When I was a very young child growing up in Sudbury during the Second World War, my mother planted a « Victory Garden,’’ and I helped her tend it. It was on a small patch of land behind the two-bedroom flat where the four of us lived — my mother and me, my sister, who was still a baby, and my grandfather.
I can’t remember how much food we grew, but I do remember how proud I was of the garden. When we’d sit down to supper, I’d ask my mother, « Are these ours?’’ pointing to the carrots, or the potatoes, or to my favourite, the beets. And when she’d say they were, I always thought they tasted better.
Everyone on our block had a garden, and on winter evenings, after the seed catalogue came out, neighbouring women would join my mother around the table to figure out what they’d order. Gardening was more than just growing vegetables; it was a social connector.
When the Americans finally entered the war, two years after it began, they had « Victory Gardens’’ too. And with their penchant for figures, they calculated that in 1944, the gardens produced 44 per cent of the fresh vegetables grown in the United States.
Now, however, the war has become a distant memory. In North America prosperity replaced peril, city dwellers grew time challenged, and urban vegetable gardens almost dropped from sight.
But elsewhere they still flourish. In Singapore, for instance, 25 per cent of the city’s vegetables and 80 per cent of its poultry are supplied from within the city. In China, urban farming in and around 18 of its largest cities supplies them with 85 per cent of their vegetables. In Berlin, more than 80,000 gardeners farm on land where buildings, destroyed in the Second World War, have never been replaced.
Meanwhile, here in Toronto, we’re gradually finding our way back to urban farming. It started when FoodShare Toronto was formed in 1985 as a publicly-funded organization, after it was realized that a growing number of people in Toronto were going hungry, and that food banks weren’t the answer.
In the beginning, FoodShare’s job was to co-ordinate emergency food services, and to collect and distribute food. But by the time the nineties had arrived it was experimenting with self-help programs, such as cooperative buying systems, collective kitchens, and community gardens.
Today, there are 28 community gardens in parks across Toronto. And Field to Table, a co-operative buying system and one of FoodShare’s creations, delivers 4,000 boxes of fresh produce a month in Toronto, at prices that are almost a third less than what supermarkets charge. Most of the produce is grown in, or close to, the city.
That’s still a long way from the volume of food grown in « Victory Gardens.’’ But it’s enough to convince Debbie Field, executive director of FoodShare, that urban farming can offer alternatives in a world where food is treated, too often, as just a commodity.
Food is not like a bar of soap, she says. It’s much more intimately bound up with our health and our culture. And, as my mother discovered, with our relationships.
Consequently, companies such as Monsanto Inc., the U.S. farm and food giant, deeply offend us when they treat it like a bar of soap that can be changed at will through genetic tinkering. That is theirs to own, once they fiddle with its DNA.
Fortunately, there’s a lot of room for urban farming. « It’s not impossible to think that 25 per cent of the food for the Greater Toronto Area could be grown within the GTA,’’ says Sean Cosgrove, an urban planner with the Toronto Food Policy Council.
And because urban farming is generally done on a small scale by many people, it has little need for the mass production techniques that Monsanto would have us believe is so necessary to commodity production.
That, I hope, will ensure it expands as an alternative, as a new frontier, beyond the reach of acquisitive conglomerates.