When Donna Renaud entered her final year in the Honours Bachelor of Social Work program last fall, the last thing she expected to learn about was gardening.
Renaud’s fourth-year research methodology class conducted a qualitative evaluation of the Ogden-Simpson Veggie Garden Project, a year-old community garden project in Thunder Bay with over 30 gardens. Students evaluated how gardening strengthens the City’s East End area, by studying the project’s impact on residents’ sense of belonging, well-being, and safety.
The class, taught by Connie Nelson, has studied an aspect of food security over the past several years. Through the community service learning approach, students like Renaud evaluated the project’s impact firsthand, by interviewing and documenting the activities of gardeners and residents. “For me, the hands-on learning was so significant to see it all come together,” says Renaud.
Nelson says that’s the goal. “What community service learning is demonstrating is that there is an experiential and traditional knowledge in the community that is a very valuable source of knowledge,” says Nelson. “We are committed not only to bringing the knowledge of the University into the community, but also to bringing the knowledge of the community into the University.”
The approach has grown like Topsy. This past academic year, many of Lakehead’s disciplines engaged students in community service learning with a food security theme. Political Science students developed a community food charter; Business Administration students studied the potential for a local organic food market; Sociology students investigated why milk costs vary greatly in many northern communities.
The Social Work students learned that both friendship and food are cultivated by the project. Resident Suzie McFarlane was the first to give over her yard for others to garden. “It’s great. I don’t get out much and this way I’m meeting new people. While they’re weeding or planting, we chat,” says McFarlane.
Students also discovered an inherent sense of sharing and trust. Former Community Development/Youth Worker and member of the Food Security Research Network Marg Stadey says available plants are given to anyone who’ll use them. “What happens is that those who can’t afford to start plants have a break,” says Stadey.
While gardeners often build fences to prevent stealing, many gardens are purposefully grown on the back lane-way, so passersby can pick for themselves. Small, random acts of urban renewal were an unexpected offshoot of gardening.
Renaud noticed where passersby often stopped to chat over a garden, a graffiti-covered shed nearby was given a fresh coat of paint. An elderly couple in the neighborhood were having a hard time cleaning up their yard to sell their house. Some gardeners cleared debris and raked, and the place sold in days.
The Veggie Garden Project is an example of the kind of community service learning that is being nurtured through the Food Security Research Network, co-directed by Professors Connie Nelson, School of Social Work, and Doug West, Department of Political Science.
In 2007, the Network donated $1,000 worth of seeds to the project by providing hundreds of tomato, squash, and broccoli plants, started over the winter in the Lakehead University greenhouse. It also hired two part-time student staff to work with the community participants in the gardens and write grants requesting support. “It’s really a three-way win here: community, University, and the students, and hopefully, with that magic combination, we will really move forward in strengthening local food systems,” says Nelson.
Connections are being made all the time. In June, the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre unexpectedly delivered hundreds of plants to organizers after reading about the project in the local newspaper. The donation was timely because the project did not have the money or indoor space this year to start enough of its own seedlings before planting time.
Stadey says in this second season of gardening, the focus of building relationships while sharing gardening hasn’t changed but there have been challenges and they have had to make adjustments.
By building on Lakehead’s staffing and financial support, she says, the community now needs to steer the project. “It is important for the community participants to decide how to carry on as a community-based initiative,” says Stadey. This can be accomplished by nurturing relationships. Walking tours were planned to promote networking and Stadey hopes a “garden house” can be established, where people can gather to plan for the future.
During the summer of 2007, Donna Renaud transplanted aspects of the project to her own neighbourhood on the north side of Thunder Bay. She polled her neighbors and discovered that they too welcomed opportunities to get to know each other better. Soon, collective yard sales and a block barbecue happened.
Although she’s not able to work in her food garden, Suzie McFarlane can tend her front flower garden where the symbolic flower of the Veggie Garden Project, the morning glory, grows. The purplish flowers tell passersby that her home is part of the project. Her garden yielded a bumper crop of potatoes last season and she plans to expand the plot next year. “As plants get larger it makes me happy,” says McFarlane. “I look out there and I like what I see. It all went to people who needed food.”