What’s in your lunchbox?

Teacher: What farm animals do we raise for food in Canada?

Grade three student A: Chickens

Grade three student B: Pigs

Grade three student C: Dogs

“We do raise dogs on our farms, but we don’t raise them for food,” said Sara Shymko, executive director of Agriculture in the Classroom Saskatchewan.

“In different countries they eat different food. For example, chickpeas are eaten a lot in India and not as much in Canada, so we learn to eat different things wherever we’re from.”

March is Canadian Agriculture Literacy Month across the country.

“Our Food Our Story” is this year’s theme, which has nine provincial Agriculture in the Classroom organizations delivering programming to more than 30,000 students in more than 800 classrooms throughout the country this month.

It’s a particularly busy time as organizers and volunteers travel to schools dishing out information while stirring enthusiasm for agriculture.

To help kick off the seventh annual national event in Saskatchewan, Shymko spoke with Grade 3 students at Bishop Roborecki Elementary School in Saskatoon March 1.

She said that while the knowledge of agriculture is generally low among students and their teachers, there’s a basic recognition that food comes from farms.

“As soon as you get into anything deeper, the kids just don’t really know,” she said.

“Especially as you get older in the grades, there’s a lot of misconceptions, or misunderstandings, or pieces of truth that get melded together.… I think that’s why it’s really important that we are here to deliver accurate balanced and science-based information.”

Throughout March, Agriculture in the Classroom-Saskatchewan is visiting 7,700 students in 337 classrooms with a team of 176 volunteers from the agriculture and food industry. During these visits, the volunteers are sharing their personal agriculture stories and leading students through a brand new activity, “What’s in Your Lunchbox?” which helps students learn where their food comes from.

Shymko said the most important part of program is the opportunity to connect local farmers and agriculture representatives to students in an effort build trust through relationships.

“They’re putting a face to the food,” she said.

“They’re drawing those local connections. They’re making it real and that’s something that is so important because when you meet and build a relationship, then trust can also be built.”

Jason Bosovich volunteered his morning to speak with the Grade 3 students at Bishop Roborecki Elementary School about his farm near Rama, Sask.

He asked and answered questions from the eager and curious young minds, while showing them photographs of his combine, baler and his own children eating supper in the field during harvest.

Afterward, he sat on the floor with the students and played a game, “What’s in your lunchbox?” Using cue cards, students picked which foods they thought were associated with a particular crop or livestock animal.

He helped clear up some misperceptions from the young students, who now know that cows eat grass, not strawberries, and that crab dip and bananas are not grown on Saskatchewan farms.

Bosovich said it was worth his time, and he enjoyed sharing farming experience with the eight year olds.

“Children from our towns and cities who don’t have exposure to agriculture should learn about where their food is produced, how it’s produced, that it’s safe for them and the whole world to consume,” he said.

“It’s important for them to know that agriculture is a major contributor to our provinces and national economy.”

Bosovich also sees educational value for students to have field trips to farms.

“A lot of kids don’t know anybody from the farm to go learn or see what it’s all about,” he said.

“Even just being on the farm and seeing some of the equipment in the fields and livestock would be good.”

Added Shymko: “Students growing up in the lower socio-economic neighbourhoods in the urban centres often never leave their area and are very disconnected from what happens outside of the city and on farms.”

This year, Agriculture in the Classroom is providing a $300 bursary to offset the travel costs to get students out of the classroom onto farms and agribusinesses.

“Teachers are quite interested in it,” she said.

“Obviously, part of it is finding enough farms that are interested and willing to have students come out to their farms. That is sometimes a barrier.”

Bosovich sees increased benefit in connecting with grades 11 and 12 students, which is when many start formulating plans and career choices.

“I want them to look at agriculture, to know that there’s not only agriculture specific jobs, but also agricultural related jobs,” he said.

He thinks the time has come to offer students options for agricultural specific curriculum at the senior high school level.

“It can be a broad thing, but it wouldn’t be a bad thing for somebody who’s potentially wanting to move into ag to have the option to learn a little bit more about it previous to post-secondary,” he said.

In order to make the largest educational impact, students should experience Agriculture in the Classroom several times between kindergarten and Grade 12, but most of the programs are targeted at the elementary grades.

Teachers don’t necessarily need to have a personal interest or agricultural education because resources about food and agriculture have been strategically designed to meet their curriculum outcomes.

“We want to make it appeal to teachers because it’s a good teaching resource and not necessarily because it’s about agriculture. Otherwise, they won’t choose to teach it and there is a very big percentage of teachers who are now removed from the farm,” Shymko said.

“What we have found is because we develop resources that are curriculum based, very hands-on and interactive, teachers are like, ‘oh, this is great. I need this for my science class.’ They don’t come to us and say, ‘this is great because it’s about agriculture.’ We sort of flipped our strategy and said, ‘it’s going to be the best resources.’ ”

Now in its 24th year of operation, Ag in the Classroom-Saskatchewan expects to surpass last year’s number of 74,000 students during the school year. It receives funding from all levels of government, companies and stakeholders.

However, the amount of resources is not keeping pace for the registered charity because the program continues to quickly expand.

“There is a definite opportunity for individuals, businesses and organizations to also support us,” Shymko said.

“Maybe there’s people out there who don’t feel comfortable going into a classroom and volunteering, but there’s other ways that they can still support and make a difference.”

However, farmers sharing their stories continue to have the biggest impact for students.

“It’s really the farmers’ stories that people want to hear,” she said.

There’s a passion that comes through when farmers are talking about what they do and why they’re doing it, and that can’t be replicated. So the responsibility also goes to farmers to help build trust in their farming practices. They need to be there. They need to be out in front of people.

“And I love that the agriculture industry and the business side participates. In a perfect world, I would have an agribusiness and a farmer partnering up to visit every school to show both sides of agriculture.”

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