On March 30th, when Ontario shut down park and recreational amenities like playgrounds and sports fields as part of its response to the coronavirus pandemic, community gardens got swept up in the closures.
Community garden advocates quickly swung into action, petitioning the city and developing guidelines to ensure the gardens could open safely this season. While it was strategically important to emphasize the role that community gardens play in providing people with fresh food, the people I spoke with were clear: The contribution of community gardens cannot be measured in pounds of food.
What is so exceptional about community gardens is that they deliver so many benefits simultaneously. When Toronto Urban Growers published their Indicators of Urban Agriculture report in 2016, they concluded that an evidence-based case could be made for community gardens’ role in physical activity, food security, food literacy, local economic development, community building and community engagement.
In short, these spaces do a ton of heavy lifting in a relatively small amount of space.
On April 30th, because of the tireless work of dedicated advocates like Toronto Urban Growers, Sustain Ontario, Black Creek Community Farm, Foodshare, Greenest City and many others, community gardens were deemed an essential service in Ontario and were permitted to open under strict guidelines. Community gardens had already been deemed essential services in British Columbia, New Brunswick and some parts of Quebec.
Here’s what we heard about community gardens as they’re about to reopen in Toronto.
Rhonda Teitel-Payne, a Co-coordinator at Toronto Urban Growers says that COVID-19 has helped shift the conversation about community gardens. Suddenly, more people are seeing high nutrition foods such as fruits and vegetables in limited supply at the grocery store.
For some, this could be the first time they’ve ever thought of nutritious food as a finite resource. This wasn’t a new realization for underserved communities where people with low incomes have far less access to quality, nutritious fruits and vegetables.
Pictured above: John Doleweerd, Scarborough Village Community Garden
In our conversation, Teitel-Payne makes a critical distinction between “food security” and “nutritional security.” The haul from a community garden may not be enormous, but the food fills a nutritional gap that is particularly prevalent in food deserts where access to nutritious food can be sparse. Also, community gardens are where people can grow culturally appropriate foods that can be otherwise difficult to access.
As Rhonda speaks, I recall a recent visit to Panorama Community Garden in North Etobicoke where one gardener proudly showed me tiny callaloo leaves early in the season. He was growing the nutritionally dense vegetable that is ubiquitous in the Caribbean to use in his home cooking. The only other way that he’d be able to access callaloo in the grocery store is in an expensively priced can.
While the mental health benefits of gardens weren’t central to advocacy efforts to reopen community gardens, they cannot be overstated.
There’s no doubt that people need daily doses of nature in their lives. John Doleweerd, the Coordinator at Scarborough Village Community Garden underscores this when he says:
“The experience of gardening and growing food is essential for people because they love it. There’s nothing that replaces that. You can watch as many gardening videos as you like, but there’s nothing like growing your own food.”
Park People has been involved with Scarborough Village Community Garden through the Sparking Change program which has supported the purchase of vital equipment, summer garden interns, and animation activities that help the community learn about and celebrate all the garden has to offer.
As John emphasizes, while many organizations are pivoting to online experiences to enforce social distancing protocols, the experience of being in a community garden cannot be virtually replicated because the gardens are critical “third spaces” that connect people to places. In underserved communities like Scarborough Village, community gardens are often the only green outdoor spaces that people can truly call their own.
John emphasizes how the important role that “food sovereignty” plays in reducing stress in people’s lives. Growing food gives people a measure of control over what they feed themselves and their families. This is particularly important at a time when people feel that so much of their lives is outside their control.
Rhonda Teitel-Payne emphasizes that while news that community gardens would reopen was exciting, the focus quickly shifted to how to implement new guidelines to ensure the gardens could open safely.
The new guidelines require that a coordinator have people sign into the garden and to oversee protocols including handwashing and the sterilization of shared gardening tools. Many community gardens, like the one John runs in Scarborough, have a volunteer coordinator. However, even before the garden has opened, John has seen his volunteer hours double. His weekly hours are now on-par with a full time paid job. Again, he’s a volunteer.
Rhonda Teitel-Payne emphasizes that plans are underway to ensure community gardens that don’t have a coordinator will have someone to hold responsibility for COVID-19 measures in place by the time the gardens open.
John welcomes new practices like sterilizing gardening tools and ensuring volunteers sign in. However, there are other, less obvious demands that emerged in the COVID crisis. For example, John and the garden volunteers usually grow seedlings on tables with glowing lights in the local community centre. With the community centre closed, John has taken to growing seedlings in his condo and is actively looking for community donations of seedlings to put in the ground.
What is most difficult for John is that some of Scarborough Village’s Community Garden’s keenest gardeners are seniors. Right now, the city is discouraging seniors from using community gardens. John is trying to develop creative ways for seniors to experience the garden, even by pulling up a chair on the garden’s periphery. However, he’s not certain if this would contravene bylaws. He’s worried about local seniors who rely on the garden for food and human connection and desperately wants to find a way to support them at this, particularly isolating time.
Teitel-Payne says that many community gardens have developed systems for volunteers to provide food from the garden to those who are shut out right now. In fact, she said she’s “looking forward to some really great stories” of how community garden volunteers are showing up for each other, even when they can’t connect in person. The commitment of Toronto’s community gardening community is unyielding.
People like Rhonda and John have dedicated their entire careers to helping the benefits of community gardening spread across all corners of the city. They stepped up to get 5,000 people to sign a petition to have community gardens deemed an essential service. Their efforts will continue to be stretched as more and more people come to realize the benefits of growing food in their communities. And now, with new guidelines and fewer resources, they are continuing to carve out space for the physical, emotional and social benefits of growing food. At the end of our discussion, John dismisses himself saying: “That reminds me, I have to go do a laundry load of gardening gloves.”
And with that, he demonstrates the seemingly unstoppable optimism that keeps the leaders of the community gardening movement pushing for something that’s better, and essential.
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