Green Thumbs Growing Kids

Our mission is to educate and engage children and youth with nature and food through the use of school learning gardens and other public spaces. Our work takes place in low-income newcomer communities.

raspberry fingersOur Impact Why We Exist

Green Thumbs is addressing the Vital Signs® Report indicators on:

Health & Wellness: Health and education are interdependent: healthy students are better prepared to learn, and schools can encourage students to lead healthy lives …  only 39.7% of Torontonians 12 and over reported eating at least 5 servings of fruit and vegetables daily (down from 2012). Nationally, two of five children eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. We can do better!

Environment : The city could provide 10% of its fresh vegetable needs from within its boundaries if urban agriculture were scaled up. … Scaling up urban agriculture will not just meet increasing demand for locally grown food. It will create jobs and economic opportunity, engage diverse communities, and enhance the urban environment. To scale up urban agriculture, we need integration with educational institutions as practice sites.

Why do we need groups like Green Thumbs Growing Kids?

It is imperative that our children and youth understand food production: where food comes from, how food is made, and why food is important. This knowledge not only affects their health, it also expands their understanding on the relationship between food and the environment. These critical issues are best examined in both a classroom setting, and outdoors with hands-on activities. Green Thumbs Growing Kids supports children, youth, parents and teachers to learn more about these subjects through direct engagement in food gardening and nature activities. While the Ontario curriculum does support these learning objectives, it is also clear from Ministry of Education policy documents that community partnerships are considered critical to maximizing the learning potential of gardens and outdoor spaces. 

Food, Activity and Health:

Former US Surgeon General Richard Carmona says, “Because of the increasing rates of obesity, unhealthy eating habits and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents." A majority of children and youth eat less than 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Active Living and Obesity Research Group in the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario indicates that Canadian school-aged children spend 65 to 80 percent of their waking hours engaging in sedentary behaviours.

By directly engaging children in active gardening and culinary tasks, the 'fun factor' supports healthy eating without preaching, and healthy activity for kids who may not feel comfortable in gym class. Research shows that children who garden eat more fresh veggies (Blair 2009).

Food Literacy:

Ontario Home Economics Association says, “Whether destined for college, university or the workplace, all students need food education to put healthful, safe, affordable meals on the table. That’s a societal responsibility.” The Conference Board of Canada says that “the low percentage of children and adolescents who regularly participate in family meal preparation is a concern, and may lead to future generations with increasing cooking skill deficits. Moreover, certain groups of people, including new immigrants and some Aboriginal peoples, ostensibly face more barriers to food literacy than other groups.” The Ontario government has recently confirmed food literacy as a goal following the passage of the Local Food Act in 2013. Garden-based learning is proven to increase food literacy (Blair 2009).

Environmental Education:

Author Charles Saylan states, “This generation of young people and the next generation to follow will have to solve a lot of environmental problems. We are facing one of the largest collective action problems humanity has ever faced, and we need to give students the skills to solve them. … Environmental education must nurture the social awareness and engagement necessary to convert words and ideas into measurable action.''

''Environmentalism is no longer a choice. All of us who breathe need to be environmentalists now; our future and our children's future depend on it.''

Research shows that gardens are excellent sites for environmental education (Skelly and Bradley 2000, Bucher 2012, Laaksoharju 2012).

Environmental education is mandated in Ontario; in every subject, in every grade. However, Ontario currently has no way of measuring its efficacy. Green Thumbs is consulting with experts in the field to suggest ways of using school gardens for environmental education that sticks. We offer workshops and downloadable lesson plans to in-service and pre-service teachers, as well as practicum placements for pre-service teachers, sharing tools and resources in person and on line.


Low consumption of vegetables and fruits is associated with lower income. Lower income urban children and youth have less access to nature than their rural or higher-income peers. While all children and youth need the benefits offered by programs like ours, our programs operate in communities where the need is the highest. In our workshops, indigenous knowledge is sought and respected on how to share this land. Newcomers bring their cultural cuisines and preferred garden plants into Canada, and it is through equity-seeking community development programs that these gifts can be respected and (literally) propagated.

