Community gardens provide food security

Premier Doug Ford’s March 30th extension of the Declaration of Emergency included shutting down all “recreational amenities” including community gardens. The immediate response from some community activists, food security advocates, and gardeners was to lobby to keep community gardens open. These efforts are now meeting with backlash.

It’s about land, class, and privilege.

As an Organic Master Gardener, Accredited Landscape Practitioner, and a veteran member of four community gardens, I’ve been thinking about this issue. Their loss is part of a complete shutdown of access to green spaces in urban areas. How this restriction affect’s citizens’ mental health will be subject of scientific research, I’m sure. But the issue is larger than simply preventing people from going to places where they may encounter other people. It’s bigger than that. It’s about food. It’s about land, class, and privilege.

People who think that visiting community gardens places them at risk of infection probably have not been to one. I can tell you that gardeners don’t go there to hang around and socialize. They do their work, alone, and then they get on with all their other obligations. There might be two or three other gardeners there. It is very unlikely that your plot-next-door neighbour will be there at the same time as you. And even that happens, it is not difficult to stay six feet away, just as we all do on a public street.

It would be easy to devise a visitation schedule so that adjacent plotholders are never there at the same time. Access could be limited. Communal tools can be removed and communal storage prohibited. A scheduled visitation system would be far less risky than going to a neighbourhood convenience store or WalMart, where social distancing can be much more difficult.

During a pandemic there is no way to completely eliminate risk. We all need to eat and over the next few months of isolation, eventually most of us will need to visit a supermarket, go outside, visit a doctor. The challenge is to make good policy decisions around risk, managing the truly big risky behaviours as best we can.

Community gardens are not playgrounds. They aren’t filled with virus-laden hard surfaces and children. Neither are they happy hangouts where people swing shovels side by side, sing kumbahya, and eat raspberries from the same bowl. Members have their own plots and they grow what they want. They share in the communal work that needs to be done (weeding paths, turning compost, fixing hoses) but not together. They have a sense of duty, respect, and responsibility—or else they don’t last long. These are the kind of people who understand the need to follow rules and keep the group safe.

Land owners (and the majority of gardeners are landowners) are in a distinctly privileged position, being able to continue growing food (or convert to it) on land they own. People who rent don’t have this luxury.

Because I love gardening and I love the beauty and productivity of my community garden down the street, I think a lot about the social meaning of community gardens. They are the last vestiges of “the commons” which sustained folks before enclosures and factories turned everyone who did not own land into a unit of production. Land owners (and the majority of gardeners are landowners) are in a distinctly privileged position, being able to continue growing food (or convert to it) on land they own. People who rent don’t have this luxury. A community garden plot might just be the one bit of food security available. We are not out there for pretty salad greens. We’re growing root vegetables and squash– food that stores. We can our tomatoes and freeze the kale. We’re growing our own food so we don’t have to buy it at grocery stores.

Concern about food security is spreading. Landowners are suddenly converting their lawns to gardens, trying to buy seeds and “soil”, posting naive and desperate pleas on Facebook for gardening help and advice. Why do we support and sympathize with people who dash between garden centers when they should be home self-isolating? Why is there no support for people who actually KNOW how to garden, in their assigned plot at the community garden, whose are there simply because they do not own land?

I suspect that people who say “just shut it down and stay inside” have their own gardens. Are they also going to the supermarket, alone, no more than once a week? Do they have the money for grocery delivery? Could they afford to stockpile food?

I want people to think about the future—not just August when harvests come in (or don’t…) but a possible collapse. When the economy collapsed in Russia, it was women who guarded the community gardens and kept their families fed amid terrible shortages and hardship. In Cuba, when oil shipments stopped (due to the Russian collapse) it was community gardens that literally kept the population alive.

Our economy may collapse. This is a real and plausible outcome of this pandemic.

Community gardens should be encouraged, not shut down. Social isolation and community gardening are compatible.

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