Her job was teaching English. But when Tish Carnat realized her newcomer students couldn’t afford fresh vegetables, “right away,” she says, “I thought, we have to garden.”
And garden they have.
On Monday mornings from spring to fall, Carnat’s students – most of them seniors and Tibetan refugees – ditch their classroom in the basement of a public library for a plot of land off Milky Way Lane to tend their garden, dividing the produce harvested. The space is loaned by a private owner, and resources are provided by urban agriculture charity Greenest City.
The plot has grown affordable food for a group of newcomers for nine years, and now Greenest City and the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust (Toronto’s first), which partnered early last year, have big plans to buy the land the Milky Way garden sits on. It will be the trust’s first purchase following a crowdfunding effort that raised $25,000.
Collaborating with the ESL class, Greenest City will expand production on the soon-to-be-community-owned land, eventually developing an urban agriculture hub with a social enterprise market garden and greenhouse. Add a proposed community food hub in the Anglican Church of the Epiphany and St. Mark and there’s immense potential for Parkdale to build a sustainable local food economy that improves access to healthy and affordable food.
In March 2015, the Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre (PARC), a backbone of the community since 1980, announced the Parkdale Community Economic Development (PCED) planning project. Over 18 months, hundreds of residents and more than 25 organizations working in the community came up with a Parkdale Neighbourhood Plan. Food security emerged as one of several priority areas.
It’s all part of a movement to change Parkdale’s narrative from one of unavoidable gentrification to one that sees decent work opportunities created and gives more say about development to the people who live and work here.
Parkdale’s status as one of Toronto’s few remaining downtown neighbourhoods affordable for diverse community members has declined as the pace of gentrification and displacement has intensified.
Jason McKinney at Church of the Epiphany.
“I’ve lived in the neighbourhood for 10 years, so I’ve seen a significant change in terms of the disappearance of stores, businesses and restaurants that cater to lower-income people,” says Anglican priest Jason McKinney.
An influx of restaurants and bars – many catering to a higher-end clientele – along Parkdale’s main commercial street, Queen West, led local Councillor Gord Perks to champion a moratorium on their numbers in 2012.
But “it’s not just about new hipster cafés that sell $4 lattes,” community organizer and settlement worker Kalsang Dolma told the crowd at a fundraiser last spring for the Milky Way garden. “It’s about making this community livable and welcoming to everyone, especially those who come from or are in vulnerable situations.”
Compared to other Toronto neighbourhoods, vulnerable populations – newcomers, low-income earners, the homeless and people facing mental health or addiction challenges – are overrepresented in Parkdale.
The areas north and south of Queen replicate on a smaller scale the income polarization across Toronto over the past four decades. North Parkdale is increasingly home to higher-income residents, mostly homeowners. In south Parkdale, a third of residents live in poverty and 90 per cent of them rent. Three corporate landlords, MetCap, the Swedish-owned Akelius and Wynn, control almost 30 per cent of the primary rental units and are aggressively threatening to jack up rents.
PARC executive director Victor Willis has watched the private market become more unaffordable over the last decade.
“You used to be able to get a bachelor on Jameson or one of those side streets for maybe $750,” he says. “Now, once [tenants] leave, Akelius comes and puts [in] stainless steel appliances and charges $1,200 to $1,400.”
Meanwhile, those in the bottom half of the economic spectrum have watched their incomes stagnate or decline and food prices rise.
“We know that the purchasing power of welfare is now almost half what it was in the mid-1990s,” says PCED steering committee member Rick Eagan. So especially for the one in five Parkdale residents who is on social assistance, “it’s just harder to eat both healthily and sufficiently.”
Parkdale is not one of Toronto’s “food deserts,” although immigrant-owned food businesses including restaurants are disappearing and affordable options are vulnerable to development pressure.
The No Frills on King West sits on a site designated for mixed-use redevelopment, and its sudden closure on December 8, reportedly for emergency roof repair, compounds affordability issues.
Fortunately, Parkdale has formidable community capacity. “Because Parkdale is one of the original priority neighbourhoods from way back, before we even coined the term ‘priority neighbourhood,’ there were social investments that were made,” says Willis.
PARC’s 2010 report, Beyond Bread And Butter: Toward Food Security In A Changing Parkdale, identified 22 agencies addressing food security in some way. Today Parkdale is home to diverse community responses to the issue, from ESL students growing veggies to food banks and meal programs, farmers markets, community gardens, the Co-op Cred volunteer-for-food-credit program, food distribution and procurement initiatives and the Parkdale Food Network, formed to enhance communication and collaboration among all of these.
The PCED planning project hopes to integrate such assets to build a local food economy.
A food hub was proposed during the community planning process as a “one-stop shop” for organizations offering food-related programs and services. Greenest City, for example, would like to expand its small Good Food Market in Masaryk Park on Cowan with products incubated by small businesses in the food hub and produce grown in the urban agriculture hub’s market garden.
Church of the Epiphany St Mark at 201 Cowan in Parkdale.
The church offered up the space – a wing that could provide programming, meeting or office space (Greenest City is currently the only tenant) and two industrial kitchens in the basement with programming space “for either a community kitchen or a teaching or production kitchen,” says McKinney, who’s been appointed to help see the food hub take shape.
The church’s interest emerged from a need identified by the community but also from the need of churches everywhere to reassess their role in communities, McKinney explains. “The future of this church is dependent in part on connecting meaningfully with the neighbourhood, being a part of seeking the good of the neighbourhood,” he says.
A working group is brainstorming what the food hub could look like.
“Hubs are a big new thing, so in terms of governance and how to have multiple organizations running something, there’s tons for us to learn,” says Greenest City executive director Ayal Dinner. “We’ll make our own mistakes along the way and learn, but hopefully we can take lessons from what others have done.”
The Stop Community Food Centre (CFC) in Toronto’s Davenport-Perth neighbourhood is one innovative model they’re looking at.
The Milky Way urban agriculture hub, meanwhile, will take its cues from for-profit urban farm Brooklyn Grange, which combines enterprise and education, and from Boston’s acclaimed Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, which for three decades has used the community land trust model to develop everything from affordable housing to a 10,000-square-foot community greenhouse that’s a centre for a local food economy for three low-income neighborhoods.
Dinner thinks both spaces are likely to offer food literacy education and training. Skills and job training will also likely be part of the picture. The development of the Milky Way space alone could generate a dozen work opportunities.
Community garden in Milky Way Lane.
Coming up with a Parkdale neighbourhood plan has been “an amazing exploration,” Willis says. But there’s still much work to do. “A plan is just paper,” says Land Trust development coordinator Joshua Barndt. “We need involvement.”
Working groups are making implementation plans for several priority areas the community identified. When it comes to food security, Dinner, for one, wants to proceed cautiously. Greenest City is “not a large, well-funded organization that can just plan for the next 10 years,” he says.
With so many ideas put forward for both the food and urban agriculture hubs, feasibility studies and preliminary business planning are needed, not to mention more community consultation.
One hoped-for impact: that bringing people from different socioeconomic realities together in these spaces will create opportunities for connection in a gentrifying community.
“Food is one of those great joiners, an equalizer,” says Willis.
Lisa Ferguson is a Toronto-based writer and editor with a specialty in social issues. For the last three years she authored the annual Toronto’s Vital Signs Report (a city “report card” that drives civic engagement, debate and advocacy).
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