Academic achievement:

Analysis of 20 studies on the topic show that school gardens support academic achievement, especially in science, but also in math, language and social studies (Williams & Dixon 2013). Teachers regularly tell us how their students are happy and engaged by the garden workshops, and that this often elusive quality of student engagement is a prerequisite to academic success. Students in specialized learning environments such as the Home School Program and Autism Spectrum Disorder classes are particularly drawn to the garden activities, and full-day kindergarten has created an opening for garden-based learning at that age.

Shining Lights:

We follow the school garden movement in the English-speaking world and are always inspired by examples in other jurisdictions where combined public and private sector supports have made school gardens mainstream. We dream of a day when Ontario follows suit. A few examples:

  • The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program in Australia enables skills-based learning for 8-12 year olds that extends across the entire school curriculum. Structured time “in a productive veggie garden and home-style kitchen is part of their everyday school experience.” This program runs in 650 Australian schools, with an additional 270 schools on a wait-list.
  • The DC Healthy Schools Act provides grants of up to $15,000 per school to start and maintain food gardens; there are currently 107 school gardens (roughly half the schools in the district). This program is funded through a soda-pop tax, and includes farm-to-school, environmental and wellness programs, universal breakfast and lunch programs as well as gardens. There are 7 official program service providers helping with the gardens.

harvestOur Story What We Do

We run curriculum-linked gardening and culinary arts programs in multiple schools from September to June, and recreational gardening and nature programs in summer in the school gardens. We also run urban-agriculture training programs for youth, and offer some paid work for trained youth. In early spring, we use a City greenhouse facility for students to start seeds for growing in their school gardens.

 Children regularly say how much they enjoy gardening and eating fresh foods. Recently, one child said, "I had a great time learning about plants and trying the pea shoots; I hope I can get my mom to plant peas this year" and another said "I love to be outside especially helping in the garden because I am able to feel free and see nature." Teachers agree that children in Green Thumbs programs are learning and growing confident in their knowledge. Suzanna Chwang (Grade 3 teacher) put it like this, "The experiences in the garden lead to many possible curriculum connections and discussions with the students.  They start to show concern about the environment and protecting the soil.  They ask questions about the water cycle and want to know what happens to our garbage.  They want to find out more about what other uses plants have and what other cultures eat and make out of plants.  None of these opportunities would be possible without the Green Thumbs program to spark the interest and ideas in the children.  I have worked in schools that have gardens that are run by teachers or a gardening club, but it is not nearly as effective.  Having a specially staffed program to take care of and plan the garden lends coherence to the program and provides the school with the expertise to take full advantage of the garden space." 

Youth are also drawn to this subject matter. Lynn Nguyen, Urban Roots Youth participant in 2014, says the program "got me hooked on veggies. I’ve probably eaten more veggies in the past 6 months than in the past 16 years. I know a lot more about organic food and healthy living and appreciate what’s on my table so much more now that I actually know how much work goes into growing food. In the fall, for example, we were digging up the potatoes. Although it was loads of fun, it was hard: I get why they call it digging for gold, ‘cause once you dig up that first potato, it feels like you’ve just won the lottery! Supporting youth to become involved in gardening continues a historic practice that should not be forgotten. When the fruits of our labours were served at the fall Appreciation Evening for GTGK contributors, I could not have been more proud of the things the Urban Roots Youth accomplished together."

The back story....

The story of food

The story of modern food is full of worrisome detail.

Only two out of five kids eat the recommended amount of fresh vegetables and fruits daily. We’ve been lured by fast food because we thought our time was better used elsewhere. But it turns out that without spending time on gathering, growing and preparing food, our lives are not actually better at all. In fact, young people may die sooner than their parents, for the first time in modern history.

Children are growing up thinking that food comes from a plastic package in the supermarket, or worse, from a lab. Never acquiring a taste for fresh greens or tomatoes off the vine, we’re raising lifelong consumers of highly profitable junk foods.

To make food cheap and fast we are harming the environment. Our food systems went global on cheap fossil fuels - just when we need to be seeking and promoting alternatives, and learning to love what grows close to home. Learning to cook and preserve the harvest.

By introducing children to the real story of food, we can flip the script.

