Hamilton

Kids are the leaders and heart of McQuesten Urban Farm

McQuesten Urban Farm tackles food insecurity in Hamilton's east end. They put their faith in the neighbourhood kids, who have become food champions for their families and leaders in their homes.

Everyone deserves quality, regardless of income, say organizers

Heidi, the daughter of Kelly McKinney, educator and farmer, says her favourite thing to do is pick basil and parsley. She’s grown up around the farm and plays a game to try new things. (Christine Rankin)

Feet patter down dirt paths between bright orange cherry tomatoes and sweet-smelling basil. The young farmers carefully examine their plants for best place to snip them, all the while being reminded to be careful with the scissors.

In the background, the sound of cars rises beyond a row trees, reminding you that you're in the city after all. 

McQuesten Urban Farm was originally designed as a way to make food accessible downtown. And while adults paved the way for its creation, when it comes to embracing nutritious food, workers agree that the kids are the true leaders.

"They're the brave ones that are trying things and bringing them home," said Amy Bonin, farmer and on-site manager. When asked what was so important about this, she replied with a big mission. 

"Making food without boundaries." 

McQuesten Urban farm covers four acres behind the former St. Helen's school in Hamilton's east end in the Parkdale Ave.N and Barton area. The city-funded farm is in its fourth growing season for crops. It also features a playground, irrigation pond, pollinating meadows, and greenhouses configured from shipping containers.  

Volunteers are able to take food home after they work to their families, and an on site market sells produce to people at low cost.   

Efforts to make the farm a reality started in 2012 with the McQuesten community planning team and neighbourhood rallying to combat food insecurity in the area. 

McQuesten was effectively a 'food desert', which meant that there was little to no access to groceries in the area.  

A neighbourhood profile released by Hamilton's social planning and research council in 2012 noted that McQuesten's poverty rate for children under six was 75 per cent, which was more than triple Hamilton's rate. 

Sapphire Singh, educator and farmer, works the soil so that fall crops can be planted. (Christine Rankin)

Empowered with knowledge

According to Adam Watson, project manager in Hamilton's neighbourhood development office, the farm aims to harvest 50,000 lbs of fresh produce a year. And this year, he's says they're pretty close. 

But when farmers began getting the question, "what should I do with this?", they turned to the kids for the answer. 

The farm launched camps and workshops to teach kids about farming and cooking. "Fun things" were planted, like berries and sunflowers, to entice kids into playing and increase the likelihood that they'd try new things. 

Kelly McKinney, educator and farmer, said that the kids relish the experience to learn. "I think that they're empowered with the knowledge they're not getting in other places," she said.

"When kids come, their minds are opened up."

In this way, the kids become the leaders in their own homes and often are the ones encouraging their families to explore different foods. 

McKinney also added that the kids are curious about the earth. She explained that they will approach her with questions about the planet and how it's changing. 

"A lot of them are really empathetic and caring, loving souls, and they don't necessarily have lots of answers," she said.

"[This space] gives them tools for the future...It's so overwhelming and they don't have their own agency yet, but here they do." 

The farm runs weekly "weed and feeds," where participants complete farm tasks and then gather after for a meal. (Christine Rankin)

Family-style meals

The farm is running its second year of weekly "weed and feeds" where people can help with farm tasks and gather afterwards for a family-style dinner. In an effort to make the meals "farm foods first", ingredients are preserved so that they last for a season. 

Joan and her son, Joshua, were at the weed and feed for their first time. They picked cherry tomatoes for a salad and basil for a pesto sauce. Joan said her son usually plays at the park, but always wants to check out the market. 

"I want him to experience different things," she said.

Joshua picked cherry tomatoes for his first time at McQuesten Urban farm. (Christine Rankin)

The farm is also trying to change the image of subsidized or free food and the stigma associated with it. Aside from their selling food at their market, their vegetables are also included in the Niwasa food bank.

Bonin explained that having recently harvested produce is a stark difference from canned goods. The vegetables are also grown organically, though the farm has yet to be certified as such.    

"Everyone deserves quality," Bonin said. "It shouldn't matter your income. Everyone deserves to have fresh, real food." 

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