The late Anthony Bourdain, celebrity chef and journalist, spent a good part of his career traveling the globe, sharing meals with people from all walks of life. He famously stated, “Food may not be the answer to world peace but it’s a start.” As we wrestle with the social isolation resulting from a global pandemic, and as our society becomes more polarized over economic and political issues, world peace is needed now more than ever. Could food be the answer for a more harmonious society? If yes, where exactly do we start? Perhaps we can begin with how all life starts — with a seed. And maybe that seed should be planted in a community garden.
When I was a child, I thought gardening was an activity for old people who tended plants for leisure. Like most other children raised in an urban environment, I thought food came from the store instead of from mother nature. As a young adult I became more aware of the problems of our current food supply system and the hazards associated with a Standard American Diet. Concerned about my health and the nutritional quality of prepackaged and processed foods, I secured a plot at a nearby allotment garden. Gardening provided me with direct access to inexpensive, local fresh fruits and vegetables. Working in the garden — digging trenches, lifting mulch, bending down to pull weeds, shovelling dirt — also kept me physically active.
At the time I didn’t really think about the other benefits associated with gardening. I now know about the positive effects of spending time outdoors on mental health. People who don’t get outside enough can suffer higher rates of anxiety, depression and stress, while getting outdoors boosts endorphin and dopamine production, which promotes feelings of happiness. There’s also that sense of joy that comes with watching a seed you planted with your own two hands, sprout and grow into a bounty you can turn into a delicious meal. Even a child who typically detests eating vegetables will enjoy the carrot or cucumber that they themselves planted.
Over the years I have worked in different types of gardens — community gardens, allotment gardens, personal gardens; I even helped build a school garden. All of these experiences taught me that the relationships cultivated through food production are perhaps more valuable than anything else. In a community garden, people help one another, such as when they shelter a neighbour’s plot during a hail storm. They share resources like seeds, soil and tools. They learn important skills and tips from one another, increasing the overall yield of the group. People who may come from completely different parts of the world will find familiarity in the peppers or squash growing in a neighbouring plot. Alternatively, an uncommon vegetable sparks curiosity and welcoming inquiry. Community gardening encourages knowledge sharing as well as an appreciation for cultural diversity. Also, the food that we grow is much more likely to be shared with others, promoting generosity and strengthening social bonds. Our connection to the earth and each other is made more tangible when we work side-by-side in the dirt. Growing food helps us recognize our responsibility towards our fellow human beings. It is an essential service, not just because it feeds people, but because it teaches us to be stewards of each other and the land that we all share. The garden is a unifying force in communities, improving everyone’s overall wellbeing.
During this time of physical distancing and political divisions, we can find ways to nurture our society by getting involved with growing food in our neighbourhood. There are many community gardens in Niagara Region that you can volunteer with. Even if you don’t belong to a community garden, you can still find ways to connect with people through food. Invite a friend out for a picnic with something you grew in your own personal garden. Or donate any extras that you produce to Project Share, Community Care or other organizations that aim to help people who are in need.
Connect with Niagara Community Garden Network to get involved with a garden near you!
Photo: Frank from Our Lady of the Scapular Garden in Niagara Falls showing me an edible “weed” that grows abundantly in the area.
Written by: Tamara Cottle