Urban agriculture program helps immigrants grow familiar foods

Alison Springate Guelph Smart City Office • 24 August 2021
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As you crest the hill at the gardens at St. Joseph’s Health Centre on Westmount Road, you’re greeted with an array of beautifully crafted flags of countries from around the world. The flags represent newcomers to Guelph who are learning about gardening in Canada and tending crops as part of the Food from Home = Food for Home project, funded by Our Food Future.

“We have nearly everyone’s flag represented,” says co-founder Karen Houle. “Two more are going up soon: Syria and Mexico.”

This is different from your usual community garden. Every participant is new to Canada, whether they arrived many years ago or have been here just a few months. The initiative is the brainchild of Karen and her colleague Omelnisaa Hassan Elfaki, who work together at the University of Guelph and were discussing the lack of urban agriculture programs specifically supporting new Canadians.

“We wanted this to be a gateway for newcomers to learn gardening skills in our climate: a place where they could animate their cultures through food and connect to their homeland through what they can grow and eat here,” says Karen, who volunteers for two days every week with Omelnisaa during the growing season

Many of our gardeners may have little or no access to green space where they live, may not know about local community gardens, and can’t always access the culturally-specific produce they are most familiar with.”

Food from Home = Food for Home kicked off in spring 2020 with a small cohort of around 10 participants and in 2021 the program grew to more than 50 people with a waiting list. The garden consists of 195 above-ground boxes which contain more than 200 different crops, many of them infrequently grown in Canada.

“We have such a range of interesting vegetables. Almost everyone has asked for something specific – Aleppo peppers and Fish peppers, Perilla, which is popular with Koreanand Japanese people, Malabar spinach, which is used in Guyana and Suriname cuisine, Molokhia, a Middle Eastern vegetable used with lentils – it took me a long time to find that seed but we did it! The faces of participants light up when they find out that it is possible to grow what they love,” says Karen.

An abundance of crops is harvested beginning in late July, with participants taking home some of the items they grow while surplus produce is set out on a shared table for everyone. The sense of community allows for no crops to be wasted, but rather everyone’s labour is shared with everyone, says Karen.

The participants have noted how much they are getting out of the program, from looking for something to do during the pandemic, to becoming more knowledgeable about the climate here, which is different than what many are accustomed to, creating challenges for even experienced gardeners to grow their own food. Different soils, pests and even the weather conditions all created barriers that can be overcome with coaching and learning as a group.

One participant enjoys sharing the experience with her children, noting that her young daughter does not enjoy vegetables, but ate her first carrot at the garden and enjoyed it.

“It makes me feel happy to cook knowing what I am giving to my family is healthy and safe.”

Echoes Karen: “Food creates experiences and builds community. It is a portal to home, and a connection to home.”

One of the participants with her harvest of the day.

Omelnisaa shows how to harvest a yellow zucchini