BY Amy Angelo
An article published recently in the Hamilton Spectator states that poverty in this city has not decreased over the past 10 years. This alarming statistic is relevant to this current Food Security issue of the Anvil because food insecurity is rooted in poverty. Poverty is greatly influenced by many factors. According to Tom Cooper of The Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, who is quoted in the aforementioned article, the availability of affordable housing is one such factor in Hamilton. The last issue of the Anvil addressed gentrification in Hamilton and it is no surprise that the subsequent issue is on food security. As housing prices in Hamilton rise, those most vulnerable will experience decreasing access to affordable housing and, as a result, increasing food insecurity. Food is a negotiable expense; rent is not.
After paying rent and other non-negotiable household expenses, many low-income households turn to food banks and meal programs for assistance. As a result most food banks are busiest in the last two weeks of the month. Fortunately, there is a well-developed network of food banks, meal programs and food organisations working to address hunger and food insecurity in Hamilton. Hamilton Victory Gardens is just one of these organisations.
Hamilton Victory Gardens is a network of 14 different garden sites in the greater Hamilton area. We have a team of volunteers at each site who tend to the gardens. They seed, plant, weed, water and harvest a wide variety of beautiful fruits and vegetables for low-income individuals and families.
Access to nutritious, good quality food is a human right
We grow for food banks and meal programs not just because of the need for emergency food in Hamilton, but because access to nutritious, good quality food is a human right. The volunteers at Hamilton Victory Gardens provide fresh produce for food banks that is high in quality, nutrition and freshness. A family that has visited one of the many food banks we donate to can have carrots, broccoli or spinach for dinner that have been picked from the garden as recently as that morning.
Only a fraction of those who are eligible to receive food bank assistance choose to do so, likely due to the stigma associated with using food bank and meal programs
We know that nutritious food is important for good health. The ways in which people access nutritious food are also of great significance. Many of us can go to grocery stores or even farmers markets to purchase the foods we want. This experience is so normal to us that we forget that there are those in our communities who cannot afford to do this. Only a fraction of those who are eligible to receive food bank assistance choose to do so, likely due to the stigma associated with using food bank and meal programs.
In order to address this stigma, food banks and meal programs have been working hard to provide more dignified processes and improved food. Food banks are striving to provide healthier options and have their own fresh food procurement programs. Even more exciting are the number of food organisations expanding their programming to include nutrition and cooking classes.
In addition to meeting some of the demand for fresh food at food banks, Hamilton Victory Gardens provides an alternative to the food bank and meal program experience through our Volunteer for Veggies program. If folks need fresh food, they can join us at one of our gardens for some fresh air, socialising and garden work, and leave with some produce in return for their time and effort.
The gardening program removes the need to stand in line at the food bank and replaces it with a warm, welcoming gardening experience
We have also partnered with A Rocha’s Earth to Table program for newcomers and refugees. When they first arrive in Canada, newcomers rely on food banks at which foods that they are familiar with are few. The gardening program removes the need to stand in line at the food bank and replaces it with a warm, welcoming gardening experience where newcomers can grow and harvest culturally appropriate foods while they meet and chat with community members. In 2015, we helped the McQuesten Urban Farm launch their Farm Fresh Market, a normalised way of accessing fresh vegetables for residents in need but who do not use the local food bank.
Providing fresh produce to those in need just scratches the surface of what we do at Hamilton Victory Gardens. Food security is about more than accessing food. It’s also about healthy food literacy for all. Elementary schools from Hamilton, Ancaster, Stoney Creek and Waterdown visit so that their students can experience hands-on how to plant, water, identify and harvest a number of vegetables and fruits. Special needs high school students delight in the amazing tactile experience of the plants, soil and outdoor work. Beyond these formal educational experiences, the gardens are places where adults and children first learn of and try ground cherry, watermelon radish, kohlrabi, or kale. This improvement upon healthy food literacy can also be witnessed through the exchange of recipes and sharing of snacks prepared from food from the gardens. Our gardens are places where people learn about and share nutritious food together.
Food security is just one social determinant of health; social inclusion is another. Our gardeners work hard not just tending to the plants, but to foster a socially inclusive environment as well. Our gardens also are spaces for community, tended by volunteers from a variety of backgrounds. Some are students, some use the meal programs we donate to, some are new comers, some are employed full-time and some are retirees.
The garden is a social leveller
Our gardens bring people together despite culture, gender, age or income. The garden is a social leveller. Everyone is covered in dirt! We have heard from a number of our volunteers that the gardens are places where they feel they connect with others, where they can come out of their shell and be welcomed by community. Some of our gardeners face economic limitations but are eager to provide for others. One of our volunteers expressed that participation in the garden gives her a lot of pride because she is able to give back to her community. All of our gardeners are dedicated to keeping their neighbours healthy and their neighbourhoods beautiful.
The community participation is the most inspiring result of the work we do. Hamilton Victory Gardens cannot address the poverty that causes the food insecurity in this city. What we can do is provide the space and gardening know-how our volunteers, students and other participants need to effect change in their own communities.
Hamilton Victory Gardens is not alone in this effort to engage community. Food banks, meal programs and food organisations across Hamilton value community. If we continue to work in ways that support community cohesion, as a city we can challenge the systemic barriers to food security so that lasting solutions to hunger and poverty in Hamilton can be achieved.
Amy is the Operations Manager at the Hamilton Victory Gardens. She values her rural farm training, but her passion is for urban growing and community engagement.
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