Growing pains: How COVID-19 affected community gardening across Canada

This was the final research paper I wrote during my Food Security certificate program at Ryerson University, for a course on “Practicing Urban Agriculture” in the summer of 2021. I wanted to explore this topic because in the spring of 2020, I heard about how community gardens in Ontario had to fight to open during the start of the pandemic. I wondered, what had happened since? How had other provinces responded? What did good practice look like? Here is what I learned.

Food has been intrinsically tied to experiences of COVID-19 in Canada. In the first two months of the pandemic, the number of Canadians experiencing food insecurity climbed by 39% (CFCC, 2020, p. 6) and food banks in Ontario saw first-time visitors soar (Feed Ontario, 2020). Simultaneously, interest in food growing rose. An October 2020 Dalhousie University report found that 51% of Canadians surveyed were growing at least one variety of fruit or vegetable in a garden; of those, 17.4% started growing food at home in 2020 (Mullins, Charlebois, Music & Finch, 2020, p. 3).

For community gardeners, the early months of the pandemic were filled with uncertainty. In some places, community gardens were closed in spring 2020 as part of efforts to reduce the spread of COVID. Once open, many reported increased interest from growers; the Richmond Food Security Society said demand “exploded” in 2020 (Clarke, 2021, para. 1), while in Ottawa, more than 90 community gardens saw engagement rise (Normand, 2021). Municipalities, provinces and community organizations implemented safety protocols to keep gardeners safe.

This paper will examine how COVID-19 has affected community gardening in Canada. I will briefly outline some of the benefits and challenges associated with community gardening and provide a summary of provincial community garden policies in the spring of 2020. I will then outline brief case studies of food growing in Toronto and Victoria during the pandemic. Finally, I will discuss potential future implications and research questions.

Methodology

This paper examines high-level provincial responses to community gardening during COVID, as well as experiences in two Canadian cities. It represents an analysis of government documents, news stories, reports, academic papers, blogs and press releases. There is currently little academic research on community gardening during COVID.

Benefits and limitations of community gardening

There are myriad benefits of community gardening, but challenges and limitations also exist. I will outline several of them here.

Food production and security: Community gardens increase local production of healthy, fresh produce. This may help increase participants’ access to produce, potentially improving their food and nutrition security, while also helping them develop food-growing skills (Jacob & Rocha, 2021). For instance, a study of one community garden in Toronto found that “47 percent of the survey participants did not have opportunities to access fresh food” outside of the garden (Anderson, Gough & Agic, 2021, p. 10). However, PROOF research states that community gardens are unlikely to impact food insecurity rates in Canada (“Household food insecurity in Canada,” n.d.). Community gardening does not necessarily lead to increased access to fresh food overall (Burt, Mayer & Paul, 2021) and is often not done at a scale that contributes to serious improvements in food security (Phillips, 2020).

Health: Gardening is a form of recreation and physical activity that can be beneficial for physical health (Anderson, Gough & Agic, 2021). Improvements in mental health are also a commonly cited motivation or outcome of participating in community gardens (Cochran & Minaker, 2020).

Social: Gardens create space for community building and congregation. This may include opportunities to connect within cultural groups or across cultural or racial differences (Lowan-Trudeau, Keough, Wong & Haidey, 2020). However, there are also limitations to participation. If community gardens are not built in low-income areas or do not have shared access or control by racialized or marginalized people, their needs will not be met (Cochran & Minaker, 2020). Lowan-Trudeau, Keough, Wong & Haidey (2020, p. 511) found that Calgary community gardens were predominantly located in neighbourhoods with “a significantly lower proportion of visible minorities and significantly higher levels of educational attainment.”

Environmental: Community gardens contribute to urban greening and enable residents to connect with nature and food production. Positive environmental impacts can include stormwater management, reduction of air pollution and contribution to biodiversity (Anderson, Gough & Agic, 2021). However, community gardens may be perceived as competing with other uses of space, including park land (Huang & Drescher, 2015).  

Community gardens in Canada: Spring 2020 COVID-19 response

In March 2020, governments across Canada unveiled restrictions aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Figure 1 outlines provincial government actions affecting community gardening during COVID. Some left garden decisions at the discretion of municipalities, while others made no mention of them in closure announcements and reopening plans. Some, like B.C., explicitly declared community gardens as an essential service in the early weeks of the pandemic. Ontario’s decision to explicitly close community gardens in March appears to be an outlier, although the province later reopened gardens. Territorial governments were not included in this analysis due to limited available information and the largely rural nature of these parts of Canada.

