Toronto Star column – published June 14, 2014
I have been polling people recently about the United Way. I have been asking friends and acquaintances randomly, “When you think of the United Way, what do you think of?” The answers have surprised me. While some people think first of the good work that the United Way supports through their more than 200 member organizations, most people think of the giant fundraising efforts that occur in the fall each year.
One person said that they think of the CN Tower stair climb fundraiser (officially called the Enbridge CN Tower Climb for United Way). Another thinks of the many events that occur at her place of work in the downtown core in one of the large bank buildings.
This is mid-June and, generally speaking, it is not United Way season. Unless, of course, you are one of those people either implementing the plan on behalf of the organization or receiving some of its benefits.
One of the many pies in which the United Way has its fingers is in 17 community gardens across Toronto. In 2006 they launched their ‘Building Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy’ which was a comprehensive effort to support long-term improvements in the city’s 13 priority neighbourhoods.
Note the use of the word ‘long-term’. Enough with band-aid solutions to social challenges, the idea is to provide answers to some of the most burning questions about the cracks in our city’s social infrastructure over the long haul. Poverty and access to nutritious food are two very good reasons why community gardens became a focus of their attention.
Today there are over 70,000 square feet or about 2 acres of community gardens around Toronto that are supported by the United Way.
A community garden is distinctly different from an allotment garden: the former is a place where a collection of people work together to plant, nurture and harvest food plants while the latter is a small plot of land that is made available to one or two people to plant and nurture as they please. A community garden serves a community; an allotment serves the proprietor of the space.
Both types of gardens have their place and are valuable in their own right. It is my opinion that we can’t have too many of either type of garden as they both serve the public good and are valuable for different reasons.
Community gardens have a very special place in Toronto as they provide a space where the fabric that holds a neighbourhood together is strengthened in more ways than one.
Feeding A Hungry City
With over two million people living here, it should come as no surprise that there are a lot of hungry people among us. One of the interesting features of the community garden model is that they are all created and managed by volunteers in the communities in which they exist. A group of people, usually residents of high rise buildings, come together and discuss how they might grow food plants and feed themselves from the soil in their own neighbourhood. They apply to an organization, like the United Way, for funding and with very little cash in hand are able to secure some real estate, acquire quality soil, seeds, tools, access to water and, before you know it, tomatoes are sprouting where dandelions once dominated.
These same groups of people come together at harvest time to prepare their bounty for off-season consumption. ‘Canning’ or ‘putting up’ fruits and veggies takes many forms and is not limited to the traditional methods that your grandmother employed two generations ago. Many food products are dried or placed in the freezer for future consumption.
The result is a list of benefits that is much greater than the sum of its parts.
People of various cultural backgrounds come together in the communal space of the garden to share their own experiences. Many first generation immigrants come from agrarian cultures where growing their own food is a given. It is interesting to note that more than half of the world’s food is produced on small plots of land by individual farmers. Your image of a farmer may include a monstrous combine on the vast wheat fields of the prairies but for many a farmer, it is their father or brother or niece bent over a furrow in bare feet, sowing seeds by hand in a far off land.
Mixed together, these different cultural experiences produce a cocktail of the most interesting kind.
Imagine pot luck food parties where bright costumes from around the world are mixed up with personalities that are as varied: large and loud, small and modest – all together in one event where the common theme is food, grown fresh by the same hands that prepared it.
How could anything but good come from such an experience?
As I wrote this past March in this column, The Stop has been doing this for years. The Wychwood Barns is a natural gathering place for just such events. And now, community gardens have sprouted up in 17 other communities.
Why not more?
Knitting communities together by meeting an obvious need for fresh food seems like a no brainer, but there are impediments to progress, which explains why there is a long waiting list of people wanting to find public land to plant for this purpose.
Think about this: in a city the size Toronto, where thousands of acres are devoted to conservation [the TRCA controls over 50,000 acres alone] and Toronto Hydro manages thousands more as hydro right-of-ways, we have people who are using food banks. Many of these same people are willing to cultivate and grow their own food – indeed, they are asking for it – and we don’t have the real estate available for them to do it.
Ask your Candidate
In an election year we should have this issue right up there with pot holes and swimming pools. No, forget that. This issue should be much higher on the agenda as it has implications that impact on health and safety [healthier food speaks for itself and safer communities result from social collaboration and full tummies].
Do we really need any more reasons to pull out all of the stops – bureaucratic, financial and otherwise – to meet the demand for public community gardens? I think not.
When a candidate for municipal office comes knocking on your door, ask them what they are doing or plan to do to help people who cannot afford to buy food and wish to grow it instead. The community garden concept is brilliant in its simplicity and every candidate for Council and Mayor should have a well articulated plan as part of their platform on this subject. If you attend a ‘candidates’ public meeting or debate, be sure to stand up and ask the question, “Given all of the social and economic benefits of community gardens, what are you planning to do to help more people access them in our city?”
To volunteer with your local community garden, to make a donation, and for details go to www.unitedwaytoronto.com.