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Photo: Community residents distribute the fruit of their labour at the Firgrove Crescent public housing development (Photo: David Trattles)

Just south of the intersection of Jane Street and Finch Avenue in northwest Toronto, nestled between a phalanx of skyscraping apartment towers, is the Firgrove Crescent public housing development, one of dozens operated by Toronto Community Housing. A concrete parking laneway between two 20-something-storey buildings serves as the northern entrance to Firgrove, which stands out as a pleasant pocket in an otherwise tough part of town. The Jane and Finch area is one of the most densely populated and diverse parts of Toronto, home to people from roughly 100 countries who speak more than 70 languages and dialects. Compared with the rest of the city, it has a higher rate of single parents, low-income families, unemployment and adults with less than a high school education. It also has a reputation for gangs and crime, a stigma that residents have been striving to overcome for years.

(Map: Chris Brackley, Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic)

As I walk down the lane into the heart of Firgrove, however, the sounds and sights of summer fun in the summer sun abound all around. Six young men are vying to outdo one another in an energetic game of pickup hoops, the thumping bass of the basketball’s bounce competing with their boisterous banter and bravado. A nearby sprawling grassy field buzzes with a blur of younger children of all shades of black, brown, yellow and white, as does the adjacent outdoor pool. The neighbourhood features 380 housing units: one high-rise and several low-rise apartment buildings and a clutch of two-storey townhouses with nominal front yards — some with flower or vegetable patches, others with grass and dandelions — that are clustered around the pool.

Police officers aren’t an uncommon sight around here, although this afternoon they’re not looking for the usual suspects. An affable officer directs a stream of kids in and out of his vintage yellow cruiser, and three officers in blue shorts smile as they hand out police badges, baseball caps, balloons and T-shirts. Near the pool’s light blue reflective glow, a dozen or so other officers, most wearing ball caps and casual clothes, huddle around a halfbuilt shed. They are from the Toronto Police Service’s TAVIS unit. TAVIS stands for Toronto Anti-Violence Inter vention Strategy, which was established in the wake of the city’s murderous “Year of the Gun” in 2005. TAVIS officers have two sets of duties: rapid-response police work and participation in community initiatives. “We got a call that they needed help to build a shed to house their gardening tools,” says the sergeant in charge, taking a break from the mayhem of trying to decipher Ikea-style instructions. “So we responded.”

While some people might find it surprising to see police getting involved in a project such as this, others might be even more surprised to know that there’s a community garden in this neighbourhood. But there it is, a 3.5-by-7.5-metre patch of earth, divided into 14 plots and surrounded by a chain-link fence, sporting an impressive variety of vegetables, herbs and spices. And there are the three families that have emerged as the main custodians, watering and weeding and pruning and harvesting, with small piles of veggies growing near their feet.

Jamaican-born single mother Janet Young and her teenage daughter Andrene are working opposite ends of their plot. Andrene has gloves on and is pulling out weeds from around the tomatoes, while Janet is disentangling big leafy green vines from some of the other plants. “Steups!” she hisses, kissing her teeth. “I gotta tell you, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s never plant the zucchini next to the callaloo or the peppers, because it takes so much space that it overpowers anything else that’s too close to it. You’ve got to give the zucchini space!

“But my plot was very successful,” she continues. “I planted callaloo, zucchini, cabbage, chili peppers, Scotch bonnet peppers, tomatoes, thyme, collard greens, broccoli and onions. It’s fresh, all-natural organic stuff; no pesticides or anything like that. It tastes better than what you get at the supermarkets.”

The plot next to the Youngs’ blooming bed is brimming with hot chili peppers, eggplant, bitter melons, mint, okra and more. It belongs to Pakistani immigrants Qamar Sadiq and Muhammad Vaseer and their three daughters Javaria, Sadaf and Marriam.

“I always bring my daughters when I come here to work,” says Sadiq, “because I want them to know that they can grow some of their own foods.” Sadiq speaks quietly, with humility, but also with some glee, about her veggie bounty. “It’s not so much economics, because the batches are tiny, but the vegetables are so crisp and so tasty. I make mint chutney, I cook an eggplant dish that’s fried in chickpea flour and my husband makes his salsa every day with fresh chili.”

On the other side of the garden, sixtyish Jamaican/Indian couple Gloria and Ronald Tahal are tending to their sprawling zucchini plant. Gloria admits to being slow with her say-so from the get-go: “When they started digging up the land, I said to myself, ‘Why are they digging? Nothing’s going to grow here.’ But then we planted our crops, and I couldn’t believe it! Back in Jamaica, my grandfather had a garden and grew everything you see us growing here.”

