Hastings Urban Farm offers food security and connection to land
“I've been a drug addict, but I'm at a transition point,” says Discount Dan, reaching through the alley's chain link fence to shake my hand. “You guys taking volunteers?”
The long rows of Hastings Urban Farm – located on an empty lot at 58 West Hastings, right off of W2 – are sprouting green, leafy vegetables as workers water the crops and haul in wheelbarrows of dark soil.
Derek King, one of the locals hired to tend the harvest this summer, leans on his shovel as Dan explains why he wants to help grow food in the Downtown Eastside, just around the corner from his home at First United Church shelter.
“I'm not wired to heroin anymore,” Dan says. “I want to do something positive instead of being a thief.
“This garden is awesome. It's great.”
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The urban farm, a project of the Portland Hotel Society (PHS), is on the site of the former gravel parking lot which, in 2010, became an Olympic protest tent city. In February, the Vancouver Street Soccer League – a team made up of homeless people and other Downtown Eastside residents – laid down a turf pitch and started playing on the unused Concord Pacific-owned lot.
Last week – after months of work levelling the lot with sand, building raised wooden garden beds, and planting seeds – the garden unveiled signs on Hastings explaining the project's vision of food security, affordable housing on-site, and a market stall to buy food.
Almost a million food insecure households in Canada
The same week also saw poverty and food insecurity make headlines, with an unprecedented Canadian visit by the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food. Olivier De Schutter blasted the federal government for what he called a “self-righteous” reaction to the concerns raised during his visit, in which Conservative ministers criticized him for focusing on Canadian inequality instead of more impoverished nations'.
“It’s even more shocking to me to see that there are 900,000 households in Canada that are food insecure and up to 2.5 million people precisely because this is a wealthy country,” he told reporters. “It’s even less excusable.
“It’s not because the country is a wealthy country that there are no problems. In fact, the problems are very significant and, frankly, this sort of self-righteousness about the situation being good in Canada is not corresponding to what I saw on the ground, not at all.”
De Schutter, who visited remote Aboriginal communities and inner-cities across the country during his visit, was also criticized for not visiting Canada's north. But the ultimate message of his visit was that the country needs to take food insecurity – particularly on reserves and poor urban areas like the DTES – much more seriously. That, he said, requires “more political will to be invested in this issue.”
At Hastings Urban Farm, King guides me between the garden's rows, pointing out radishes planted in March, straight-leafed kale, swiss chard, lettuce, parsley, carrots, and other delicious-looking greens.
“It's a work-in-progress,” he says, laughing as he points out one plot planted too shallowly. “But when people come by and see it, I think it helps the psychology of this area.
“I'm from a huge farm in Saskatchewan. Our back yard garden for our family was about the size of this. We didn't have to go to the grocery store very often – we grew our own carrots, onions, garlic, potatoes, zucchini and tomatoes, and canned a lot of stuff growing up. In this neighbourhood, some people are suffering, but they're also helping each other.”
Like SoleFood, Hastings Urban Farm isn't an individual-plot community garden, unlike many others dotting the city. It's a community collaboration where people will be able to get involved in growing and sharing food with other residents. It will help not only with food security, but also a connection to the land, King said.
A connection with food and land
“People don't see where their food is grown anymore, so there isn't an association with what the land is,” he said. “This provides a small connection, which is good for people, especially for people who are living and eating in poverty.”
For the PHS employee overseeing the project -- one of several garden plots the agency runs -- the garden offers a vision of hope and community. Most importantly, it will increase food security for the neighbourhood.
“This was a crumbled building for a long time, until we started doing this,” said Kailin See. “People are pleased to see it's turning into what it is. They're really encouraged and excited by it.
“I just can't wait to see it once it's all done, and the First Nations carving circle is in, when the garden's in full bloom, and there's community members eating and working out of here, people playing on the soccer pitch: the community coming together. I can't wait for that. It's going to be really good.”
The ultimate vision for the Concord Pacific property is social housing, a demand long-floated in the community, particularly during the months of the tent city two years ago. The PHS' new sign in front of the site announces the plan is for 166 low-income housing units, 30 family suites, 40 rent-to-own units, an expansion for the neighbouring Potluck Cafe, offices for community organizations, and even dental and medical clinics. But the agency has launched an online petition to ensure the project goes ahead as "100 per cent social housing."
“The long term plan is for it still to be housing,” See said. “That's its hopeful future – slowly but surely.
“For now, we're hopeful we'll get our little market stall built. Once we've got that, we're pretty much ready to open our doors to the community. That's a ways away yet, as are the actual veggies to go in the stall.”
King continues his tour, boasting proudly about the more than 40 kg of radishes already harvested – and the growing season has barely begun. But more importantly, he said, is his community's support.
“Every day we get 30 to 40 people coming to talk to us about where their food comes from,” he said. “A lot of people just want to come help in the garden. We get a connection to the land. Many people are just learning about that connection.”