During COVID-19, should community gardens be an essential service?

The province classes community gardens as recreational outdoor spaces — but advocates say they play a vital role in local food-supply chains
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on Apr 21, 2020
The Kingston Community Gardens Network maintains Sunnyside garden through a partnership between the city and Loving Spoonful, a local non-profit. (David Rockne Corrigan)

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KINGSTON — The Sunnyside Community Garden on MacDonnell Street in Kingston is even quieter than usual for this time of year. While the gardening season in Ontario typically isn’t in full swing until May, gardeners would normally be cleaning up their spaces and making plans for their plots right about now. But these are not normal times.

“A lot of people have ordered seeds and created plans for them,” says Ayla Fenton, coordinator of the Kingston Community Gardens Network, which maintains Sunnyside garden through a partnership between the city and Loving Spoonful, a local non-profit that helps residents access healthy food. “They’re hoping to be in their gardens today. It’s relatively warm. People would be out there preparing their beds.”

But, because they fall into the category of recreational outdoor spaces, community gardens have been closed as part of the province’s emergency response to COVID-19. That doesn't sit well with Fenton and other advocates who suggest that the plots are important parts of local food-supply chains. “To classify them as purely a recreational space is ludicrous,” she says, pointing out that Kingston community gardens donated 6,000 pounds of produce last year to Loving Spoonful. And that, she says, was just a small fraction of all the food produced in local community gardens throughout the city: “If agriculture is an essential service, I think people growing their own food should be considered a subsistence form of agriculture — not recreation.”

On April 14, the Ontario Community Growing Network, a provincial network of gardens, urban-agriculture projects, and organizations, sent a letter to the province’s medical officer of health and all MPPs asking that community gardens be “immediately included in the list of essential food services in Ontario.” The letter says that gardens should be opened, not for social gatherings, but to enable food production. On April 20, the group met with the premier’s office to discuss the issue; it says they are “making good progress towards an exemption for community gardens.

Moe Garahan, executive director of Just Food, a non-profit community organization in Ottawa, co-authored the letter. She says it came out of meetings conducted with growers across the province and was inspired by a 5,000-signature petition. In Ottawa, Garahan says, 100 community gardens feed about 7,000 people every year. “We understand the fast-paced nature of needing to make decisions, and we applaud the focus on community health. We share that focus,” says Garahan. “But we feel that, within that, food production needs to be enhanced in the province because of increased food insecurity and increased food disruption.”

Asked whether there are plans to include community gardens on the essential-services list, a spokesperson for the premier’s office told TVO.org via email that “it’s too early to say. It’s important we remain vigilant to avoid additional surges or waves.” The government is focused, they said, on making sure that public-health measures are adhered to: “Ontarians have done a good job so far and that evidence is clear in today’s data. Our health experts are looking at how measures can be scaled back and reduced post-peak. That is part of our forward planning.” 

British Columbia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island have allowed community gardens to open this season, and Garahan thinks that Ontario should act fast given that warmer temperatures are on the way. “Because of the short growing season in eastern Ontario, it requires that for many food items, seedlings are started ahead of the last frost,” she says, adding that growers are afraid that, if they are unable to plant the seeds they’ve purchased and made plans for, they’ll lose their “investment.” 

A list of recommendations for community gardens was included along with the letter Garahan co-authored. She says they stemmed from suggestions made by Toronto community gardeners, and by Ontario gardening, food, and health experts. Some deal with safety protocols: limit garden access to members only, practise physical distancing at all times, and get compliance commitments from gardeners. Others address communication and planning: for example, if a gardener needs to go into self-isolation, they may be asked to give up their plot for the season. “This is some really good thinking of safety protocols that can work to avoid virus transmission,” says Garahan. “It’s similar processes to what needed to be rolled out for other food-access points. It's important that we pivot for all the ways we find food, that the focus is on safety while accessing food.”

Kingston councillor Robert Kiley understands the importance of fresh, community-garden-grown produce: “The local food bank receives many donations of fresh produce that they might not get otherwise if they had to purchase themselves,” he says. “For a vulnerable resident, it's a great way to stay eating healthy, especially when times are tight.” Kiley has put forward a motion that would call on the provincial government to consider “local flexibility to provincial orders” and providing access “to certain activities including community gardens.” Kingston council will vote on the motion Tuesday night. “What we want to do is encourage the province to continue their good work on COVID-19 and to recognize community gardens as essential services, which would allow them to remain open — with strict physical-distancing guidelines led by public health,” says Kiley. (On Monday night, the Ottawa Board of Health passed a similar motion in which it asked the province to deem community gardens an essential service.)

Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington Public Health also recognizes that the gardens have a positive impact on community health and that the clock is ticking for the growing season. “There are positive physical and mental-health benefits,” says Tracy McDonough, a registered dietitian with the health unit. “To be active, have access to nature, and access to fresh produce — we see multiple levels of benefits if community gardens remain open.” But McDonough also says it’s crucial to acknowledge that having access to food from community gardens does not ensure food security. “We don’t see it as being an answer to food insecurity, but it is a component of the system that supports vulnerable families and individuals, which is why we see it as an essential service.”

Fenton is hopeful that Kingston gardens will reopen soon — she’s also glad that there’s now a larger conversation about food and community gardening: “This is about empowering the community to take more control over their food system and use the resources they do have —whether it’s land or a container on their balcony. Most people don't really think about our food system until there's no food in the grocery store.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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