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Millions of Canadians lack access to sustainable, affordable, fresh food. Innovative community garden projects are helping communities get growing

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Kim Williment and her children Dylan, 13, and Chloe, 10, in the community garden at the Oak Lake Community School in Oak Lake, Manitoba on Tuesday, August 25, 2020.Tim Smith/The Globe and Mail

Elementary school teacher Kim Williment considers her community a “food desert.”

Oak Lake, Manitoba, located about 50 kilometres west of Brandon, has a population of about 400 and lacks access to sustainable, fresh produce at affordable prices, Williment says. So last year, her grade four students decided they would do something about it.

“When you have to drive 40 minutes to get a fresh apple or a decent salad, that’s a problem,” says Williment. “We have a grocery store but the access to fresh produce is expensive and isn’t always great, let alone organic, and the kids recognized this and came up with the idea of starting a community garden.”

What started as a school project became much more than that. It was designed right from the brainstorming phase to benefit the people of Oak Lake, with community members encouraged to access the produce at one of the garden’s three locations throughout the area.

“We even provided vegetable seeds to families and the knowledge to go with them, like how to plant,” she adds. “So not only were we teaching the kids how to garden, but they could take the seeds and know-how home and teach their parents and grandparents.”

Community gardens can improve access to sustainable, fresh produce for urban communities. The Three Sisters garden in Toronto also allows Indigenous youth to connect with their traditional culture.

Sean Liliani

Despite the fact that Canada is a wealthy country, access to sustainable and affordable food is a problem – and the pandemic has shown that certain communities experience all sorts of systemic issues that exacerbate these inequities even further in times of crisis. PROOF, an interdisciplinary research team funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), found that in 2017-18, 1 in 8 households in Canada was food insecure, amounting to 4.4-million people.

To bring their community gardening project to fruition, Williment’s class teamed up with The Jane Goodall Institute of Canada and received funding through its APE Fund grant program (APE stands for Animals, People and the Environment).

“[The program] gives money to youth-led and designed sustainable food projects throughout the country,” explains Lauren Saville, manager of Roots & Shoots at The Jane Goodall Institute of Canada.

Roots & Shoots began in 1991 when famed scientist and conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall met with 12 Tanzanian high school students who wanted to tackle urgent problems in their community. Designed to give young people a voice when it comes to sustainability issues, the program includes four steps. First, young people are tasked with finding inspiring figures in the community. Next, they do community mapping, which encourages youth to explore their neighbourhoods and look for sustainability issues in their area. Then it’s time to take action and look at ways to tackle those issues. Lastly, it’s about celebrating the impact these actions have on the community and being proud of that work.

“Kids can be change makers for their families,” says Saville. “As kids bring home their projects, it can get the whole family excited and involved with the process and that’s what we want to see happen with these projects.”

Teachers or youth from across Canada can apply with their project ideas in the fall and recipients are chosen for projects to take place in the late winter/spring. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the projects funded in the 2019-2020 school year will be continuing into the 2020-2021 school year.

“We do try and prioritize [project ideas from] lower socio-economic areas,” adds Saville.

Now is the time for a food system transformation, according to a recent report by Food Secure Canada. The pandemic is expected to double the current number of Canadians experiencing food insecurity by the end of this year.

“Access to healthy food is one of the basic necessities of life, just like housing and clean water,” explains Gisèle Yasmeen, executive director of Food Secure Canada. “The problems we’re seeing comes down to a question of structural inequality, which is not a new revelation but people are starting to wake up to it because of COVID-19, which has illustrated issues within supply chains and access in certain areas.”

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Gisèle Yasmeen, Executive Director of Food Secure Canada, poses for a photograph in Richmond, B.C., on Tuesday, August 25, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The structural inequality Yasmeen refers to is often more visible along racial lines as food insecurity disproportionately affects certain communities more than others. According to the Broadbent Institute, Black Canadians are 3.5 times more likely than white Canadians to experience food insecurity. Published last year, the First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study reported that almost half of all First Nations families in Canada are food insecure.

“People want to eat healthy and organically, but there’s an income barrier and it’s that element that needs to be broken down,” explains Yasmeen. She adds that empowering communities, building local food systems and educating youth on what can be done to grow sustainable food are important steps toward the right to healthy food for all.

Right now in Oak Lake, the community gardens are not growing on the same scale as last year’s crop due to the COVID-19 school shutdowns. But Williment and her own family are still planting in a few of the garden boxes to ensure they give hope to community members.

“What we wanted to come out of this was the realization [from others] that this is something you can do yourself,” she says." You don’t need much land, it doesn’t cost a lot to do, all you have to do is just try and the payoff is huge."