While food insecurity often brings to mind global issues and struggles in developing countries, there are many examples in developed countries of local gaps in food security. In the post-industrial city of Hamilton, Canada, there is an obvious lack of healthy food choices for low-income residents who rely on food banks. Concerned citizens looking to address the issue of food insecurity came up with a novel idea to grow and harvest local produce for food banks and hot meal programs using only volunteer power and unused urban land across the city.
The site behind the one-level grocery store set against the backdrop of shuttered factory grounds seems an unusual place for a large vegetable garden. The acre of land is located deep in the inner city of Hamilton, next to a rope factory and a few meters uphill from a set of railroad tracks that once symbolically separated this north-end neighborhood on ‘the wrong side of the tracks’. In early spring 2012, volunteers from a small community organization, called Hamilton Victory Gardens, broke ground on that same acre for a garden plot. By mid-summer they had a thriving garden, and, by December, volunteers had harvested and donated 12,600 pounds of fresh produce—all from a piece of land that had lain dormant and neglected for years.
Urban Food Insecurity on the Rise
A city of 504,000 located 70 kilometers southwest of Toronto, Hamilton had seen its fortunes rise and then fall with the dramatic collapse of the steel and manufacturing industries. The number of steady, full-time jobs declined rapidly and poverty rates increased.1 Today, nearly one in five Hamiltonians lives in poverty,2 and, for many, the lack of steady income presents itself at the kitchen table. Nearly 12 percent of Hamilton households report food insecurity due to insufficient income.3 In response, many families and individuals rely on food banks and other emergency food services. This month alone, approximately 20,000 people will use food banks in Hamilton, 6,000 of whom are children.4
In response to the growing demand for emergency food services, social service providers in Hamilton have expanded their food banks, meal programs, and hours of operation. Once thought to be a temporary solution to an emergency need for food throughout North America, food banks continue to experience an increase in demand. While the demand for emergency food continues, many food banks rely heavily on large corporations and private individuals for in-kind and monetary donations. The food itself is often donated by chain stores and can include unhealthy options such as energy drinks, gum, candy, frozen pizza, and pasta.5 While food bank managers often try to encourage donations of healthier options and sometimes purchase healthier food to augment the number of available choices, a sustainable supply of healthy food at food banks is greatly needed.
Sowing Seeds of Change
Hamilton Victory Gardens is a volunteer-based non-profit that uses urban agriculture to grow fresh produce for local food programs. The organization has grown from one site to 12 urban garden sites located throughout Hamilton. In response to the need for fresh produce by low-income residents, they take under-utilized spaces throughout the city and turn them into productive gardens managed by volunteers. All of the produce grown in the gardens is donated to local food programs to provide a source of nutritious food to community members in need. As of the end of 2014, in only three years of operations the Hamilton Victory Gardens has grown and donated 91,450 pounds of fresh produce. Seeking to alleviate food insecurity, the organization continues to provide a sustainable, local solution to the problem of providing fresh, nutritious food to those in need.
Each of the 12 gardens is built on land that is leased, rent free, to the Hamilton Victory Gardens by the landowners. Typical sites include church yards, lawns outside of corporate buildings, and gardens outside of community centers. Before breaking ground at a new location, a garden is designed in consultation with the owners of the property using a system of raised beds. The beds are each outlined with concrete bricks, lined with landscape fabric, and filled with soil. A typical garden bed is 16 feet by 4 feet. It costs about CAD$150 to construct a garden bed that provides approximately 85 pounds of produce a year. The smallest garden sites contain only five to ten beds; larger sites can include over 125 beds. Everything grown in the Victory Gardens is donated to local food programs, including food banks and hot meal programs along with student nutrition programs and community health initiatives. During the 2014 season, Hamilton Victory Gardens regularly provided fresh produce to 10 food banks and five hot meal programs across the city.
The organization’s infrastructure is incredibly lean, even by current standards. The organization is run by a dedicated board of directors, in partnership with an operations manager who oversees the day-to-day operations of the gardens. The operations manager is the only full-time employee, assisted seasonally by student interns. She coordinates and supports volunteers and develops the harvest and planting schedules. The board of directors manages all other tasks usually assigned to non-profit staff such as financial planning and budgeting, public relations, fundraising, and strategic planning. As a fast-growing organization, the lean staff structure allows the organization to focus the majority of its funding on the gardens, which in turn, creates opportunities for higher levels of production and larger donations of produce.
The organization’s impact would not be possible without the hundreds of volunteers on which the Hamilton Victory Gardens relies. Ranging in age from school children to seniors, volunteers continue to be essential to the organization’s success. In 2014, over 250 people volunteered in the gardens. Volunteers are invited into the gardens six days per week, for three-hour ‘work bees.’ Supervised by dedicated volunteer site coordinators, volunteers work to build, maintain, plant, and harvest the hundreds of garden beds throughout the city. At the end of each work bee, volunteers weigh and deliver the day’s harvest. At the height of the growing season, donations from the four largest sites can reach beyond 400 pounds daily.
The gardens do not only provide food to those in need, but they have also quickly become spaces of urban renewal, personal growth, and education. Hamilton Victory Gardens takes blighted land and turns it into a public garden space, often with picnic tables and a gazebo. The gardens have become places for families to picnic and for children to play. Many community members have said that they feel proud of the garden sites and are appreciative to Hamilton Victory Gardens for helping to improve local neighborhoods.
In 2014, the Hamilton Victory Gardens hosted children and youth from four inner-city schools. Children received hands-on experience in the gardens, along with recreation and volunteer opportunities. Students are taught about the nutrient cycle, the vegetables grown, and the importance of giving back to the community in which they live. They have an opportunity to dig, plant, and harvest food. The effects of this educational programming are hard to measure, but the hope is that by learning about nutritious food, children will better understand where their food comes from and feel empowered to make healthier food choices. For example, during one school session in the gardens, a student was offered a cookie as a snack. He proudly declined the treat and bit down on a freshly harvested carrot instead.
Gardening for Good
Hamilton Victory Gardens continues to grow. In 2015, the organization plans to grow more than 65,000 pounds of produce for local food programs and build two more garden sites in locations in eastern and western parts of the city. They also plan to expand their education programming by working directly with local schools and with community partners to provide food literacy programs in the gardens.
Hamilton Victory Gardens demonstrates that underused urban space can be transformed into productive gardens that provide an essential service to the community. Spaces that appear unattractive or underdeveloped can be transformed, by a dedicated group of volunteers, into urban agriculture sites that produce thousands of pounds of food. Within a matter of hours, the produce harvested can be served to community members in need.
The success of the Hamilton Victory Gardens continues to rest with the dedication of its volunteers, who donate their time and hard work during the busy season. By growing thousands of pounds of food within city limits and donating it all to local food programs, Hamilton Victory Gardens volunteers demonstrate the capacity for a local, community-based solution to answer the demand for accessible, nutritious food in emergency food programs. This is an easily implementable solution that can be applied in almost any urban setting, and Hamilton Victory Gardens can serve as a model for any city that simply has motivated citizens. In the long run, the hope is that household food insecurity will no longer be an issue and that every individual will have access to nutritious, culturally-appropriate food at all times. Until then, volunteers of the Hamilton Victory Gardens will continue to get their hands dirty, gardening for the greater good.