaches students how to use mulch and compost to transform the soil.
SEED says the project starts as a living laboratory that offers hands-on learning opportunities for underserved schools. “[The Organic Classroom Programme] first seeks to assist education by bringing practical education into the schools,” says Oldjohn. “Secondly, it seeks to support the nutrition and feeding scheme of the school.” Food grown in school gardens is used in the preparation of school lunches. The gardens are also used as a community center to teach the community about growing and selling produce locally. “We’re opening in communities now workshops that we’re running in the schools to train communities on how to generate a small income,” Oldjohn says.
“There’s a broader context to the SEED program,” says Kruger. “We enrich curriculum and are developing greener environments in schools, and looking at good nutrition. But at the same time we’re also fleshing out and setting up a process for matric (accredited) diplomas in Applied Permaculture Training so that we can set up a career path.” Beyond addressing immediate needs, the organization hopes their programs will create professional careers and long-term economic opportunities for young people in permaculture farming.
By supporting a tradition of environmental sustainability in the Cape Flats, Kruger believes the community will take on even larger challenges. “As our program develops we can start introducing green technology, natural building, and all the other facets of permaculture,” she says. According to the organization’s director, the school garden project is already engaging the community in broader social and environmental efforts. “Other benefits of the program are climate mitigation, biodiversity, and habitat renewal. [Also] community self-reliance, community building, and job creation,” says Brown.
SEED is also working with schools in the South African provinces of Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, and Gauteng, and hopes to create a nationwide network of school food gardens. The organization aims to cultivate leaders among the students and teachers where they establish food gardens. After three years in each school, SEED turns over the operation of the Organic Classroom Programme to the school and the community.
Do you know of a community that uses schools as community centers to create awareness and address local issues? Let us know in the comments!
Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.
To see more about permaculture farming see: Transforming Unlikely Locations into Lush, Abudant Gardens, Improving Livelihoods and Nutrition with Permaculture, What works: Innovations for Improving Biodiversity and Livelihoods, and In Botswana, Cultivating an Interest in Agriculture and Conservation.
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