In 2011, the Metcalf Foundation released a report focused on the state of urban agriculture in Toronto. The report found that urban agriculture activities in Toronto were mostly invisible and confined to private backyards and rooftops, or in small community gardens used for personal consumption. Larger urban farms near the edges of the city often grew food for other markets. Despite this, Toronto possessed the potential to develop urban agriculture to adequately address demand for fresh, locally grown food. Many have been calling for changes to be made to Ontario’s food system over the past few years, to foster a system that is more sustainable, cooperative, and responds to the needs of everyone, including low-income and marginalized populations in urban society.
Since that report, a number of community approaches to urban agriculture have been established in Toronto. One such project is an innovative pilot program called the Co-op Credit Program that began in Parkdale in 2013. The Co-op Cred Program is operated by the Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre (PARC), the West End Food Co-op (WEFC), and a local charity called Greenest City. The project hires PARC members and teaches them to care for vegetables and herbs in a garden located in Dunn Parkette in Parkdale. All of the workers are low-income earners and many are recovering from problems such as mental illness and addiction. In exchange for their work, they earn credits that can be used at the WEFC or the Sorauren Farmer’s Market to buy locally grown, healthy food that they typically are unable to afford. Since they are paid in credits instead of cash, it does not affect their social assistance paycheques. The vegetables grown in the garden are donated to the Parkdale Community Food Bank.
The Co-op Cred Program uses an alternative currency to improve access to food for low-income people while providing training and employment. Each participant works a three-hour shift, once per week, and earns about $13 per hour in credits. The results of the pilot project have been transformational. In the 2014 season, participants have grown and donated enough vegetables to the food bank to feed 50 people every week. Many of the participants used to frequent the food bank regularly, but with the credits they now earn, no longer have to rely on it for assistance. Participant Eugene Hennie said he hasn’t visited the food bank in 18 months since participating in the Co-op Cred Program. With improved access to fresher, healthier food, many participants say that they also feel better and more energetic.
The Co-op Cred Program has improved food security and health, and also provided an opportunity for low-income workers in the Parkdale community to learn new skills. It has also allowed people who have often relied on social assistance to gain a sense of self-sufficiency and independence. Eugene Hennie says that the program has done wonders for his self-esteem. Prior to joining the program, he spent many years homeless and fighting addiction in Parkdale. The experience of working in the program has given him the confidence to think about the future and apply for courses at a nearby college. He is just one of several people who have benefitted from the project. It remains unclear when the pilot project will wind up, but it is clear that the program could be easily replicated in many communities with lasting, long-term benefits.
Find out more about urban agriculture in Toronto through the Metcalf Foundation, or follow Parc, the West End Food Co-op and Greenest City on Twitter. Photos from Parkdale Community Economies and the Dandy Horse Magazine blog.