Growing self-sufficiency: New gardeners look for more support, increased food security


By Caroline Barlott
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Kyra Cusveller decided to start growing vegetables at the beginning of the pandemic after driving by a big box store. The parking lot was full and so were the grocery carts of the people who were hurriedly making their way to their cars.

"That moment, seeing how people had so much fear around where they would get their food from, it really struck home for me that this is a basic necessity that no one should have to worry about," says Cusveller, who lives in Edmonton.

Cusveller is in good company. For the last two years, Denise O'Reilly of A'Bunadh Seeds has seen four times as many sales than in previous years. It's a phenomenon many local seed producers have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. As people spend more time at home, an interest in gardening, and growing food in particular, has blossomed.

Mary Beckie, a professor with the University of Alberta's School of Public Health, says the trend is multi-faceted: people are spending more time at home, and gardening is safe and relaxing. Growing food is also more meaningful given new knowledge about the fragility of food systems.

The interest shown by gardeners like Cusveller could lead to changes in how food is grown in the city as more people push for access for space to garden and the knowledge required to do it.

"People are starting to clue in that maybe it's time to start taking back the system to grow our own food," says Beckie.

It wouldn't be the first time that a major world event has collectively resulted in a desire for self-sufficiency. Kelly Mills of Lady Flower Gardens, a non-profit located on the northeast outskirts of the city, says that during the Second World War victory gardens were sprouting up in yards and public spaces. Gardening was considered a patriotic duty and it proved that food could be produced locally.

In the decades that followed, people shed their desire to garden as mass supermarkets became the norm.

"Our society has gotten itself into a vulnerable position because that knowledge has been lost, and that ability and access to resources and land has been lost," says Mills. "People are just revisiting something that's almost imprinted on the DNA that's been part of the human experience for thousands of years."

The thirst for that knowledge and resources is reflected in a proliferation of online gardening groups, including AMA's Good to Grow community, and events like the Edmonton Permaculture Guild's Resilience Festival. Yard Share YEG also offers workshops and opportunities to grow food.

Kyra Cusveller's garden has grown throughout the pandemic. (Supplied by Kyra Cusveller)

Kyra Cusveller's garden has grown throughout the pandemic. (Supplied by Kyra Cusveller)

Tackling food security

Beckie was involved in the creation of Edmonton's food and urban agriculture strategy, fresh, approved by city council in 2012, which helped launch the urban hens program, urban beekeeping, and the implementation of zoning bylaw changes to enable more urban agriculture. But Beckie says ultimately there weren't enough resources to tackle food security in earnest.

Councillor Aaron Paquette agrees that the city's fresh initiative was not working as planned so he pushed the issue to the forefront again "through sheer force of will." Now food and agri-business is a pillar in the city's economic policy.

If Paquette could snap his fingers today and change something about the city, he says, he'd make all public land that's not in use available for growing food. While that's a lofty goal, there are smaller steps that can be taken — like how it recently became easier for people to start community gardens and orchards.

There is also a rising interest in canning and preserving, Paquette says. Sharing that knowledge is key to accessing seasonal food year-round. He's working on providing grant money to non-profit groups to develop commercial community kitchens.

"Now there are people who are not only cooking for their community but also entrepreneurs who have an opportunity to test out ways of cooking or preserving or taking a recipe and scaling it into a commercial product," says Paquette.

The need for resources

Food insecurity is multi-pronged — it's not only about the fragility of food systems. It also includes those who can't afford to buy food on a regular basis – and that population has increased during the pandemic. Farmer's markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) boxes are continuing to grow in popularity, but they aren't financially accessible to everyone. Mills says there should be more help from government to improve food security and accessibility to fresh foods – it should be viewed as an investment, similar to that of a recreation centre, which benefits social and physical health.

Lady Flower Gardens allows vulnerable populations to grow food on communal plots so that the work is shared and everything from training to compost is offered in one spot. Mills says that to truly make an impact on food insecurity from a local food production perspective, those supports are integral.

An aerial view of Lady Flower Gardens, in northeast Edmonton. (Supplied by Lady Flower Gardens)

An aerial view of Lady Flower Gardens, in northeast Edmonton. (Supplied by Lady Flower Gardens)

Mills says one way the city could improve food security in Edmonton would be to secure land and offer it to immigrant farmers like those she's worked with. It's not a new concept — according to Beckie, there were discussions around the idea of the city buying land in the past, but cost was a barrier.

Access to land is one of the biggest challenges when it comes to local food production. Farmland in Alberta is largely being lost to development, but there is hope — the region recently developed its first master plan for the agricultural industry which aims to preserve some of the area's highest quality farmlands.

Long-term changes

As summer begins, the plots at Lady Flower Gardens are full of life with gardeners and plants. It's prime land thanks to a microclimate, sandy loam soil and a river for irrigation, allowing for optimal vegetable growing conditions.

It's also protected by a conservation easement, but the neighbouring soil will eventually become residential developments, says Mills. But she is hopeful that with so many people taking to the soil and seeing its potential — even a new development could be a good thing. Mills has teamed up with University of Alberta students through the Community Service-Learning program to work on a proposal for small agricultural villages in a future development.

"Before, it used to be your patriotic duty to grow vegetables for the war effort. Now, it's going to be people's patriotic duty to live more sustainably for the effort for climate change," says Mills. "I think in the next five to ten years, people will say, 'What can I do?' They're going to want to live in neighbourhoods like this."

The increased interest in planting and growing food could be just the beginning if Edmontonians push for long-term changes, and Paquette is looking forward to that.

"I think one of the things we need to do right now is really look at how it's interconnected, and look at the complexity, and say 'We need an entire strategy from the community garden all the way up (to a provincial level)'," says Paquette. "So that we can get a hold on this and do well a generation from now."