Thursday 15 September 2011

CHEP Good Food Inc.

Working with community gardeners to increase access to fresh, affordable, healthy food

Scattered around Saskatoon are over 18 very different community gardens. The University residences have a huge garden with lots of ethnic diversity. City Park Community Garden is one of the oldest in the city with small plots cared for by individual families or residents. The Caswell Hill Garden is new and is a shared, communal responsibility.

St. Matthew’s Anglican and St. Martin’s United Church both provide space for community gardens. The garden at Aden Bowman Collegiate provides hands-on experience for the students in the EarthKeepers Program, and the food is used in-house. A few plots are set aside for community members.

Operating a community garden is a big responsibility, requiring administrative and people-management skills as well as gardening experience. Local residents share land and resources and build a sense of belonging to a community. Fortunately, help is available from CHEP Good Food Inc.’s Community Gardening Coordinator, Ruth Anne Rudack.

CHEP Good Food Inc.
CHEP was originally formed to respond to child hunger. Community members saw hungry children and wanted to help fill their bellies. As CHEP evolved, its mission expanded and they now run a multitude of programs for children, families and communities in order to improve access to fresh, affordable, healthy food and to promote food security.

“We can’t solve food security on a global scale,” Ruth Anne explains, “but, by helping community gardeners, we can take one more step towards producing more local food and greater sustainability.”

Ruth Anne says that there has been increased interest in community gardening over the past three years. Accessibility to land was a problem at first, but City officials and community decision-makers have grown in their understanding and appreciation for community gardening. Saskatoon Public Schools provided funding and support for four pilot projects in 2011, and the number of churches providing land is growing.

The City of Saskatoon is not only supporting community gardens on public parkland but has made all vacant city-owned parcels available for food production by non-profit organizations, such as the Saskatoon Food Bank garden on 2nd Avenue.

As well as providing start-up information, CHEP co-signs the leases for community gardens on City-owned land, provides the gardens with liability insurance and shares responsibility for restoring the land should the garden fail.

Fall brings an end to active gardening, but educational activities still continue. Canning workshops help community gardeners to use traditional methods of preserving their crops, while container planting workshops in the spring encourage more people to try their hand at gardening.

In February 2011, 100 participants attended a community gardening conference organized by CHEP. Focused on Garden Coordinators and other organizers within a garden, the conference discussed increased food security through local production and community engagement. Another conference is planned for this coming February, and Ruth Anne anticipates that the discussion will expand to include problem-solving, cultural sensitivity, and advocating for the cause.

Practical gardening sessions are scheduled for Seedy Saturday in March. CHEP has hosted Seedy Saturday for 13 years, and it has grown from a simple seed exchange to encompass educational workshops and advocacy. Over 600 people attended Seedy Saturday in 2011, and there were 40 people in every workshop. Participants recognize that seed exchange not only preserves heritage seeds but also encourages sustainable living and future food security.

Supporting community gardeners
Some of the gardens, particularly those in the inner city, need some initial assistance (e.g. tools, seeds, transplants) because they haven’t yet built up their capacity, so CHEP steps in to provide support. “We nurture the community gardens,” Ruth Anne says, “but we really try to let the community do it themselves and learn as they grow.”

In July, CHEP took a bus load of people out to the Strawberry Ranch to pick fruit. A group also visited Jim Ternier’s seed saving garden at St. Peter’s Abbey and Dellwood Creek Gardens, a peaceful garden mixing vegetables, flowers and herbs.

Food security
Community gardening is evolving from a recreational activity on small plots of land to intensive gardening on larger plots as people seek to produce their own food in order to ensure greater food safety, a smaller carbon footprint, and financial savings.

Collective gardening
Caswell Hill Community Garden, located in Ashworth Holmes Park, is trying out a new style of community garden. Rather than individual allotments, they are working together as a community to plant and harvest the garden. School children helped with planting in the spring, and a grade one class planted a children’s garden.

All the community gardens on City property have community plots where people passing by can pick, but the majority of plots are maintained and harvested by individuals and families for their own use. Various gardens around the city offer children’s gardens, a compost program, native plants, or wheelchair-accessible raised beds.

If you are interested in starting or becoming involved in a community garden, contact Ruth Anne Hudack,  Community Gardening Coordinator, CHEP Good Food Inc. at 655-5322.

Photos: City Park Community Garden, Penny McKinlay