The snap peas at a Scarborough community centre have an impactful life: they’re planted in the centre’s greenhouse, grown in its garden beds, then donated to families through its food bank, often ending up in cultural dishes. Any unused parts go to an on-site compost machine and become soil for new plants.
Snap peas are among 26 kinds of vegetables grown at the Centre for Immigrant and Community Services (CICS) for its food bank, served weekly alongside canned goods, dry goods and dairy products to 210 families. The greenhouse and gardens produce about 1,700 pounds of food per year, and all of it is donated as part of the Sustainable and Accessible for Empowering Communities (SAFE) project.
“We've seen more and more people that might have been just above the poverty line are now finding themselves below that line,” says Brian Joyce, director of community services and facilities/operations at CICS. “We could see the needs of the populations we were observing, they needed access to food. And, of course, over the last year that's just amplified with high inflation and cost of food.”
In 2020, CICS opened a pop-up food bank and soon teamed up with the Feeding City Lab, a research network of the Culinaria Research Centre at U of Toronto Scarborough investigating how the pandemic impacted food systems. The lab surveyed community members and found many were lacking vegetables for cultural dishes. Its data helped the centre secure funding for its greenhouse, and identified which veggies would be most appreciated.
“It's not just about food security, but it's about food sovereignty. People are taking charge of how they want their food systems to work. They are bringing their ethnocultural lens to it as well,” says Jo Sharma, associate professor at the Culinaria Research Centre and director of the Feeding City Lab.
Siobhan Bonisteel, a PhD candidate at U of T Scarborough and community partnership representative with the Feeding City Lab, is one of several researchers supporting CICS. She’s using her expertise on community food systems to help the CICS team gather data on the SAFE project’s impact on the food bank and community.
“Both Feeding City and CICS are understanding the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in real time,” Bonisteel says. “Both inform each other and work together to broaden our collective understanding of community food issues, including resiliency to threats such as pandemics.”
Joyce says the data will not only help entice funders, it will help illustrate the project as a model for other organizations. It will also guide which new plants the centre tries to grow, as Joyce says families accessing the food bank are coming from an increasing range of cultures.
“We're serving a wide variety of different people and we're introducing them to all these other services at CICS, like settlement services, early years programming and fitness programming that they might now have known about for support,” says Joyce.
The SAFE project also encompasses the centre’s industrial-sized community kitchen, where cooking courses are hosted and used as an opportunity for knowledge sharing, socializing and community building. The gardens are similarly a place for connection, and Joyce wants to bring in as many other local organizations as possible. One such organization, the South Asian Cultural and Health Association for Youth and Seniors, is planting ethno-culturally significant food plants for diasporic Asian community members in CICS' raised garden beds.
Shathvahi Ramesh, fourth-year undergraduate student at U of T St. George and former intern with Sharma’s team, worked with the Feeding City Lab to connect CICS with the Malvern Urban Farm, which grows culturally significant plants in one of Scarborough’s hydro fields. Community farmers are growing seeds in the greenhouse to later transfer them to their gardens.
Ramesh says community organizations are often in ideal positions to help one another, they just might not know it. The Scarborough Food Network aims to bring a range of local organizations and stakeholders, including the Feeding City Lab, to the table with monthly meetings dedicated to updates. U of T Scarborough alum Amanda Wedge has recently taken over as the network’s co-ordinator.
“It helps folks feel like they're not one lone entity just fighting their own fight or alone in their work. Together is always better,” says Ramesh, who double majored in environmental ethics and religion. “It also helps build institutional memory.”