CANBERRA — While Papua New Guinea has had just over 500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 7 deaths, the economic impact on the country through weakened demand and unfavorable trade terms has been substantial. The launch of a new garden program for secondary schools in the city of Lae earlier this month is part of an approach to change this, reducing outside dependence on the external supply of food and building community hubs that can help the health and economic recovery from the pandemic.
The Lae secondary schools garden program is being supported by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Charles Darwin University and implemented in partnership with the Lae City Hand Up Program and the Lae Chamber of Commerce. Community workers are being coordinated through these local partners, creating both health and economic benefits from a small community project.
“The intention is for the gardens and fishponds to produce enough to supply at least one nutritious meal per day for each student at the school,” Tania Paul, horticulture and aquaculture team leader at Charles Darwin University, told Devex. “But if the schools can ramp up their production, they can supply more to the school kitchens and sell the surplus into the local markets.”
The gardens are producing locally available and familiar fruits and vegetables, beginning with sweet potato, taro, tomato, guava, and orange bananas. Fishponds will be stocked with tilapia, which are able to survive in low-oxygen environments.
The team supporting the program has also worked out how many chickens the schools need to sell into the local market to cover the purchase of the next young chicks, fish feed, fertilizer, and seeds to make the garden a self-sustaining system. One of the longer-term aims is for students to manage the garden, chickens, and fish so they can build their business skills and learn about profit margins, marketing, and managing budgets and finances.
The initiative has brought together a range of sectors, Paul said, including local businesses and industry providing in-kind donations and support.
“The schools were all on board as soon as they heard, and there are many more outside of the local area that want to join in,” she said. “It’s been an overwhelmingly positive and supportive response.”
Drawing attention to a forgotten element in the COVID-19 response
For many islands, climate change has increased reliance on imported food supply chains. But COVID-19 is causing many islands to take a second look at their local agricultural industries.
The Lae project aims to bring attention to the wider benefits of such gardens in the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, they have been a missing element in the response. In impacting the global trade of goods and services, COVID-19 has created a food security risk for island communities in particular that are reliant on international trade partners to deliver food. In response, community gardens have been an important area of investment.
“There is an incredible amount of discussion at the moment around home gardens, including in Asia and the Pacific,” Danny Hunter, a senior scientist at Bioversity International, told Devex. “In Sri Lanka, the government has announced that home gardens are the priority moving forward, so all projects being implemented have had to be realigned with that. School gardens have, in comparison, not had the same profile.”
During the pandemic, the closure of schools has created a challenge in promoting school gardens, which may have created this gap. But traditionally, Hunter said, discussion surrounding school gardens has focused on the health impact for children — including improved behavior and eating habits. Evidence supporting this impact can be weak.
A review of the Vegetables Go to School program, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation between 2013 and 2017, found that in Burkina Faso — a recipient country — impacts were limited. But the “enthusiasm” for school gardens in high-income countries had encouraged NGOs and donors to seek to replicate that success in low- and middle-income countries.
Combined with the perception that they can create a burden for schools, Hunter said these gardens have become a “policy blind spot.”
Changing the narrative can make school gardens part of the wider community response to food and economic sustainability. But the gardens can also bring social impacts.
“In a post-COVID world, I think having school gardens can even be therapeutic,” Hunter said. “It will help deal with mental health or anxiety issues that could emerge. And this may be a critical part of recovery for children especially.”
“The main aim is to increase the availability of nutritious food in the diet of the school students and provide an incentive for kids to return to school.”— Tania Paul, horticulture and aquaculture team leader, Charles Darwin University
In PNG, plans for Lae and beyond
Hunter’s passion for school gardens had resulted in collaborations with a range of agricultural and environmental institutions to produce “Agrobiodiversity, School Gardens and Healthy Diets,” published earlier this year, to draw attention to school gardens and their value — and share best practices in implementing a school garden for wider community benefits. With the Lae secondary schools garden program, PNG hopes to be among the countries adding value in this space.
“We are hoping to scale out the pilot to other areas once we have a working model and have ironed out any of the issues,” Paul said.
In the longer term, this program aims to help revitalize agricultural education in high schools across provinces, improving its image and attractiveness as a career option. It also seeks to expand into primary schools — with the distribution of seeds and planting materials into the community during times of crisis as a key objective. In the very long term, Paul is hoping to see students graduate, set up their own small businesses, and, through this process, contribute to growing local food production and the agricultural sector in PNG.
“But the main aim is to increase the availability of nutritious food in the diet of the school students and provide an incentive for kids to return to school,” Paul said.
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