Like many, my first opportunity to get involved with food issues was through a community garden. I was part student group that wanted to start a campus community garden, but we faced an uphill battle. We had to learn quickly and tackle all the roadblocks in our way – from raising a reserve fund to return the garden to lawn should it fail to finding an organizational host that would carry liability insurance to finding soil and getting water access. It was a crash course in community organizing, how to challenge power, and how to work across difference. In the end, we were successful, and that tiny campus garden continues to thrive.
A few decades ago community gardens were talked about as the solution to many of our food-related problems, including food insecurity. Over the years, we’ve learned that we’re not going to garden our way out of the complex social problem that is food insecurity. Inadequate incomes and poverty are the root of most food insecurity, made worse by systemic discrimination for racialized and minority groups and/or lack of food access and availability. Gardens, and even food banks, are unlikely to help those most severely impacted by food insecurity, often because they of the marginalization and inequities they experience. However, gardening remains an important element within a robust suite of initiatives that bridge individual and community action and policy to engage heads, hearts and hands in challenging the status quo.
In 1944, food gardening (“Victory Gardens”) peaked in Canada, with nearly 209,200 gardens growing 57,000 tonnes of vegetables to supplement food during wartime. Their popularity dropped and since the early 1980’s (at the same time that many food banks were starting), we have been struggling for gardens to be considered the norm, part of our everyday urban and rural food practices.
Gardens today face similar challenges to the small campus garden I helped to start. Gardens are a microcosm of the larger forces that shape what we eat and, as a result, they remain sites of resistance and small-scale activism where individuals and communities can make decisions about their own food. For example, through the simple and profound act of saving and exchanging seeds or purchasing open pollinated seeds from local, organic and smaller scale seed sources, gardeners are quietly preserving genetic diversity and working outside multi-national interests.
I live as a settler on unceded lands of the Mi’kmaw, covered by the Treaties of Peace and Friendship in the place we now call Nova Scotia. Our relationship with the lands on which we garden or farm and between settlers and Mi’kmaw communities is shaped by our colonial legacy and ongoing attitudes and actions. Through gardening, many are beginning to: (re)create their relationships with this land; reclaim community spaces; connect with the natural environment and learn about our ecosystems; plant culturally relevant foods and sacred medicinals; use gardens to foster physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental healing; and build relationships across cultures and generations. Gardens can facilitate individual and community level restoration of relationships with the natural environment and each other.
Gardens can start conversations that lead to action and activism, as people come together to talk and learn about the systems and factors that influence their lived experiences with food. Individuals empower themselves to speak up for long-term change to tackle issues of food insecurity, poverty, equity, justice, and environmental sustainability.
The agragrian activist and writer Wendell Berry wrote, “A garden is a solution that leads to other solutions. It is part of the limitless pattern of good health and good sense,” (from The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural). Gardens may not be the solution to food insecurity, but they are part of the way towards healthy, just and sustainable food systems.
- Local resources to start a garden
- Indigenous Community Gardens at UBC’s Urban Farm
- Planting a Heart Garden
- Reconciliation Heart Garden
- The benefits of gardening and growing food for health and wellness
- Beyond Food: Community Gardens as Places of Connection and Empowerment
Blog written by: Satya Ramen, Senior Coordinator, Our Food Project, Ecology Action Centre.
Adventures in Local Food is your source for food news in Nova Scotia, from pickles to policy. It is a project organized by the Ecology Action Centre. Learn more about our program at https://www.ecologyaction.ca/ourfood