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The Seed in the Stone

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Issue: 39 Section: Food Geography: Ontario Toronto Topics: food security

September 11, 2006

The Seed in the Stone

Growing food in the concrete jungle

by Kristen Howe

City backyards are good for more than swimming pools and lawn chairs. photo: Kristen Howe
I hate to say it, but the warm months of summer are coming to a close. The Ontario tomatoes, corn and peaches, which are currently replacing tasteless international imports, are helping me get over my end-of-season nostalgia. And despite the fact that I'm living in downtown Toronto, I'm finding that the fall harvest is happening closer to my kitchen than I expected.

This year, my housemates and I planted a small garden plot in our backyard with some of our favourite foods. Judging by the view from our back balcony, which looks down on the tidy and productive gardens tended by our neighbours, we are definitely not alone.

The view from my balcony is supported by polls conducted in 2002 by Ipsos-Reid that found that 40 per cent of people in Greater Toronto live in households that produce some of their own food; urban gardeners growing vegetables, fruit, berries, nuts or herbs in backyards, balconies, or community gardens.

Although the Ipsos-Reid poll sounds promising, only a fraction of the food Canadians eat is grown locally, let alone in a personal garden. The average tomato, for example, travels a gas-guzzling 1,500 miles from field to plate.

I first realized that it is possible to grow a substantial portion of an urban diet close to where it is consumed when I visited Cuba a few years ago. Over half of the fruit and vegetables consumed in Havana are grown organically in Havana. In the house where I stayed, my host Pastorita explained that after the fall of the Soviet Union, imports of food, pesticides, fertilizers and gasoline for farm machinery and transport were halted, resulting in a 30 per cent reduction in food consumption. She showed me the buckets, bathtub and trellis on the rooftop of her house that her family tended through the toughest years when every open space in Havana sprouted culinary plants. Larger intensive production gardens on vacant lots were also opened with the support of the government and they continue to grow produce to sell to the public, schools and hospitals through collaborations between the Ministries of Agriculture, Education and Health.

Canada still lags far behind the Cuban model of urban agriculture. Cubans were forced to grow food collectively to avoid starvation. Lacking that motivation, and structural support, Canadians that do garden tend to cultivate smaller plots, and for different reasons.

According to Foodshare, a Toronto-based organization that addresses urban hunger and food issues, there are 1,000 community gardens and over 2,500 allotment gardens in the city, in addition to yard and patio gardens. The motivations of gardeners, and the environmental, health, and social benefits of their gardens are numerous, and often overlap.

Foodshare supports a market garden at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health where residents participate in growing and selling produce. Another organization, the Stop Community Food Centre, grows food to supplement its food bank services and facilitate engagement and education in its multicultural community. A small garden at the Voces Latinos community centre is motivated by the idea of fostering closer connections between people and their environment. Seeds of Diversity Canada, a grassroots seed-saving organization, cultivates a heritage vegetable garden to preserve the genetic diversity of plants that are adapted to local growing conditions, and combat the corporatization of the food supply.

This spring, as I was digging up my backyard plot, my neighbour Frank poked his head over the fence and asked in his thick Italian accent if I had planted any tomatoes. When I told him I hadn't, he returned with a bucket full of cooking and slicing tomato seedlings.

Each spring, Frank nurtures hundreds of seedlings in a homemade greenhouse, which he delivers to extended family across the Greater Toronto Area once the weather is warm enough for planting. He grows tomatoes for the incredible taste, as a hobby, and to share an essential cultural food with his family. Each year, he also saves the seeds from his best tomatoes to plant the following spring; I have literally been eating the fruits of Frank's labour from the last decade.

How to eat a tomato like a meal

–Cut a fresh, ripe tomato into thick slices lengthwise on a plate.
–Cover generously with pepper and a dash of salt to taste.
–Garnish with cheese, basil, or balsamic vinegar for extra flavour.
–Get your napkin ready, and eat with a knife and fork.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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