Figure 1: Provincial government actions relating to community gardening in spring 2020

Chart outline provincial responses to community gardening in spring 2020. Appendix 1 includes plain text version

Community gardens in Toronto: Activism in action

The City of Toronto’s March 25, 2020 closure of its 81 community gardens and 12 allotment gardens – in alignment with provincial restrictions – was met with frustration by growers (City of Toronto, 2020a). A change.org petition calling on the Toronto City Council to open gardens with safety guidelines in place by May 1, started by Toronto Urban Growers (TUG), garnered 5,316 signatures (“Keep community and …”, 2020). An open letter from Sustain Ontario urging the province to identify community gardens as an essential food service, co-created by TUG Co-Coordinator Rhonda Teitel-Payne, netted over 7,400 signatures (Felice, 2020). This early advocacy foreshadowed the major role non-governmental organizations would play in food security and gardening initiatives in Toronto throughout COVID. On May 4, Toronto announced the gradual reopening of community and allotment gardens (City of Toronto, 2020b). An analysis of City of Toronto news releases shows no further mention of community gardens through to the end of August.

Safety protocols posed challenges to some community gardening organizations. North York Community House had fewer gardeners participating and developed a schedule and sign-in system for volunteers (Monfaredi, n.d.). Riverdale Meadow Community Garden stated that it would have to reconfigure/reduce its garden (“Welcome to Riverdale,” n.d.). In a meeting of the cross-country Food Communities Network (2020), one participant noted that “Gardens at city parks in Toronto have more support compared to those on non-city land,” including provision of handwashing stations and signage. To help community gardeners implement the City’s COVID Safety Rules, several organizations offered free virtual workshops (“COVID 19 response,” n.d.).

Figure 2: COVID safety posters required to be posted at community garden entrances and in common areas. (City of Toronto, 2021)

Two City of Toronto posters. One outlines list of ways to prevent infection. Other shows icons of two people with arrow between showing need to be six feet apart.

A number of gardens, including Parkview Neighbourhood Garden, PACT Grow to Learn and Black Creek Community Farm, pivoted to providing produce for emergency food aid (“August garden update,” 2020; “Grow-to-learn emergency…”, 2020; “Black Creek Community Farm COVID-19 notice,” 2020). Unfortunately, cancelled fundraising events and revenue-generating programs coupled with expenses for food aid provision left Black Creek with a budgetary shortfall of over $100,000 by June 2020 (“Plant a seed…”, 2020).

The growing need for emergency food aid during COVID cannot be separated from how systemic racism informs poverty and food insecurity in Toronto. A 2020 declaration on anti-Black racism by the Toronto Board of Health stated: “The intersection of race, income, housing, and other social determinants of health have placed Black Torontonians at great risk, as we are seeing through the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities with higher percentages of visible minorities” (City of Toronto Board of Health, 2020, para. 8). Black people in Toronto are more than twice as likely to live in low-income households in comparison to people who are not visible minorities (Boisvert, 2020). Further research could examine how COVID and associated safety protocols affected access to community gardens and local fresh food by Black and low-income people in Toronto.  

Community gardens Victoria: Local government gets growing

In Victoria, food production is permitted in all city zones, boulevard gardening is encouraged and residents are permitted to sell food and agricultural products (e.g. fruits and vegetables, eggs, honey, flowers) from a food stand on their property (City of Victoria, n.d.-a; City of Victoria, n.d.-b; ). The City’s Community Gardens Policy supports commons gardens (which are maintained by volunteers but can be harvested by anyone), allotment gardens and community orchards (City of Victoria, 2018). It offers grants to design and build community gardens, as well as for supplies and volunteer co-ordinators (City of Victoria, n.d.-c).

During the early weeks of COVID, after British Columbia declared community gardens essential, Victoria City Council passed a motion to scale up growing in the city to support community resilience (City of Victoria, 2020a). This launched Get Growing, Victoria!, an initiative that saw some City staff temporarily reassigned to grow over 81,500 edible plant seedlings (City of Victoria, n.d.-d). These were distributed free alongside garden materials to residents who were disproportionately affected by the pandemic, with the support of 44 community partners. The City also supported education on food growing and a mentorship program for new gardeners. Speaking as to why Victoria chose to get involved in growing, Councillor Jeremy Loveday said, “I do think this crisis has brought this into people’s minds a little bit more and that they want to have a little more of a hand in growing their own food” (Lum, 2020, para. 8). City Council opted to continue Get Growing, Victoria! in 2021 (City of Victoria, n.d.-d).

