NEWS + EVENTS
Greening Regent Park        

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Hello, friends and supporters,

I hope all of you have found some time to slow the pace and savour the joys of summer. It’s a short but amazing season in Canada.

I am on the mailing list for several not for profits. So I receive regular emails with heartbreaking stories that ask for funds. I understand why so many of us in the not for profit sector adopt this approach to gain support. But what I long for is depth and information. When I meet with our donors, funders and volunteers, they ask insightful questions and want to understand how we do our work, why we make certain choices, and how those choices make a significant difference in the lives of our community. At the CRC|Regent Park Community Food Centre, we do our work with tremendous depth, accountability and impact. Thank you for supporting this complex work.

So we’ve started to put together a series of articles that do just that. On National Indigenous Peoples Day, I posted a piece on the CRC response to the urban Indigenous community that we serve. We received very positive feedback and readers asked for more articles with depth. Over the next few months I’ve asked various members of our team to answer some of the great questions that supporters ask about their work. 

Here’s the first in our series from our gifted Regent Park Community Food Centre Manager Emily Martyn. It answers the question: Why do we support 187 community gardens in Regent Park and what difference does it make in a community with the highest child poverty rate in Canada?

Enjoy!

-Claire Barcik, Executive Director

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Management Team (1)

Emily Martyn

By Emily Martyn, Regent Park Community Food Centre Manager

It’s a rare sunny Tuesday in this rainy summer, and as I pass by the garden out front I notice a strange sight. Ashrafi Ahmed and Richard Bills, our Community Gardening team leads, are stuffing two big garbage bags full with broad, bright green leaves from our zucchini plants. I wonder why they’re throwing away the leaves. We have a robust composting program here at CRC|Regent Park Community Food Centre (RPCFC) where we’re already diverting 70% of our kitchen food scraps to make nutrient-rich soil for our gardens, the secret to their lushness. But when one of our neighbours shows up with a wheelbarrow to pick up the leaves, Ashrafi explains to me what is going on:

The leaves aren’t garbage, she tells me. They’re dinner.

Dandelions. Chili leaves. Purslane. Sweet potato shoots. Serviceberries. These are just a few of the unexpected edibles sprouting up in gardens and yards around Regent Park. When Ashrafi first started working in our gardens five years ago, she didn’t give these crops any thought, assuming like most of us that they were weeds, or inedible – just waste. But there is no waste in nature. And there is no waste in the gardens of Regent Park either. Every year when the gardens burst into bloom, community members come out making new requests. Last year, one of our volunteers was devastated when she saw our gardeners throwing chili leaves into our compost bin. Now Ashrafi knows to save those leaves for her every season. She uses them to make teas and soups.

That kind of resourcefulness is one of the amazing legacies of Regent Park’s multiculturalism. Our gardeners grow an incredible variety of crops, and put every last part of them to use. One single plant, amaranth, which is known as an invasive weed to many Canadian gardeners, grows in nearly every bed in our multicultural gardens in the Big Park. Bengali gardeners eat its leaves. Vietnamese gardeners use its young shoots. And one of our Mexican seniors saves them for the flowers and seeds.

 

Regent Park: A community with a green history

It’s no surprise that our gardeners have rich knowledge of growing and tending plants. Regent Park was home to the very first community garden in Canada, started 30 years ago by a group of sole support moms. Since then, many of the newcomers who have settled in the neighbourhood come from areas with long agricultural traditions.

Gardening is in the very DNA of Regent Park, and of the CRC|RPCFC as well. We currently manage a staggering 187 community garden plots, which provide families throughout the neighbourhood with space to grow food for themselves and their families. But this number actually represents a drop compared to the historical number of plots in the area. Prior to the current neighbourhood revitalization there were formal and informal gardens throughout the southern part of Regent Park, all of which were demolished to make way for the area’s redesign. Next year, we expect to lose another 25 garden plots when the demolition of the 295 Gerrard St. residence begins.

But does this matter? Besides providing an excuse to grow weird and wonderful crops, why is community gardening important?

 

A space to growCRC_MelanieGordonPhotography-318-5983

Our allotment gardens are the most straightforward of our garden plots. In exchange for a small fee, a family or individual gets access to a 10-square-foot plot to grow food. We provide the water and access to free seeds from our Seed Library; connect gardeners across shared interests, diverse cultural backgrounds, and complementary best practices; and they do the rest. “The allotment gardeners really know their stuff,” says Richard. “Most of them would love to have an acre of land if they could. They’re not looking for us to teach them about gardening. They just want the space to grow food for their families.”

And grow they do.

 

A space to be proud

From taro root to bitter melon, coriander to okra, the allotment gardeners grow crops from many different home countries that can be especially pricey at local grocery stores. This provides an important boost to household food security in the spring and summer months, upping people’s consumption of fresh vegetables while stretching the family budget. But this kind of self-provisioning also has another important outcome: pride. For a parent who struggles to feed their family, and who relies on food banks and meal programs to make ends meet, there is an incalculable impact to being able to provide for your children. Transforming the simple matter of soil, water, and seeds into food – into sustenance – can be an act of alchemy; of grace. And while receiving food from a food bank or meal program can be lifesaving, it diminishes the agency of the recipient; people may appreciate the food but not how it makes them feel.  Fresh, culturally appropriate produce grown by your own efforts can nourish your spirit as well as your stomach. The pride of feeding your loved ones a meal you coaxed from the very soil can provide a balm to the struggle of daily life in a new in the face of poverty.