Gloria’s comment brings a grin to the face of Judy Wallace, the local tenants’ representative-turned-community-gardenorganizer. “These families have worked very hard to make this garden what it has become,” says Wallace, standing amid a bed of callaloo leaves. “Look at all these vegetables.”

As if on cue, Janet Young approaches with a bowl of cooked callaloo that, except for the spices, was made entirely with ingredients from her garden. The dish is made by chopping and then sautéing callaloo, tomatoes, onions, garlic, thyme and Scotch bonnet peppers. It tastes sumptuous, and its flavour lingers as I walk toward Jane Street, with locals remaining outside in the fading evening light, talking and laughing and sharing recipes while hanging out in their garden.

The picture wasn’t always this rosy at Firgrove, with the garden going through much doom and gloom before its recent bloom. When planting began in 2010, residents were slow to respond. A dozen families eventually signed up, but only three came consistently. Wallace had to be convinced to oversee the project, and the funding that was promised arrived later than expected, which delayed access to supplies and the construction of a fence to protect the plants.

I had first learned about the garden — and about its thorny start — from Anan Lololi, the executive director of Toronto’s Afri-Can FoodBasket (AFB) program. The nonprofit community food-security organization was established in 1995 with a commitment to “meeting the nutrition, health and employment needs of members of the African-Canadian [and other communities], in particular, those who are economically and socially vulnerable.” Along with Toronto Community Housing, local businesses and the police, the AFB supported the Firgrove project. Lololi calls it “one of the most flourishing gardens” he has seen.

The AFB operates in high-risk neighbourhoods throughout the city, encouraging people to grow and eat healthy fruits and vegetables, with an emphasis on foods that are part of their ethnic heritage but can be expensive to buy. Since its start, the AFB has nurtured the growth of 26 community gardens and trained hundreds of gardeners, not only in pockets such as Firgrove but also in places like the Jamestown area, located farther west of Jane Street, and Lawrence Heights — two of the most troubled parts of the city.

In 2005, there were 80 murders in Toronto, 52 of which were committed with guns, many in the city’s public housing communities. The Ontario government dedicated $42.5 million over three years to support intervention programs in high-risk neighbourhoods in conjunction with other agencies, including the City of Toronto and the United Way. The AFB tapped into that funding, securing contracts to work in Jamestown, Lawrence Heights, Jane and Finch and elsewhere. And it used food to connect with young people in those neighbourhoods.

Young participants in the Afri-Can Food Basket program in Lawrence Heights learn about food security and work on environmental projects. (Photo: David Trattles)

In Lawrence Heights, a low-rise neighbourhood hemmed in by Highway 401, the Allen expressway and the sprawling Yorkdale Shopping Centre, I meet Dulaa Osman. The 19-year-old University of Toronto student is showing me the just-harvested community garden, which can yield 200 kilograms of produce in a single growing season. “I have been involved in this since I was in my early teens,” says Osman, “and it has been a huge influence on who I am today.”

When Lawrence Heights was completed 50 years ago, it was the largest public housing project in Canada, over the decades becoming home to a diverse population of new Canadians, predominantly people with Caribbean and African roots — and, like Jane and Finch, gaining a reputation for gangs and crime. Today, however, the neighbourhood has sprouted regular community kitchen sessions and even appointed its own food-security manager. Getting involved in the garden and on related food programs, says Osman, “opened my eyes to the broader issues in my community. It helped me focus on my own life and ambitions and eventually led me to university.”

Working with teens such as Osman is a “sometimes difficult but rewarding labour of love,” says Lololi. “They are like diamonds in the rough that just need some polishing.” In addition to gardening, teens are taught history and politics and are encouraged to take more responsibility over the choices they make. “Once they have a better sense of their history and who they are,” says Lololi, “we can see their consciousness rise. Many of them have been able to see another option from the ways of the street. And this is all done through connecting them to food. They really take to being on the farm.”

The farm that Lololi is referring to is the historic McVean Farm, which is west of Toronto in Brampton and is the site of the AFB’s biggest project. The 20-hectare property, bordered by the Humber River and suburban subdivisions, is operated by a not-for-profit urban agriculture organization called FarmStart and is also home to a community health-promotion enterprise called The Cutting Veg. For the past three years, the AFB has operated the 0.8-hectare Ujamaa Farm on the McVean Farm, bringing together a dozen community groups, among them a Kenyan women’s group, an Afrocentric school organization, the largely Eritrean JOI Collective, the Twelve Tribes of Israel Rastafarian group and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

On the summer Sunday that I visit the Ujamaa Farm, Arsema Berhane, one of the JOI Collective’s founders, is doing some weeding. Bersame is here with her mother and grandmother, who is telling her granddaughter how to say the names of the vegetables underfoot in the Tigrinya language of their native Eritrea (“ujamaa” is a Swahili word for co-operative). The massive 6-by-55-metre plot is divided into 12 rows, and Berhane tells me that the vegetables they grow go to members of the Eritrean community and a few food banks and that they’re producing so much, they’ve signed on with a distributor who will be buying their produce wholesale to sell to a network of farmers’ markets.

