Municipal association support for community garden student workers requested

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MANITOULIN – Manitoulin Municipal Association (MMA) members were asked by representatives of the community gardens program on the Island to consider taking the community garden in their area under their municipality’s wing and help provide for one or two students to help work on the gardens each summer.

“Many of you already know us, but I am Linda Willson and I am here with my husband Chuc to talk to you about community gardens,” the two said as they made a presentation to MMA at a meeting last week. We would like to cover three things in our presentation: the importance of community gardens, the community garden project that the Child Poverty Task Force (CPTF) started in 2016, and how you can help.” 

“First, I would like to talk a bit about the value of community gardens,” said Ms. Willson. “They build community resilience by bringing people together and providing a way for them to learn about and grow their own food. They combat food insecurity and we do have a lot of people on Manitoulin, especially in this pandemic, who are experiencing difficulty putting good food on their table. The Good Food Box program assists in that respect by providing bins of fresh produce to over 200 families at wholesale costs. To ameliorate the damaging effects of climate change, green growing things sequester carbon and help to cut down on greenhouse gases. We are actually hoping to create an edible forest garden at our community garden (Western Manitoulin Community Garden (WMCG), located just outside Gore Bay) which will sequester even more carbon while providing food for the community at the same time.

“Chuc and I have worked with a group to develop WMCG,” Ms. Willson told the meeting. She explained that in 2016, CPTF (recently renamed to Local Food Manitoulin Advisory Council) received a Trillium grant to establish community gardens across Manitoulin Island. Kristen Bickell leads this program.
“There are now 11 community gardens across Manitoulin that have been established from this project,” she noted. “Chuc and I, being passionate about providing healthy, locally grown food to our community, have worked for many years in this regard. As volunteers for the CPTF we were asked to spearhead the community garden in Western Manitoulin.” 

The WMCG land was offered by the McLaughlin family, located in Gordon/Barrie Island near Gore Bay, and its catchment area extends from Billings west to Robinson Township, including Burpee and Mills and Gore Bay. “We have members from Kagawong, Gore Bay, Evansville and Gordon/Barrie Island.

“We are moving into our fifth season of operation and the garden has become very successful,” said Ms. Willson. “With a highly engaged committee that meets monthly during the winter months, we established a five-year business working plan. We have over 50 members, some with individual rental garden plots and some raised bed gardens for elderly and disabled people, and some students and some volunteers who come and work in the garden.” She outlined several programs that the garden is involved with, such as the Kids Can Grow garden tended by students from Charles C. McLean Public School in Gore Bay; the Kids Can Grow program is an integral part of our community garden. There are several perennial crops at the garden and a dedicated area to growing produce for several community food programs.

“This season we provided over three bushels of produce weekly throughout the growing season,” said Ms. Willson. The group also holds several special events such as the annual kite festival.
“Now I will turn things over to Chuc to tell you more about our community garden and outline some of the things the municipalities can do to support the gardens in your area. We would like to find ways we can work together with the municipalities to benefit community gardens all across Manitoulin Island.”

Mr. Willson said, “while the WMCG was successful the first few years, things really took off in 2020 with the help of two summer youth employees. We were able hire them through the Canada Summer Jobs grant, which offered 100 percent reimbursement for wages through a COVID-19 relief program to not-for-profits. We have applied for summer students again this year under the same program.” 

“We can’t emphasize enough what a difference those summer youth employees made,” said Mr. Willson. “Linda and Peggy Brown took on the responsibility of monitoring and mentoring these youths and not only did they help to increase the productivity of the community food garden, they helped put the whole garden area into really good shape. As you know, volunteer-driven projects like this can be pretty daunting and more help is always needed. Not only did the two youth employees take a lot of burden off the volunteers, they also had a great experience working in a healthy environment while learning horticultural skills, knowledge about plants, leadership skills, experiencing the taste of vegetables they grew themselves for the first time, developing a composting program and managing the COVID-19 protocols really well. They enjoyed their experience and became committed to the food program, even offering to return in the fall to do volunteer work when their employment program ended. It gave them a sense of pride knowing they were growing healthy food for members at risk in our community.”
However, “we are not sure that we will secure funding every year and feel it would make sense for the municipalities to take the community garden in their area under their auspice to help provide one or two students each summer. This would take an enormous burden off volunteers, help to build local food security and provide meaningful employment for youth in a healthy environment while at the same time mitigating climate change impacts,” continued Mr. Willson.

“We believe that providing fresh, healthy, locally grown food to our community is more important than ever. We are also committed to reducing food miles and greenhouse gases. As with all volunteer activities in our communities, having the support and active engagement of our municipalities is vital to our ongoing success. We would be happy to work with you to develop a strategy to make community gardens successful in your area. We thank you for any support you give and ask you to deepen your commitment by including summer youth workers for community gardens in your yearly planning.” 

Ken Noland, MMA chair, said he didn’t realize there are 11 community gardens on Manitoulin Island. He said, “our municipality usually gets summer students. Maybe we could add working on the community garden, for one day a week.”

“We would be very happy to work with you on a plan for that,” added Mr. Willson. “Any support we get from the municipalities will be very helpful.”