Figure 3: Seedlings grown by the City of Victoria as part of the Get Growing program. (City of Victoria, n.d.-d)

While Victoria appears to be generally supportive of community gardens, the innovative programs it brought forward in support of food growing during COVID are largely geared toward individual growers. Decisions to support home growing over communal growing may reflect safety considerations. However, as apartment buildings are the “predominant dwelling type” in Victoria, it is likely many residents do not have access to large garden plots at home (City of Victoria, 2020b, p. 2). More research is needed to better understand the experiences of residents using community gardens during COVID in Victoria, as well as the impacts of the Get Growing initiative.

Discussion

Given the breadth of this topic and limited length of this paper, my research uncovered many more questions than answers about the impact of provincial and municipal responses to community gardens during COVID-19. Here, I will outline some observations and questions.

Impact on growers:

For many community gardens, COVID fundamentally shifted access and programming. Communal gatherings were no longer possible and physical distancing aimed to keep growers apart. How did this affect the benefits of socialization and mental well-being associated with community gardening? This is a key motivation for some growers, as a blog post by Toronto’s North York Community House observed: “A lot of it has to do with building a sense of community and reducing social isolation and loneliness, especially among seniors. For many, it’s about coming together and spending time with other people” (Monfaredi, n.d., para. 3).  However, given increased isolation during COVID, community gardens may still have represented an opportunity to see other people – even if distanced and infrequent.

The pandemic may also have limited who could participate in growing. Gardeners facing greater health risks, such as seniors and those with pre-existing health conditions, may have been discouraged from participating. Lack of access to personal transportation and to communal tools (which may have been restricted for safety reasons) could also have created barriers. Some community gardens also reduced the number of volunteers (“August garden update,” 2020) and some guidelines discouraged bringing children to gardens (“COVID-19 Recommendations for Community Gardens,” 2020), which may have reduced access to growing spaces. Questions of access should be further examined, including the impact on marginalized and racialized communities.

Impact on operations:

Research is needed to determine how delayed starts to the growing season, changes in staffing and/or volunteer available and COVID protocols may have affected community garden operations and outputs. For instance, Sudbury, ON, gardeners were unable to access parks at a time when they would have been doing spraying and pruning (Pickrell, 2020), while in Ottawa, key planting times were missed for certain produce (Normand, 2021).

Meeting provincial or municipal COVID-19 safety guidelines may also have presented a logistical challenge for some community gardens. Manitoba’s Guidance for Community Gardens advised the creation and distribution to members of Garden Access Plans; visible signage on COVID rules; provision of sanitizing spray, soap and water; the creation of a schedule for gardeners; use of personal tools; and more (Government of Manitoba, n.d.). This may have been challenging for gardens with low financial or human resources. Further research could help determine how COVID closures and safety protocols affected gardens, and whether this led to any permanent garden closures.

Longer-term implications:

Concerns about food supply and a desire to engage in outdoor activities prompted more interest in gardening during COVID-19. As restrictions ease and people return to many of their normal activities, will interest in food growing, food systems and food security persist? Will cities increase their support for community gardening? A City of Winnipeg report (2021) observed that the pandemic has introduced new people to the pleasures and benefits of gardening, which it expects to spur increased future demand for community garden space.  Research suggests that public advocacy and interest, coupled with support from politicians, will be key to advancing urban agriculture agendas (Huang & Drescher, 2015). Co-ordination among gardeners and food organizations in Ontario and nationwide, as well as innovative government responses to food growing, as seen in Victoria, could herald positive changes to community gardening going forward.

Conclusion

This brief analysis represents a snapshot of what I found in my research on community gardens during COVID, and an even smaller glimpse of what we need to learn about how community food production shifted through the pandemic. By examining both short-sighted and innovative responses, and how residents were affected by community gardens, governments at all levels can take appropriate action to support community food growing in both normal and crisis times. This will contribute to more sustainable food systems and the building of stronger communities, both of which are key to facing the challenges of our time. 

