“Food and parks go together like a horse and carriage.” That’s how my dialogue with Wayne Roberts, Canadian food policy analyst and writer, began. As Roberts, former head of the Toronto Food Policy Council, starts talking about farmers markets, bake ovens, street food, community gardens and family picnics, his eyes light up with tantalizing possibilities.
We’re struck by the possibilities as well. In fact, Park People’s Sparking Change report, a playbook for how to catalyze social change in parks, specifically highlights how well food and parks go together. The report echoes Roberts when it states the belief that: “food is one of the most effective ways to bring people together in public space.”
Informal intersections between food and parks is what has Roberts most excited. He recalls a visit to Japan where he encountered families, casually picnicking under cherry blossoms. This kind of porous boundary between public and private space is, in Roberts’ opinion, the most impactful way food can play a role in parks.
Roberts sees four key ways the connection between food in parks is most powerful.
Build Social Capital:
If you saw the film Citizen Jane, you understand the difference between a fear-based and hope-based orientation to public space. Jacobs once said:
“The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts… Most of it is ostensibly trivial but the sum is not trivial at all.”
Roberts absolutely agrees with Jacobs’ assessment. Growing, making, and sharing food in parks provides opportunities for people to build trust with neighbours. Casual encounters build the social fabric of communities. Having the opportunity to break bread with neighbours in the park can lead to a friendly conversation which can, in turn, lead to borrowing a cup of sugar, a potluck dinner, or someone to call on when your kid is locked out of the house. Sometimes, it’s the start of a local volunteer park group. As the Sparking Change report says, community dinners “are one of the most reliable ways to provide a comfortable, inviting space for people to meet each other.”
Share Valuable Lessons:
To put it mildly, when I eat at my desk, I’m not thinking about anyone else. I’m simply shoveling food into my mouth. But as Roberts suggests, a convivial orientation to food provides people with invaluable lessons that are hard to access anywhere else. As Roberts says:
“When we eat together, we learn how share, look after one another, respect public space, be polite be social and engaged.”
These lessons don’t just help us at the dining table. They’re critical social skills that impact every aspect of our work and personal lives. They help us be better humans to one another.
The biophilia hypothesis suggests that people have an innate, biological need to connect with nature. As Roberts puts it, nature simply makes us more relaxed and less stressed. It’s a physiological fact that’s been proven time and again. Today, because we live in dense cities, we often eat in a state of acute stress, a fact that has an impact on our health. In fact, many scientists believe many of our modern physical and mental health ailments are caused by nature deficit disorder.
Parks can, as Roberts says, “offset” many of these issues by providing people with places to be relaxed and experience food in a way that makes them less likely to rush, and more likely to digest and reap the benefits derived from their food. Today, when 20 percent of all American meals are eaten in the car and 40 percent of Canadians are eating lunch at their desks, a family picnic is not just good for social cohesion, it’s good for your health.
Parks provide access to economic markets that might not otherwise be available. For example, the Thorncliffe Women’s Committee, a group highlighted in the Sparking Change report, runs a weekly bazaar during the summer, where newcomers, many of whom are women, have an opportunity to sell their cultural foods and make a profit.
As Roberts emphasizes:
“Using food to give people access to local economies not only provides a way for people to build skills and ladder to better quality of life, it also helps money stay within a local community.”
Local economies are simply more resilient economies. Supporting small start-up entrepreneurs is just another way that parks and food go together.
So, how can you take these points and act on them in your own park? Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Organize a community dinner or picnic in the park: Gather together a feww friends and neighbours to dine in the park. Be sure to check out Park People’s handy toolkit for park picnics to get you started.
- Access a bake oven: If you’re lucky enough to be near a park that contains a bake oven, fire one up and make some communal pizzas. Some park groups like Friends of Regent Park, offer bake oven training.
- Grow your food: Many parks have community gardens, so you can reach out to members and see if they would be interested in hosting a harvest party to share the bounty of food grown together.