Luckily, the food that we can grow close to home is exactly the food we need to be eating more of, for our health, and for the health of the planet we call home.

By helping schools grow their own gardens, Green Thumbs brings good food to children and adults alike, empowering them to participate in food production, and bringing biodiversity back into our food system.

At Green Thumbs, we share the true story of food: how all life springs from the soils and waters of the earth. We show what it takes to grow good food, and empower others to follow our example. We foster the skills and creativity needed to make healthy food taste great.

The language of gardening

Bursting with biodiversity, gardens are a perfect space for exploring colour, texture and scent. Animal life abounds in miniature action-packed habitats. Trees, sky and weather provide a constantly changing backdrop to these outdoor classrooms, even in urban neighbourhoods.

Biodiversity makes ecosystems healthy and resilient. If one crop fails, there will be another. Seeds are selected over generations to match local climatic conditions. It’s all about relationships— a complex web of interactions between species.

For children to have hands-on learning experiences with plants and soil, bugs and worms, herbs and flowers, they need opportunities and mentors. The Green Thumbs model is to supply schools with expertise and support so that they can integrate garden-based learning into the curriculum. In summer, we mobilize the community to continue gardening on the school ground.

People learn by doing. Together we’re carrying out the simple, age-old tasks of preparing soil, planting seeds and cultivating our desired crops, and feeding a deep human need; it’s no accident that the root word for soil and soul are the same. In downtown Toronto, where many languages are spoken, the common language of food unites us, as a human right and a human delight.

Urban Roots YouthOur Programs How We Do It

Our Programs

We have a partnership with Toronto District School Board. We invite teachers to bring their students out to the gardens or to the greenhouse for a pay-what-you-can donation, supplied by parents. We are not funded through the schools, the school board or the Ministry of Education. We do receive funds from individuals, corporate grants, some government funding and wage subsidies, and family foundations. We have started a social enterprise and generate a small percentage of our income through self-generated activities.

Our programs are currently running in the Regent Park, Cabbagetown and St. Jamestown neighbourhood schools and community locations. The schools are Winchester PS, Rose Ave. PS, Sprucecourt PS, Ecole Gabrielle-Roy, and Lord Dufferin PS. City of Toronto locations include Allan Gardens Children's Conservatory and Regent Park Greenhouse (under construction).

Kids Growing, our elementary school program, operates during the school day and uses gardening and related activities to support learning objectives. From planting a tiny seed to making fresh pesto, children's exploration of nature and healthy food is at the heart of this program. Volunteers and staff ensure that outdoor programs are accessible and safe for teachers to bring their classes, and help teachers learn how to maintain the garden themselves.

Urban Roots Youth, our after-school and summer youth program, teaches youth the techniques of growing food in small spaces. The youth help maintain the school gardens, compost and rainwater catchment systems, and receive honoraria. In summer, they provide recreation opportunities for young children in the gardens. They will have new opportunities for paid work in our organization as we develop a social enterprise, gardening on private lands.

Grownups Gardening is our community engagement program for adults, many of whom are parents in our partner schools. They join as members and volunteers, and may attend free monthly skills-building workshops, take plants and food home, earn certificates and honoraria. Our volunteers are key to successful Kids Growing programs, as they increase the adult-child ratio and allow each child to get hands-on experience.

Imagine a Garden in Every School is our networking and campaign program, working with five other organizations in a collaborative project which recognizes School Garden Day in May each year, using this opportunity to connect school gardeners and share best practices from different school boards and regions, while celebrating the uniqueness of each garden.

Finally, we offer seasonal trainings for in-service and pre-service teachers, in gardens and greenhouses. For schools with new garden projects, we offer a free consultation. A form is available on our website to help us help you.

seeds in the handsWhat You Can Do

Ways to get involved

* Volunteer and become a member of our organization. Our biggest asset is our people! 

* Sponsor a child or a class for a season or a school year - Contact us to find out how

* Help us get new gardens in the ground -  Donate!

* Promote School Garden Day throughout the province, to help build a collective impact campaign to change how we teach and learn about food and nature


Sunday Harrison
Executive Director
Charitable Number: 806962353RR0001

Finance & Governance


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