Growing community by growing food

By John Bessai —

foodOn Nov. 29, I shared in the November Feast at Sketch, a place for young people who are homeless, at risk of being homeless or street-involved that offers a creative, safe space to engage in community life. The potluck and talent showcase of Sketch participants was held in their space on King West near Bathurst. It was the end of a journey I had started earlier this fall as my first encounter with Sketch was during Toronto’s harvest season.
Harvest season in Toronto? An oxymoron perhaps but it was harvest time at the community garden located in the city’s historic Fort York. The garden activities include planting, weeding, building composting boxes, cooking, and sharing harvesting duties as well as learning canning skills. Some of the groups that care for the plots are the building members of the Toronto Housing Corporation, Arcadia Artist Coop, community artists from Sketch and the local neighbourhood Green Committee of the Bathurst Quay Neighbourhood Association. Evergreen organized a harvest feast at the garden in October where people brought food and shared their time.
Sketch’s entourage arrived pulling wagonloads of deliciously prepared vegetarian foods from their kitchen. After feeding ourselves, the evening finished with some shared dishwashing in the Fort’s mess hall and returning the clean plates over the fort wall back to the garden shed. In addition, Rebekka Hutton (at left, centre) of Evergreen shared her skills of preserving food with us locals making jars of pumpkin butter—think pumpkin pie on toast—and pickled beets at a workshop at the fort, also in October. Twelve of us squeezed into the small kitchen without bumping into each other and slowly everything came into being: with huge pots of beets boiling on the stove with pumpkin boiling beside it. Hutton patiently explained the whats, hows and whys and we were also shown jarring done in the old ways by one of the fort’s staff.
Being in the room amidst the laughter, oohs and ahhs and oh-ohs, was a wonderful way to spend time at the fort, right Downtown around the corner from my place. This was not a dreaded mandatory class of high school home economics: it was attended by interested people, of different ages from the neighbourhood who wanted to gain the skills of survival with basic foods grown by them. We each left with our precious jars to store on our shelves at home with a few thrown in that did not “pop” properly to be eaten immediately— c’est la vie. Hutton announced the next adventure was a fantastic opportunity to get out of town, and pick some organic apples! Evergreen rented a school bus, met at Sketch and took off—another group of unlikely urbanites northbound on the 400.
We arrived at Avalon Orchards, which is an organic u-pick apple orchard in Innisfil, Ontario and is owned by Gaye Tremblay. The orchard gives people the opportunity to pick and eat an apple right off the tree. Looking at the apples made me wonder about how I perceive food. These apples were not round and spotless and perfect like those in the store, instead they came in all sorts of shapes and sizes but tasted delicious.
After picking about 20 pounds of apples each, we sat together at a picnic bench outside of the shed. Interesting crew, my neighbours: community artists from Sketch, Evergreen organizers, a farmer in training from Everdale Farm’s internship program and I, among others from the neighbourhood, happily ate our sandwiches, shared some thought provoking conversation and consumed many, many apples. In the silence that followed, I was breathing in the sweet air, saw glimpses of other farms below from the hills of Tremblay’s orchard and a beautiful sky above.
Bessai is executive producer of Green Heroes, a new tv series and web channel. He lives Downtown.