How yard-sharing can help feed communities

Avid gardeners like Sonam don’t necessarily need a yard to grow delicious fruits and vegetables, thanks to community gardening programs.

When Rhonda Teitel-Payne first got involved with yard-sharing programs in 2009, she wasn’t sure whether Torontonians would want total strangers digging around in their backyards—but, as it turns out, they did. In fact, Teitel-Payne, who is co-coordinator for Toronto Urban Growers, has watched the yard-sharing movement grow exponentially. “It’s a great way to form connections in your community,” she says. “I’ve seen amazing relationships develop, and there are people who have maintained their gardening friendships for years.”

Yard-sharing pairs urban homeowners with landless gardeners to mutual benefit: people who may not have the time or energy to grow their own vegetables offer part of their property to someone who does, and share in the harvest. There are now waiting lists full of people looking for patches of ground to sow in the city, but it’s not a phenomenon restricted to residential backyards—community gardens are springing up outside apartment buildings, restaurants and other businesses. “Container gardens on pavement work beautifully,” says Teitel-Payne. “Often people grow things they can’t find in stores, or that would normally be imported, or expensive. It’s an opportunity to grow things that mean something to you.”

The arrangement benefits homeowners and green thumbs alike; many split the bounty half and half, while others join programs, such as Not Far From The Tree, that donate a portion to food banks, community kitchens and shelters. A few years ago, Sonam, who came to Canada from Tibet, learned about The Stop Community Food Centre while attending ESL classes and became involved in the organization’s yard-sharing program. One small garden blossomed into three, and eventually she launched her own business, making momos (Tibetan dumplings) from the produce in her gardens and selling them at local farmers’ markets and the West End Food Co-op. “I can’t see her now without her giving me food,” Teitel-Payne laughs.

For a yard-sharing program to succeed, Teitel-Payne recommends both property owner and would-be gardener put an agreement on paper that covers things like how the space will be used and what will happen to the produce. Homeowners should find out what kind of growing experience their gardener has, and should outline whether there are any time restrictions when it comes to accessing the space. Then, there are garden-specific issues to consider, such as soil quality, light and availability of water. When starting out, Teitel-Payne suggests planting greens, peas and beans, which are easiest to grow, then branching out from there. “Experiment with small amounts of a bunch of different things,” she says. “Keep going with what works and try a few new things every time.”

If you’d like to get involved in yard-sharing, check out the Toronto Urban Growers website; their “I want land” page offers a list of programs and resources for future green thumbs. You can also match up with a like-minded gardener or landowner at Garden Share TO, or join CultivateTO’s Community Shared Agriculture program. Or check out the City of Toronto’s page on community gardens and allotment gardening.

3 women who inspire us

It’s International Women’s Day! To celebrate, we put together a list of three women who inspire us. These remarkable individuals live right here in Toronto and York Region—changing lives and making our community a better place to live each and every day.

JOSHNA MAHARAJ: Joshna’s appetite for community change is insatiable. As a busy chef with big ideas, the South African native has demonstrated a tremendous passion for turning her culinary interests into community activism. After graduating from McMaster University, Joshna spent time living in India before returning to Toronto to pursue a career in the food industry. Joshna believes passionately that food “is a crucial piece of community building and rejuvenation.” She began her culinary career at The Stop Community Food Centre and also volunteered at FoodShare, a United Way-supported agency, where she helped develop a student nutrition program. At the Scarborough Hospital, for example, she worked tirelessly to overhaul the patient menu to include healthier, more culturally-appropriate options—the first project of its kind in Ontario. These days she’s busy working on her vision to bring large-scale change to the healthcare, rehabilitation and education sectors so that people can access fresh, local food when they visit places like hospitals and universities. “Food is such a perfect common denominator,” says Joshna. “It nourishes our bodies, but it also nourishes our spirit. There is a connection and a conviviality that comes from gathering in a kitchen, community garden or at a table. These are things that really give people a sense of belonging.” We love Joshna’s passion for her work and her tireless efforts to bring people together around food. We can’t wait to see what she cooks up next!

CHEYANNE RATNAM: At just 14, Cheyanne experienced hidden homelessness, couch-surfing with friends after she was forced to leave home because of family conflict and abuse. Cheyanne, who is Sri Lankan, was eventually placed into the care of the Children’s Aid Society where she remained during high school, yet managed to excel. Despite struggling with homelessness and a number of other barriers—including mental health issues like depression—Cheyanne was determined to build a better life for herself—and others just like her. Today, she’s thriving, after graduating from university and pursuing a busy career in the social services sector where she advocates on behalf of homeless newcomer youth and young people in and out of the child welfare and adoption system. One of her proudest accomplishments? In 2014, she co-founded What’s the Map—an advocacy and research group that has started a cross-sectoral conversation on how to remove barriers and better meet the needs of newcomer homeless youth. Cheyanne is also a public speaker for the Children’s Aid Foundation and a coordinator at Ryerson University for an education symposium for youth in care. And despite a busy schedule, she still finds time to mentor young people experiencing homelessness and other barriers. We’re inspired by Cheyanne’s remarkable resiliency and passion to help young people. And we’re not the only ones! Last year, her alma mater, York University, recognized her with a prestigious Bryden Award that celebrates remarkable contributions to the university community and beyond. “I hope to send a message to young people who are facing barriers that they are not alone and that it’s ‘OK to not be OK’. I want them to know that we’re here to help. The present circumstances should not define who you are or who you’ll become.”

SUSAN MCISAAC: We may be a little biased, but we think our recently-retired President and CEO, Susan McIsaac, is an extraordinarily inspiring individual who has dedicated her life’s work to championing social justice. During her 18 years at United Way (six years at the helm), Susan was a key architect of United Way’s transformation from trusted fundraiser to community mobilizer and catalyst for impact. She’s an inspiring example of a bold and compassionate leader who cares deeply about making a difference in the lives of people and families across our region. “We have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to make sure the kind of disenfranchisement that has cracked the foundation of other places doesn’t jeopardize our home,” explains Susan. “To make that happen, we need to re-commit ourselves to ensuring that anyone and everyone who works hard can get ahead.” It’s this very sense of commitment that continues to reverberate throughout the community services sector and beyond. So much so, in fact, that just last month, Susan was awarded the TRBOT’s Toronto Region Builder Award for her significant contribution to improving communities, and in 2014 was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by WXN.

How much do you know about food security?

Healthy food is an essential building block to our overall health and wellbeing. It helps children do well in school, ensures we can put our best foot forward at work and allows us to contribute as active members in our community.

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But for too many people living in Toronto and York Region, access to healthy, affordable, and culturally-appropriate food has become a major barrier to a good life. We also know that income is the root cause of food insecurity, and that in order to address this growing problem, we need to work together to close the gaps between those who are doing well financially and those who are not.

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That’s why United Way invests in a network of agencies across our region that help people get the food they need through meal programs, community gardens and kitchens and a mobile food truck. By bringing people together around food, we’re also connecting kids, adults and seniors to their communities, which we know is another essential step in helping them move from a life of poverty to possibility.

To help you learn more about food security, we put together a quiz to test your knowledge.


For detailed answers, click here.