FoodShare blossoming into bees

Toronto has the largest local association of beekeepers in Ontario. When I stumbled across this fact, I was nonplussed, but only because I find myself still clinging stubbornly to the misconception that urban is urban and rural is rural and never the twain shall meet – that agriculture is rural, and concrete is urban.

And so I took myself to that forlorn stretch of Eastern Ave. that ends at the Don River, to talk with Lauren Baker, because she has organized an extensive introductory course on beekeeping. Baker is the urban agriculture co-ordinator for FoodShare and works at its Food To Table warehouse on Eastern Ave.

The course offers lectures every second Wednesday. They began on Feb. 14 and will continue until April 25 at a cost of $20 a lecture. As well, there will be three field trips between mid-April and mid-July.

To understand why FoodShare is getting into bees, you need to go back to when this publicly funded organization was established in 1985. It sprang from the realization at city hall that food banks were not the answer to hunger. Since then, FoodShare as helped create more than 100 community gardens in the city, with 10 new gardens being added each year. Through Field To Table, its co-operative buying system, it delivers 4,000 Good Food Boxes of fresh produce a month in Toronto at prices almost a third below what supermarkets charge. Most of the produce is grown in or near the city.

Also at the Field To Table warehouse: Sprouts are grown and sold to organic food stores; a rooftop greenhouse supplies salad greens in winter and a rooftop garden supplies vegetables in summer, all of which goes into Good Food Boxes; compost is created for community gardens; a catering service takes advantage of the delivery trucks used to transport Good Food Boxes; and the kitchen is available for people wanting to start their own prepared-food ventures. It’s a fine example of integrating activities.

And, since 1996, FoodShare has added an important social dimension by employing street kids and « youth at risk. » The purpose is to give them six months of training so they will have work credentials and an entry into the work force. To date, about 150 youths have passed through the program.

Beekeeping, says Baker, fits very nicely into this mix. She’s convinced that it’s possible to grow 25 per cent of Toronto’s food supply within the city. But far more significantly, she thinks connecting city people more intimately with the production of food will change how they view the world. It will bring them, she believes, to a greater appreciation of natural systems and give them the motivation and understanding to make the world a better place, both environmentally and socially.

That’s a pretty big expectation to lay on bees, turnips and lettuce, but I think she’s right. It would be next to impossible to work with bees, for instance, and not be overcome with admiration for the complexities of their communities and the roles they play in nature; impossible to learn about companion planting to reduce garden pests and not experience awe over diversity. For more information about the beekeeping course, call 416-363-6441, extension 25, or use e-mail at

Baker is going to put four hives on the roof at the Food To Table warehouse and add two more next year. With the six, she expects to generate enough money by selling honey to pay for 20 hours of employment per week. Next year, she plans to transfer hives to Scadding Court Community Centre, which operates a greenhouse and a community garden and to the Afri-Can FoodBasket, which serves the African-Caribbean community from two backyard gardens so large that they are almost mini-farms. The intention is to have 18 hives operating at the three locations. As I left the interview and stepped on to the street, Eastern Ave. didn’t seem quite so forlorn – I guess because I no longer was seeing it as a city wasteland.

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