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Food security and community, one tomato at a time

Darren Hakker wants to bring back vegetable gardens. In his words, “the fine art of gardening has skipped one, and in many cases two, generations. We need to bring back gardening – food is vital for our survival, and we need to reduce our dependence on grocery stores and restaurants to fill the void. We need to make food security a priority.” Darren is a member at Living Hope Christian Reformed Church in Sarnia, Ontario, and is the chair of the One Tomato board.

One Tomato is an incorporated not-for-profit organization with a mission “to support and promote environmental sustainability through food security” and the goal of having “everyone participate in a food secure and sustainable community.” This big-picture goal is accomplished through a variety of means, beginning with the simple task of encouraging local people to tend at least one tomato plant and eat – or share – the produce.

At the Sarnia Artwalk festival on June 6 -7, 2015, One Tomato gave away over 1,000 tomato plants to the people of Lambton County. Darren commented, “One thing I really noticed this year is that an alarming number of people had no clue what to do with it. Many dozens of people looked at their free tomato plant, thanked us and asked what they’re supposed to do with it. Simply saying to plant it in a sunny place and give it water was totally new information to them, and they were glad that someone was eager and willing to teach them how to give themselves free food this summer.”

The Garden of Eatin’
Another means of promoting local vegetable gardening is an initiative that One Tomato calls “The Commons,” communal gardens that are tended by property owners with the intention of freely sharing the harvest. These gardens differ from typical community gardens, in which plots are divided up and rented out to individuals to grow their own produce. Since 2012, First Christian Reformed Church of Sarnia has operated a Commons garden, affectionately termed the “Garden of Eatin.’” Volunteers tend the plants, and produce is free for the taking.

This free-for-all concept takes some time for neighbours and community members to understand. Linda Weening, a member of the church’s Reach team that oversees the garden, laughed as she said, “It takes a while for the neighbourhood to catch on that they are allowed to pick out of this garden. The first year, a church member’s neighbour said she and a friend had gone with flashlights and had stolen tomatoes at night time.” When Linda hears such stories, she encourages people to read the sign that indicates the produce is free!

The garden has become something of a meeting place in the local neighbourhood. To one side of the plants is a comfortable “sofa” created from compacted soil, covered in sod. Linda said: “The sofa was one of our better ideas; we often sit there. It helps to foster the idea that it is a community garden, because we can work together and then we can sit down and chat together.” The garden requires a lot of effort from the organizers, but help with weeding increases as the harvest does. Linda noted that when people take something from the garden, they will pick a few weeds while they are there.

Some people come together to work in the garden at the regular, designated work times, Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 6:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m., and meetings with neighbours happen at other times as well. Linda noted that if she sees someone in the garden as she is passing by, she will stop in, chat and see if she can help people find what they are looking for. A Facebook group, a dry-erase board and a tri-fold flyer with recipes are other ways she keeps in touch with garden visitors. The church sent out invitations to a garden party that was held the afternoon of Sunday, June 7.

Darren commented that the garden has helped people of First CRC connect with their neighbours: “the garden is a whole new (and very successful) way to reach out into the community and connect with them. The church runs fall canning classes, teaching their neighbours how they can keep the food longer if preserved properly.”

Growing partnerships
Linda’s son Jeff Weening, a teacher at Unity Christian High School in Barrie, began a similar garden at his school. The garden was formed by breaking up some of the parking lot to make space for vegetables. Megan O’Neil, Executive Director of One Tomato, visited the school to help equip the students for this project.

This garden has become a partnership between the school and the Allandale Neighbourhood Association, which advertised a gardening day on May 17 to get this year’s garden up and running. Students and community members cooperate on the tasks of building the garden, planting, weeding and watering. As with the Garden of Eatin’, produce is free for the taking. Any excess produce is donated to the local food bank.

Community-building
Ross Douthat in a recent New York Times op-ed posed the question “do churches fail the poor?” despite the church’s consistent track record of giving to people who are in need (May 16, 2015). Douthat suggested that while giving to others may be helpful, creating communities in which people – diverse people – belong and share their lives together may do more for the common good. The same may be said for other Christian communities, including schools. He said, “the social benefits of religion are stronger further down the socioeconomic ladder, and these benefits are delivered through community, practice and belonging.” (Please, go read this article!)

Linda spoke to the community-building benefits of the Garden of Eatin’ project for their church. Members of the church suggest to people they know, from adults who are going through difficult times to parents with young children interested in how plants grow, that they visit the garden, help themselves and maybe pick a few weeds.

First steps
For those interested in starting a communal garden and wondering where to begin, Darren has some practical suggestions: “Ask your municipality for free compost. Partner with an amazing garden centre. Get noticed in your local media. And have a team of people who are able to tend it.” As well as paying attention to gardening spaces and supplies, Darren suggests turning to your local community for input: “Talk with your neighbours. What do they think? What do they want? What are their concerns? Their answers may surprise you, and will certainly put you on a clear path to establishing exactly what needs to be accomplished.”

What is food security?
Food security was defined at the World Food Summit of 1996 as being evident “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.”
The three pillars of food security are:
1. Food availability
2. Food access
3. Food use
– From the World Health Organization, who.int/trade

  • Judith Farris lives in Sarnia, Ontario with her family.

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