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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

You are where you eat

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One of the best things about living in Toronto is the food. The apartment I share with my partner in Riverdale is a two minute walk away from Toronto's second Chinatown, where pork, duck, and squid hang in restaurant windows, dim sum is offered daily, and vegetables, sold so cheap we wonder how the shop-keepers could possibly make a profit, spill out over the sidewalk and force pedestrians onto the street. Whenever we feel we haven't had enough greens in our diet, we head down the road to Simon's Wok, a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant, for broccoli, snow peas, and mushrooms. When we're feeling naughty, we'll take a 10-minute walk south to Dangerous Dan's on Queen Street East for triple-decker grilled cheese sandwiches and Greek salads overflowing with feta.

A new restaurant seems to pop up on this strip of Queen between Broadview Avenue and Carlaw Avenue every month, but we tend to stay loyal to weekend breakfasts at Jim's Restaurant (for no-nonsense eggs and bacon), dinners at Sushi Delight (amidst the Greek restaurants on the Danforth), and Tandoor's "authentic Indian cuisine" (which delivers to our front door). The knowledge that the meal of our choice is a short walk (or phone call) away is a hallmark of urban living.

Recently, however, my relationship with food has made me uneasy, and not just because of an overabundance of cheese. My problem is: I have never felt more removed from the food that I eat. Most of my meals are made by someone else. When I do go grocery shopping, I buy pre-washed lettuce, pre-cut carrots, and pre-made soup. I have no idea where the ingredients that go into my meals came from, let alone how they were grown or produced, and the thought of growing a few vegetables of my own is overwhelming (even keeping a houseplant alive is a challenge). One day, after fretting over how to cook something as simple as asparagus, it struck me: aside from eating, and deciding which restaurant to try next, almost everything to do with food has been edited out of my life.

Sadly, I know I'm not alone. Nowhere is food more convenient, diverse, and easily experienced than in cities. Yet cities are also where we're most removed from the reality of how food is produced. Unlike our rural cousins, we don't have to, say, endure the smell of freshly applied manure on the way to work. This may sound ideal, of course, but the weaker our connection with food has become, the more other problems have grown. Though we pride ourselves on being more physically active than those in the suburbs, 29.5% of Torontonians are overweight, while 11.4% are obese. The low prices we've come to not only expect but demand of food, meanwhile, means that new residential and big box developments are guaranteed to make southern Ontario landowners a much bigger profit than a field of corn or wheat. The result: the only frozen berries I can find for sale at my local grocery store come all the way from Chile.

As the consequences of climate change begin to hit us, as the price of oil threatens to skyrocket, and as our ignorance of the natural environment and how it's all tied together continues to fester, our lack of connection with food — how it is grown, how to prepare it, and how many fossil fuels were burned before it got to our mouths — threatens our health, the health of the planet, and the health of our communities. The good news is that our city's public spaces, and the way that a growing number of Toronto communities have begun to use them, are at the forefront of changing the relationship between city slickers and food. The words "urban' and "agriculture" are no longer mutually exclusive.

When I first heard the term "community garden," I pictured aging urban hippies earnestly digging in the dirt. Others may call to mind a piece of land subdivided into small sections packed with vegetable plants and vines that grow every which way. Parks, Forestry, and Recreation rents out modestly sized plots such as these for $53.50 a year to people wishing to grow their own flowers or food. But while allotment gardens (as they're called) provide wonderful opportunities for people without back yards to go beyond their flower box, this is not what the term "community garden" usually refers to.

Community gardens can be set up and operated in a number of ways, but the common denominator is that many people share responsibility for the same plot of land. The HOPE (Healthy Organic Parkdale Edible) community garden, started just this year in Masaryk Park on Cowan Avenue, just south of Queen Street West in Parkdale, is probably the only garden in Toronto that has its very own Youth Green Squad — six teenagers who were hired to spend the summer tending the garden, doing workshops with kids, and delivering and preparing food for shelters and other support centers in the area. No one on the squad had any experience working in a garden, let alone overseeing one shared by their neighbourhood, before the sod next to the Masaryk-Cowan Community Centre was rolled up to make way for the 2,000-square-foot garden in May.

By the time I visited the HOPE garden at the end of August, however, everyone on the squad had become experts — at least that's what they seemed like to me as they took me on a tour around the garden's various plots. I was introduced to strategically planted marigolds that helped keep the insects away, a spiral-shaped herb garden designed so that water would flow "like when you flush a toilet" to the plants that needed it most, green "Velcro" beans that stuck to our shirts (I actually believed they were called "Velcro beans" for a while until I was corrected), and an experiment involving growing tomatoes in big white buckets (for the record, it can be done, but the plants don't grow quite as big). The squad hovered around me as I tried nasturtium (a slightly spicy edible flower usually served in fancy restaurants), parsley, and the most flavourful baby carrot I have ever tasted.

"Would you say there's a better selection here than in the grocery store?" I ask squad member Orion Milczarski, a young man with a perma-smile and blond dreadlocks, who was already certain he wanted to be a farmer and chef that travelled the world for fine ingredients.

"A fucking better selection," he replied without pause.

The HOPE Garden is divided into plots that are shared by local community groups. One small circle of land was reserved for people who live in the apartment building that towers over the park's west side; another chunk is tended to by members of the Parkdale Activity and Recreation Centre (PARC). The garden's perimeter is exclusive to the Youth Green Squad, which delivers the food by bike to community kitchens. The garden as a whole is supported by Greenest City, a non-profit, charitable, and environmental organization committed to reducing pollution and promoting social equity.