“We’re trying to figure out ways to really grow,” says Berhane. “We don’t want to be a small backyard-type of project. We want this to be something that we can really use, not necessarily to make money, but as a sustainable social enterprise. That’s our challenge.”

Two plots west of the JOI Collective is the sprawling plot tended by members of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The group grows peppers, pumpkins, callaloo, Swiss chard, squash and more. And its harvest not only is shared by members but also supplies some of Toronto’s West Indian and African restaurants. “I can’t believe how this farming thing has taken off,” says Desmond Bailey, who is a little distracted as he searches for a missing pumpkin. “I can’t supply these crops fast enough for the people who want to buy. Right now, we are selling most of our crops even before we plant them. I definitely want more land next year. This is what I want to do with all of my time — like when you fall in love.”

A week later, Lololi and I retreat from the sun’s heat and meet in the AFB’s cramped, cluttered and cool bungalow basement office, just a few blocks south of Firgrove. The large backyard is full of potted plants, bags and bags of seeds, compost and soil and several well-worn hoes, picks and machetes. Lololi is telling me about the evolution of AFB, which was a winner in the Community Project category at the 2011 Green Toronto Awards, and his own transformation from reggae musician to a warrior for food security.

“To tell you the truth,” he says, “I didn’t choose food security — food security chose me.” Two decades ago, Lololi was a professional musician and bass player in the seminal reggae band Truths & Rights, a staple on Toronto’s Queen Street music scene alongside artists like Jane Siberry and The Parachute Club. At the time, Lololi banded together with a few fellow Rastafarian musicians to form a food collective to secure spices, fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs for its members.

“Our main focus was to make sure that food was accessible to our community at reasonable prices,” he says, speaking in a lulling sing song punctuated by staccato bursts that echo faintly above the basement’s quiet-room tone. “Twenty years ago, it was mostly Jamaican stores that sold food to Caribbean people, but a number of them went out of business. That, along with rising prices, pushed us to connect with suppliers, buy in bulk, get volunteers to pack the baskets and use a van to deliver fresh food to our members, who helped with the paperwork and donated money to the enterprise. We came to realize that we were doing much more than just buying fresh food. We were starting to understand the food system and food security, which, in simple terms, covers everything to do with food, from planting and nutrition to consumption, selling it, preparing it and food policy. E-ve-ry-thing!”

While still playing in Truths & Rights, Lololi went back to school and completed a degree in business administration at Centennial College. He also started working part-time at The Big Carrot, one of Toronto’s burgeoning health-food stores, and learned first-hand how to run a food co-operative as a business. When offered a full-time job and some equity in the organization, however, the bass player stuck to the sound of his own drum and chose, instead, to help orchestrate the fine-tuning of the AFB.

Since then, amid successes such as the Firgrove garden and its work on McVean Farm, the AFB has had its share of struggles and is in a perpetual scramble for the money it needs to pay its scaled-down staff of two and fund its programs. Lololi multi-tasks while we talk, interrupted by a stream of phone calls and questions from Mwanajuma Extavour, the AFB’s youth program manager, as she works on grant application forms.

“Right now, we don’t know if we’ll have money to pay she, or me, for that matter,” he says in a low voice, “but we can’t let that stop us. We have seen too many things change for the better over the last two decades. We have shown that cultural foods like okra, callaloo and bitter melons can be grown right here in Ontario. We have shown people that they can grow healthy food in an urban environment.”

Months later, Lololi phones me with some good news: the AFB has received a grant for $218,700 over three years from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to hire staff, recruit volunteers and better serve residents of Toronto’s west-end “priority” areas. That means larger tracts of land on the Ujamaa Farm, a new 0.8-hectare project on the Black Creek Urban Farm and, most important, jobs for youth to help operate these programs.

Lololi tells me about cities such as Detroit, where foodsecurity organizations and entrepreneurs have teamed up to start farms in forlorn inner-city neighbourhoods, employing locals and supplying fresh affordable food to a growing group of people.

“We hope to eventually become a farmers’ co-operative,” he says, excited about the changing urban-agriculture landscape at home and beyond. “If we can build up these community farming groups, help them be successful with their plots and crops and raise their confidence and commitment, we can become more viable.

“We also have to find a way of getting to all those economists, botanists and agriculturalists from abroad who have spent years and years earning their degrees but are now driving taxis or working as secretaries because their qualifications are not recognized in Canada. They have the kinds of skills we could use. They could help us, and we can help get them back into their fields. If we can get these things done, we will be well on our way.”