From making connections, growing local food and learning about Indigenous plants, the Collingwood Neighborhood House community gardens allow neighbours to connect with each other while having fun taking care of gardens.
On a sunny afternoon, two UBC students, Serena and Taphy visited the Collingwood Neighborhood House to speak with Gillian Der 謝美華 – the Food Justice Coordinator- through Public Health Association’s Can You Dig It community garden project. Gillian Der was able to share insightful perspectives and stories about the Norquay Food Forest, Collingwood community garden, and Cheyenne community garden.
“We make elderberry syrup with our garden participants during the season to spread love and care to those who are facing hardships in Vancouver downtown eastside in the form of herbal remedy packages.”
Community gardens have a lot to offer to the community. From making connections, growing local food and learning about Indigenous plants, the advantages are endless. As the name implies, these community gardens allow neighbours to connect with each other while having fun taking care of gardens. Even though many garden plots are on the ground, Gillian mentioned that there is also a rooftop garden at Collingwood Neighbourhood House designed to be easily accessible. It has created a safe and loving space for seniors in the neighborhood. Many visitors can also learn about various indigenous plants such as elderberries, blue camas and himalayan blackberries that are planted in the garden.
According to Gillian, the garden is like a sanctuary “for people’s mental health, especially during the early stage of COVID-19. [They] provide an outdoor space for folks to get close to the indigenous food forest, replant and flourish native plant species, and even throw work parties (pre-COVID).” During these difficult times, the gardens have become an important community place to relax, to meet new people and to find peace. Due to COVID-19, businesses were negatively impacted, employees were laid off and people were experiencing financial struggle. However, a surprising discovery was revealed. There were more people eagerly wanting to participate at the Collingwood community and gardens.
“We are having a longer waitlist than ever before”
Like a seed sprouting after a rainy storm, the pandemic united people wanting to support their community and to push through the struggles together.
Although the COVID-19 restrictions kept people from seeing their loved ones, people of all ages wanted to become involved with the garden to enjoy the outdoors. Gillian has specially noticed how “young people are getting more interested in food sovereignty too, for example, being able to grow their own food and be self-sufficient. However, they tend to not understand that it takes patience, lots of time, dedication, and money to maintain a small patch of land.” These young people were students who recently lost their job due to the pandemic. With so much free time, they hoped to join the community gardens. The free time allowed these students to learn about food literacy, home cooking and health. By participating in the gardens, people were able to grow food and make contributions to their community.
The Collingwood Neighbourhood House community garden has been deferring membership fees because people are currently experiencing financial hardship. As the community garden faces financial challenges of its own, they hope to charge fees again for the winter operational costs but not everyone is able to pay this fee, causing minor difficulties running the garden.
As the Food Justice Coordinator, Gillian reflects on inequities within the community gardens as a whole. She expressed that community gardens (especially in more affluent neighborhoods) tend to be a fairly targeted audience. This audience is people with financial stability and time that goes into tending for the garden plots. Gillian dives deeper into misconceptions about community gardens. Policy makers often think that community gardens address food security, but the amount of food an individual plot produces is quite small compared to how much a person or family eats every year. Community gardens serve the purpose of providing a green space, enhancing connections amongst communities and teaching people more food knowledge; not decreasing regular grocery cost or providing food to feed a family.
An interesting finding made by Serena and Taphy was that most community garden participants were seniors. Although there has been an increased interest from young people and working-class people in the past few years, Gillian made an important note. She mentioned that there is a lack of structural support that gives youth and low income people the time outside of capitalist waged labour to grow their own food. To truly make community gardens accessible to the whole community, a structural change must be made. Only then will people from diverse backgrounds have the time to find their love and dedication for community gardens.
About the authors:
Serena Chai and Taphy Lai are Land and Food Systems students at the University of British Columbia collaborating with Can You Dig It! on a community engaged project.
Edited by Cindy Lee, Communications Assistant with PHABC