 

A space to shareCRC_MelanieGordonPhotography-112-7062

But it’s not just about the food and the soil: our gardens offer the opportunity for the gardeners themselves to blossom. Many participants develop – or even arrive with – advanced gardening knowledge and skills to share with others. Our Gardening Program offers a space where they share their expertise and boost their sense of community contribution.

“Another incredible thing about our gardens,” suggests Ashrafi, “is that even though the allotment gardeners may not be looking for workshops on growing food, the gardens act as a gateway to connect with so many of the other resources the CRC provides. “Through discussions with our community gardens team, gardeners have expressed interest in a wide range of programming now available at the CRC, from food handlers training to our new parents’ group, to our ESL conversation circle. The gardens bring people into our building – into our organization – and provide them the opportunity to ask for additional learning and supports they need to flourish in other areas of their lives.

 

A space to learn (Kids and community gardens)

Some members of our community still have a lot of learning to do in the garden.

Like so many kids these days, many of Regent Park’s young people are likely to answer the question “where do tomatoes come from” with a quick response of “the grocery store!” That’s why one of our priorities in 2017 has been building relationships with local schools, camps, and community agencies to get our children and youth back into the gardens to learn firsthand about the elegant simplicity of the cycle that brings food to our tables.

This year we’ve welcomed over 150 kids, ages 3-16, into our gardens for tours, lessons, and ongoing programs, like our afterschool partnership with the Toronto Kiwanis Boys & Girls Club. Under the program, a group of 8-12 year olds gathered every week to plant in the garden, cook with the crops they’ve grown, and feed the scraps into our worm compost bins to feed the soil. We’ve seen firsthand that kids are much more willing to try new flavours – even previously unfamiliar ones like rhubarb, mouse melon, and fresh herb pesto – when they’ve grown the foods themselves.

 

A space to form community

In addition to the allotment gardens, CRC runs four different large communal gardening spaces, which provide a place for community members to gather and learn about gardening by growing collaboratively with our staff and alongside one another. Most of our children’s groups gather in our 40 Oaks Garden, located right outside our front door. This space is home to our Composting Program, nearly 600 square feet of vegetable gardens, a plot for indigenous healing plants, and a medicinal garden with simple healing herbs like lavender, mint, and EcCRC_MelanieGordonPhotography-002-6319hinacea. Our Big Park Garden brings together gardeners from 15 different local agencies who each have their own plots and gather together for weekly workbees.

This year we’ve added gardening opportunities in two additional spaces in Regent Park. Container gardens on the mews outside Daniel’s Spectrum and raised beds at Nelson Mandela Park School increase the neighbourhood growing area and allow more community groups and agencies to grow together.

People are meeting and working together, finding ways to contribute that emphasize their own specific skills. As one of our gardeners explains: “It’s physically healthier to be involved in the garden. It’s socially and emotionally better to be engaged in a community.”

 

A space to take care

Gardening isn’t just about growing healthy food. It’s a way to keep the mind and body active, especially important as populations age, and concerns like dementia and arthritis become real threats.

In 2016 our gardens went vertical. We established a balcony garden in a nearby Toronto Community Housing seniors building, providing residents with an accessible place to engage with some of the incredible health benefits of gardening – right in their own homes.

In a 2016 survey of CRC participants, 66% said their physical health had improved from being involved in CRC programs, with many of our gardeners pointing directly to the physical exercise they get tending their plots. But mental health is also an important benefit of gardening, from taking a mindful break during weeding to the positive benefits found from caring for a living thing. In the words of one gardener “Before I never thought I can do something. Now I have lots of confidence inside.”

 

A space to dream

A final impact of growing food in the city is perhaps the least concrete, but in some ways the most inspiring: Gardens disrupt our thinking about cities, about public spaces, and about what our communities can look like.

Seeing a squash vine snaking its way up to the third floor of a nearby apartment building invites us to challenge our thinking about the purpose of public lands, of walls themselves, and of the ways we produce and procure food. Our wood-fired bake oven in the Big Park serves the same purpose. DSC_0136

Can we sustain our city on food from community gardens and bread coming out of our bake oven? No. But these spaces can act as the spark that causes us to question business as usual. Do parks need to be vast expanses of green grass and maple trees? Perhaps they could also be home to small, sustainable gardens and fruit trees that are collectively harvested and tended. Do we need to depend on imported food grown in drought-like conditions to sustain us? What if instead we built on the expertise of our local community members to grow international crops here in Ontario? Perhaps by doing so, we can learn how much work goes into food production and develop a greater appreciation and sense of solidarity with our local farmers.

At the CRC|RPCFC, we also dream about how gardens will continue to play a role in the revitalized Regent Park. Though we are losing plots to revitalization, some will be reclaimed. Due to community pressure, every new social housing building in the community will have rooftop plots available for tenants. It isn’t enough to recover the in-ground plots being lost, so CRC is working hard to establish spaces to grow in the new community, from balcony gardens to backyard sharing and everything in between.

It is our hope at the CRC that this dreaming can be the most transformative change of all, seeing Regent Park and our own small communities as innovative and dynamic, as spaces that can be used to battle isolation, build resilience against climate change, celebrate traditional knowledge and ways of being on the land. And maybe, just maybe, even inspiring us to try zucchini leaves for dinner one day.

As we explore ways to make gardens a transformative presence in Regent Park, one big dream of ours is to expand the Community Garden in the neighbourhood’s namesake greenspace. If you or someone you know has garden design expertise and might like to put it to impactful use, contact me at emilym@tcrc.ca.

We also gladly welcome your generous gift in support of our work in the community.