More Farm and Food Teacher Ambassadors On Deck

Rejoice, people who say we need more agriculture education in the classroom. Here’s some good news.

In Ontario, plans are underway to have up to 50 agriculture in the classroom teacher ambassadors – twice as many as now exist — trained and available for assignment by the 2018/19 school year.

This initiative is being driven by AgScape (the organization formerly known as Ontario Agri-Food Education Inc.) which calls itself “the voice of agriculture in the classroom in Ontario.”

AgScape is holding its inaugural annual meeting at the University of Guelph next week, and I suspect this boost in teacher ambassadors will be the topic of a toast or two. It should be – this is a big deal, and a nod to the good things that can happen when federal, provincial, and private industry funding work together.

The teacher ambassador program is exclusive to grades 7 through 12. All trained teacher ambassadors will be able to teach lessons on topics that the farming community wants young people to know about. These include local food, food security, food safety, economics, agriculture in Canada, organic production, livestock production, climate change, environment-focused initiatives, biotechnology, technology and innovation, and careers.

In fact, all lessons contain a career component, designed to ultimately help fill the chronic shortage of qualified personnel in the agri-food sector.

Here’s how the program works. AgScape receives core funding for many of its initiatives from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). Its teacher ambassadors are paid supply-teacher rates for as long as they’re in the school. In-class time can range from about an hour (to teach one lesson) to all day, when teaching multiple classes or lessons.

In 2016, teacher ambassadors had class time with more than 3,000 students in 83 schools, covered by 45 school boards. They delivered 130 lessons.

But they could have done more, if they had had more people. In fact, they’ve had to turn down requests from schools to give lessons because they didn’t have the human resources to deliver them.

With the new support from OMAFRA, AgScape will be better able to meet demand…at a crucial time, when there is such a thirst for knowledge about the agriculture-food connection, no matter what age.

OMAFRA funds cover not only the teacher ambassador program, but also core components of our other initiatives. That said, this core support represents only about one-third of their overall budgetary needs. They still rely heavily on industry support to operate.

Last year, the group re-branded as AgScape —an amalgam of agriculture and landscape — because it wanted to convey a broader message that included food. The agricultural landscape includes food. Thus, AgScape.

It’s also changing the way it trains teachers. It’s raising funds ($375,000) for a program it calls the Business of Food, supported mainly by Growing Forward 2. It’s an online training platform for teachers who can deliver ag and food lessons.

The Business of Food initiative will replace onsite training. AgScape has traditionally trained teachers in small numbers, about two or three at a time, usually at its headquarters in Milton.

But that’s not resource effective. For example, if someone wants to take the training soon after the organization had completed a training course, they had to wait until the next in-person course becomes available. This new approach will eliminate that hurdle.

AgScape’s teacher ambassador expansion comes at a time when many organizations are trying to reach youth, in assorted ways. Everyone has their role — AgScape is the key to getting into schools, with honest agriculture info.

“We have no agenda except to provide accurate, balanced, curriculum-linked information to students via our trained teacher ambassadors and other initiatives,” says Colleen Smith, AgScape executive director. “We are proponents of healthy food choices, a balanced perspective on many ag-related hot-button issues, and ag-career information.”

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