A group of National Taiwan University (NTU) students have put the spirit of Japan’s Shokuiku food education program into practice by transforming the roof of a school building into a real-life version of FarmVille, a social networking game that simulates farming.
Worried by a report that showed that Japanese children were developing poor eating habits, Tokyo enacted the Basic Law on Shokuiku in 2005 aiming to instil the importance of balanced nutrition and food safety among the public — especially among young people — by promoting food education in schools, at home and in the community.
One of the initiative’s guiding principles is to promote locally grown produce, which is what the university students were aiming to do when they struck upon the idea of turning the 60 ping (198m2) roof of an NTU building into a garden.
The garden has turned out to be a huge success and more than 30 kinds of pesticide-free fruits and vegetables are now being cultivated there.
The idea came to the students when they were put into a group during a class in an elective course titled Innovation and Design of Socio-economic Organizations and tasked with finding a solution to the social problem they cared about the most, said Hsiao Yu-hsin (蕭玉欣), one of the student farmers.
“My classmates and I were most concerned about Taipei’s housing problem, so we asked ourselves: ‘What other purposes can a home serve other than providing a place for its owners to sleep and take showers? Is it feasible to utilize a community’s resources to satisfy the needs of its residents, such as by building a community vegetable garden … or a daycare center?’” Hsiao said.
Hsiao said the group’s interest in the issue was so intense that it did not wane after the course ended and led to them establishing a student club called Jiajiajiu (傢傢久) in an effort to make their ideas reality.
Thanks to a subsidy provided by My Little Wild Campus (大學小革命), a talent cultivation scheme administered by the Ministry of Education, the students were able to execute their plan without having to worry about money.
“When we first started to garden, we thought growing vegetables and fruit would be a piece of cake … but it turns out that even the way in which you water the plants matters significantly,” said Yang Chun-ming (楊淳名), who serves as chief executive of the farming project.
Yang said they got so desperate they even tried out some easy-to-grow crops recommended for beginner gardeners, but even those did not grow fast enough to outpace the pests that consumed them.
Despite the bumpy start, the students continued to devote more time and energy to attending to their garden.
They transferred the plants to elevated planters to prevent them from succumbing to heat and enriched the soil with organic supplements and by covering it with dried leaves.
The group said they made it a point to not use any sort of chemical pesticides.
After they started seeing results, the students began encouraging their junior peers to roll up their sleeves and join in their endeavor.
The NTU group also promoted their Shokuiku-inspired project at a nearby community by offering weekly gardening classes to local residents, who then created a vegetable garden of their own on the roof of their community center.
Hsiao said their short-term goal is to solve two major problems afflicting large cities: insufficient green spaces and declining human-to-human interaction.