The HOPE community garden, just south of Queen, between Lansdowne and Dufferin. photo by Galya Trail

"It's not just about growing food," Alyssa Jeschkeit-Marshall, another member of the squad tells me. "It brings everyone together."

Community gardens are like community centres — they are a place that people are drawn to, a place where people meet. But the job of the Youth Green Squad goes beyond simply growing herbs and vegetables to include the whole cycle that food follows from the ground to the plate. Children are invited to water the garden. Bike trailers aid in the food's delivery. Others join the squad in preparing meals using food that the youth grew. A host of different people from the neighbourhood are invited to participate in every stage of the process, stages that many of us edited out of our relationship with food long ago thanks to reasonably priced restaurants, prepackaged meals, and monster grocery stores that provide one-stop shopping for all our food needs.

Unfortunately, the more commodified food becomes, the more our social ties to farmers, gardens, and even kitchens, are cut off. This disconnection leaves us less likely to be able to overcome problems such as obesity and malnutrition, to find alternatives to foods that have been sprayed or injected with chemicals or to choose foods that didn't require a lot of greenhouse gases to get to our plate.

Overcoming these challenges is mighty difficult if you don't possess the knowledge and skills to engineer your own meals, which is one of the reasons why community gardens are so great. People who don't have time, money, or space to start their own garden can volunteer to help out as little or as much as they would like. Once they have developed the know-how and confidence, they may then decide to start a garden of their own. This isn't to say that we all need to be growing our own food (though some say it may come to that), but experiencing how food grows and how it's connected to the weather, soil, and ecosystem that it's a part of will lead us to question how the food we buy is produced. Gardening also helps heighten our awareness of the connection between food and the seasons, and, if we're gardening with others, we can share knowledge of how to use and prepare the ingredients that we're helping grow.

In urban centres such as Toronto, where pavement is prominent, community gardens can be learning centres for children as well. Nearby schools often participate in neighbourhood plots, and many have started gardens of their own. Here, children learn how to grow and prepare food, and the produce itself can be used in the school's meal programs — which help ensure students are well fed. Community gardens also provide disadvantaged communities with the opportunity to become part of a neighbourhood hub that provides them with access to fresh produce. By participating, they can share their experiences with others and learn where to find additional resources that they may need.

Thanks to the Toronto Food Policy Council, a sub-committee of the Toronto Board of Health, community gardening is on the radar of the bureaucrats at City Hall. In 1999, the City approved a Community Garden Action Plan, with the overall goal of seeing at least one community garden in each of the city's 44 wards. According to a status report issued last year, there are 124 community gardens in the city with approximately 4,600 participants; only nine wards are without a garden of their own.

As the tide begins to turn, I picture urban planners setting aside spaces for community gardens, to be sustained by rainwater runoff and compost collected from nearby buildings. Our relationship with food could be transformed. But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself — I haven't even planted my first herb garden yet.

There is a farmer who sells eggs at the Dufferin Grove Park Farmer's Market who displays pictures of himself hugging the chickens. As Sarah McGaughey, a frequent visitor to the weekly afternoon market, once remarked, "I don't know if chickens like being hugged, but at least it shows he cares."

McGaughey visits the market not just for the fresh, organic fare, but also because she can purchase food without packaging. The chicken farmer allows her to reuse old egg cartons, while another vendor provides refills of olive oil from a big steel vat. I noticed a lot of garbage-conscious shoppers my first day at the market, but the benefits of doing your grocery shopping at your local park or public square extend far beyond reduced packaging.

On my first visit, I bought smoked whitefish caught in Georgian Bay, shiitake mushrooms grown near Stouffville, and green or red peppers that weren't perfectly green and red, but were much more flavourful than the ones I get at Dominion. Unlike the one-stop shopping experience provided by your typical grocery store, local farmer's markets force you to interact with someone from the farm or bakery that produced each product you buy. If you want, you can ask them about their practices, or you can look up pictures of their farm on their website — some farmers even offer farm tours every so often. Suddenly, food isn't something you simply pick off a shelf.

If you don't take farming practices into account (which also need to be considered when calculating the carbon emissions generated by food), carrots bought from local farmers can require 60 times less greenhouse gas emissions than carrots imported from California. Recognizing this issue, Toronto's Climate Change Action Plan calls for the promotion local food production, the expansion of markets that sell locally produced food, and a review of upcoming food service contracts to ensure that 10% of all the food served comes from local sources.

On October 3, local foodies and food activists gathered in Nathan Philips Square to hear Mayor David Miller announce World Food Day. "We're trying to welcome development in the city, and one of the reasons, we're doing that is to preserve the wonderful green spaces like the Oak Ridges Morraine and the class-one farmland outside Toronto. In order to support those farmers, we need to consume local food here," Miller told the crowd before reading the official proclamation. "I believe that food policy issues and how we deal with food are going to be more and more important to this city in the future."

The city's budget chief, Shelley Carroll, who was also present at the gathering, agreed. "Food issues are urban issues and cities need to have their voice recognized here on this issue every bit as much as issues such as transit and housing," she said.

As someone who makes an effort to regularly speak out on transit and housing, while sustaining myself on take-out pizza and Phad Thai, her comment struck me as profound. Making the connection between the city and the farmers and farmlands that sustain us is one of the most important environmental actions we can take. Perhaps in the future, learning how to grow our food in small, dense gardens with the help and cooperation of our neighbours will be a hallmark of urban living.

Dale Duncan was the executive editor of Spacing from 2003-2008