Libraries may be the ideal environment of the bookworm, but could they be a home for real worms too? What if libraries sprouted more than just facts, but food? On April 14, the CRC Regent Park Community Food Centre launched their first seed library in support of their community garden program, celebrating the start of the new growing season in conjunction with the start of the Bengali and Tamil new year. Music, art, and dancing brought the community together to learn more about the Bengali and Tamil culture, with food as the main draw: as Ashrafi Ahmed, Community Gardens Coordinator, noted: “Food catches the people and brings them in.”
A Growing Gardening Program
This isn’t the first time the Regent Park community got to experience the lively Bengali culture through food. Regent Park CFC has three allotment gardens and two sharing gardens that are allocated to families and organizations in the Regent Park community. One active presence in the gardens is a group of Bengali women, who, this past winter, participated in a food handling training program organized by the Regent Park CFC in partnership with Toronto Public Health’s social entrepreneur training model. As a show of thanks, they cooked tandoori chicken for one of the Community Meal Program’s lunches in March, feeding 200 community members. Despite worries about the spice level, it was a huge hit, with numerous people requesting a special traditional meal every month.
Regent Park CFC is expanding its garden sharing program this year, with 10 community organizations (up from 8 last year) getting an allotment in their communal sharing plots. These 10 groups – including the Yonge Street Mission, Dixon Hall, Salvation Army, and Green Thumbs Growing Kids – will get to use and eventually grow Regent Park CFC’s newly established seed library. They’ve partnered with the Toronto Seed Library, who is giving them a plethora of seeds for this year’s harvest, from squash, to herbs, to cucumbers. At the end of this season, they plan on collecting multicultural seeds from their own community gardens, encouraging sharing and learning across the diverse communities for years to come.
Nurturing Connections in the Garden
A healthy garden needs a nurturing hand to build connections and grow. When Ashrafi Ahmed started her job as Community Gardens Coordinator two years ago, there was conflict and miscommunication between some community gardeners. To help alleviate these tensions, Ashrafi organized a garden safety workshop which emphasized the garden as a safe space that cultivates respect. This sprouted into numerous other workshops and tours that involved all the gardeners in communal learning activities, helping to nurture new friendships between them. From Evergreen Brickworks’ Seedy Sunday to a Diabetes Prevention Workshop, these get-togethers bring the gardening community together to learn and have fun, while also keeping them connected during the cold winter months.
Nowadays, the gardeners work together once a week, creating a multicultural community around food. Last summer, Ashrafi often saw gardeners peering over to look at what others were planting, imparting recipes on how to make each vegetable – like bitter melon – pop with flavor. According to Ashrafi, “This is a great place for them, it breaks their isolation.” The gardeners feel more empowered in the garden: it helps community members get physical exercise, sunlight, vitamin D, and access to more fresh fruit and vegetables. She believes gardening is a deep self-care activity, where people can grow, share, and learn, while also getting access to the physical and mental supports they need to lead healthier lives.
Cultivating Community Impact
In 2014, 78% of the CRC Regent Park CFC’s program participants said they had increased confidence in the kitchen and garden because of programs like the community gardens, with one participant remarking, “It’s very different to get something from the garden than the store; the taste, the feeling I’m picking up directly from the plant, because I feel like I produced this vegetable.” Regent Park CFC’s community garden shares the same guiding principles as other Community Food Centres across Canada: to provide food access, skills and education in a welcoming space, bringing people together to grow, cook, share and advocate for good food.
At the start of the new planting season – and new year – Ashrafi hopes their Grand Opening celebration re-energizes the community for the upcoming season. “Gardening is for relaxing…it’s not a fighting a place. It’s sharing: not only sharing the seed and harvest, but their feelings: good times, bad times.”