It won't exactly "make poverty history," in keeping with last month's gala concerts for African economic development. But a tiny tour of T.O. food-producing projects by a Botswana delegation of AIDS educators may very well "make gardening history."
Last time health officials from that country visited our city, they demonstrated the upside of globalization by going home and setting up a good food box network for Botswana's AIDS sufferers based on FoodShare's local signature program - itself borrowed from Brazil some 10 years ago.
Botswana has the highest rates of HIV infection in the world. The excursion this time on a sunny Thursday afternoon focuses on food growing and its uses for youth outreach on AIDS prevention.
We start the day at Sunshine Garden, a 6,000-square-foot plot of land on the treed grounds of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) on Queen West in Parkdale. Karine Jaouich manages this little oasis on behalf of FoodShare. It is companion-planted with the United Way and CAMH as an employment readiness project for mental health outpatients. It also fosters relationships with local residents through a weekly farmers market supplied by the gardeners.
Food is a tool to break down institutional barriers and let people connect on their own to meet reciprocal needs, I pontificate.
That's actually right, Jaouich tells me, because of the way roles get reversed. CAMH clinicians and caseworkers get to see a side of patients they never see in formal settings, and garden workers training in this multicultural plot get to guide and help medics and social workers who wouldn't know a snake gourd from an okra plant.
It's about basing therapeutic relationships on talents and gifts, not just needs, I pontificate again.
Garden-variety work lets abilities, not disabilities, come to the fore, says Jaouich. The project even has raised containers that can be worked by people in wheelchairs, the kind of adaptation crucial when gardeners are weakened by AIDS.
Then we're off to the STOP Community Food Centre at Davenport, at the heart of the city's third-highest need area. It's called a community centre, and it is. People who use the food bank or emergency meal programs are members, not clients, have a vote at STOP meetings and are served as if they've come to a restaurant. This approach is crucial when working to overcome the stigma associated with poverty or AIDS, notes Barb Emanuel, organizer of public health's partnership with Botswana.
Next destination is the FoodShare warehouse in an abandoned industrial district in the south of the city. We're treated to a stir-fry featuring tofu, which our guests from Botswana, where cattle and meat are plentiful, have never tasted.
"The easiest mistake to make with Africa is to make general assumptions," Esau Mbanga, a leading manager in T.O.'s southeast district, tells me.
Zara Parvinian, manager of 14 youth paid to gain employment readiness and life skills in FoodShare's potpourri of beehives, composting, rooftop gardening, seedlings and food box loading, is our tour guide. Dineo Segabai, the social worker in charge of southern Botswana's youth work and orphan care (orphans are a common legacy of AIDS in Africa), is listening intently.
"Without the teachable moments associated with the love, care and respect that go with food, working with youth would be much harder," Parvinian says.
Then we arrive at the Rockliffe Yards in the northwest, a city works area with an old greenhouse, headquarters in the summer for 200 junior gardeners under 12 who are called greenhouse technicians. Master gardener Solomon Boye, one of Toronto's most successful workers with at-risk youth, is based there. Gardens are perfect youth educators, he says in his Ghanian accent.
"There are natural laws we can't argue with, and then there are societal laws that many youth have trouble with. In the garden, it is not old people telling youth what to do; it is nature demanding that the plants be cared for or they will die.'
By this time, nature's laws have worked on us. It's been a long, hot day, and not being a gardener, I'm experiencing information overload. Our guests must get ready for upcoming tours of palliative care facilities and youth Internet cafés. Gardens take time and can't be rushed. Nor can too much be crammed into one space at one time.
I'll have to wait to see what grows out of this, and gain a gardener's patience and inner calm, which is why gardening is good for youth and elder work, I pontificate to myself.