References

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Felice, C. (2020). Open letter calling on province to identify community gardens as essential food service. Retrieved from https://sustainontario.com/2020/03/31/community-gardens-essential-food-service/ 

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Lowan-Trudeau, M., Keough, N., Wong, J., & Haidey, S. (2020). The affordable housing, transportation, and food nexus: Community gardens and healthy affordable living in Calgary. The Canadian Geographer, 64(3), 505-515. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1111/cag.12606  

Luft, A. (2020). Montreal rolls out plans for community gardens, urban agriculture to help feed local residents. CTV News. Retrieved from https://montreal.ctvnews.ca/montreal-rolls-out-plans-for-community-gardens-urban-agriculture-to-help-feed-local-residents-1.4919385 

Lum, Z. (2020). Victoria assigns parks staff to start growing food for residents. Huffington Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/victoria-seedlings-coronavirus_ca_5e8819e6c5b6cbaf28296c57 

Monfaredi, T. (n.d.). Growing vegetables and community at the Lotherton community garden. Retrieved from https://www.nych.ca/blog-posts/lothertoncommunitygarden 

Mullins, L., Charlebois, S., Music, J., & Finch, E. (2020). Home food gardening

in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Dalhousie University Agri-Food Analytics Lab. Retrieved from https://cdn.dal.ca/content/dam/dalhousie/pdf/sites/agri-food/Home%20Food%20Gardening%20EN.pdf 

Normand, P. (2021). Community gardens ready to adapt and grow in 2021. Capital Current. https://capitalcurrent.ca/community-gardens-ready-to-adapt-and-grow-in-2021/ 

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Phillips, S. (2020). Can community gardens improve food banks and food banks and food centers? Lessons from two Southwestern Ontario cases (Master’s thesis, Western University, London, Canada). Retrieved from https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=9485&context=etd 

Pickrell, A. (2020). Advocates call for community gardens to be added to Ontario essential services. CTV News. Retrieved from https://northernontario.ctvnews.ca/advocates-call-for-community-gardens-to-be-added-to-ontario-essential-services-1.4901137 

“Plant a Seed for Black Creek Community Farm.” (2020). Retrieved from https://www.blackcreekfarm.ca/2020/06/08/plantaseed/ 

Pringle, S. (2020). Ottawa Board of Health asks province to allow community gardens to plant during pandemic. CTV News. Retrieved from https://ottawa.ctvnews.ca/ottawa-board-of-health-asks-province-to-allow-community-gardens-to-plant-during-pandemic-1.4904562 

“Welcome to Riverdale’s community garden’s website.” (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.riverdalemeadow.ca/wiki/wiki.php 

Appendix 1

Provincial government actions relating to community gardening in spring 2020

BCABSKMBON
March 2020 government responseMarch 25: community gardens declared essential service (“B.C. defines essential …”, 2020)Unable to find documentation on community garden status; presume gardens were not closed during regular seasonUnable to find documentation on community garden status; presume gardens were not closed during regular seasonUnable to find documentation on community garden status; presume gardens were not closed during regular seasonMarch 31: Community gardens closed as part of restrictions on “recreational amenities” (Office of the Premier, 2020)
April/May 2020 government responseApril 24: City of Calgary news release says community gardens remain open (City of Calgary, 2020)May 1: Re-open Saskatchewan plan identifies community gardens as currently open (Government of Saskatchewan, 2020)May 4: Restoring Safe Services plan does not mention community gardens (Government of Manitoba, 2020)
April 25: After lobbying by some organizations and municipalities,  community garden restrictions lifted (Lale, 2020; Pringle, 2020)
QUENBNSPEINL
March 2020 government responseCommunity garden status left at municipalities’ discretion (INSPQ, n.d.)March 19: No mention of community gardens in state of emergency declaration (Government of New Brunswick, 2020); food and agricultural processing and services declared essential (Fleming, 2021)March 22: State of emergency limits gatherings to five people but does not include guidance around gardens (Government of Nova Scotia, 2020a)March 17: No mention of gardens in state of public health emergency declaration (Government of PEI, 2020); March  essential services list no longer available on government websiteMarch 18: COVID-19 declared a public health emergency; outdoor gatherings of up to 250 people permitted (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, n.d.)
April/May 2020 government responseApril 30: City of Montreal announces community gardens can open gradually between May 4 and 18 (Luft, 2020)April 19: news coverage states that NB previously declared community gardens essential, but no supporting source found (Lamberink, 2020)May 1: People allowed to use and visit community gardens (Government of Nova Scotia, 2020b)April 23: News coverage indicates government release of new health guidelines for community gardening (Juric, 2020); document no longer available on government websiteMay 7: Community gardens permitted to operate (NTV News, 2020)

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