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Advocates send province safety guidelines in push to get community gardens opened

A group of healthy food and farming advocates have sent the province a list of safety recommendations for community gardens, in a push to have the spaces declared essential amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Community gardens needed now more than ever, says Sustain Ontario spokesperson

Thames Community Garden, in London's Thames Park, is one of hundreds of gardens across Ontario that are closed under a mandatory order by the province. (Liny Lamberink/CBC London)

A group of healthy food and farming advocates have sent the province a list of safety recommendations for community gardens, in a push to have the spaces declared essential amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ontario lumped community gardens in with other "recreational amenities" that were closed March 30 to prevent the spread of the respiratory illness. But now, more than ever, is when community gardens are needed, said Moe Garahan, the co-chair of Sustain Ontario's Community Growing Network. 

"Food insecurity was already at unacceptable levels in our country, before COVID-19. Households use community gardens to supplement their food supply during the growing season, and many participate in preservation techniques to continue that harvest into the winter season," said Garahan.

Garahan said there's no province-wide data about who uses community gardens, but said a minimum of 7,000 people use them as a source of food in Ottawa. Ben Hill, chairperson of the Middlesex London Food Policy Council, told CBC News there are 464 community garden plots in London and 65 per cent of people who responded to a survey last year said access to healthy food was their primary reason for using them.

Scenes like this could be in short supply this year if the province doesn't reverse its stance on community gardens. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

"The closure of these gardens this spring constitutes a threat to communities' food security at an especially vulnerable time," reads a statement from Middlesex London Food Policy Council. It says community gardens also supply tonnes of fresh produce to local food banks and charitable hunger relief programs. 

"It's essential now, more than ever, that households have access to ways to mitigate food insecurity," said Garahan, citing disruptions to the global food supply and the number of people who are out of work.

Recommendations include distance and disinfecting

Sustain Ontario has created a list of COVID-19 recommendations with the help of community garden coordinators across North America. It was sent to the province on Tuesday, and Garahan said they have a meeting with the Premier's Office and The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs on Monday to talk about it.

The recommendations include introducing a level of enforcement, implementing a schedule at smaller gardens to maintain physical distance, reducing the number of shared tools, barring children who are too young to understand the rules and adding disinfection supplies and protocols.

The idea is that, if gardeners are given access to their plots in mid-May, they'll have the same level of safety as they would at grocery stores "which are, as well, essential food services," explained Garahan. 

Time of the essence

Both Garahan and Hill emphasized the importance of the province changing its mind quickly to mitigate impact on the growing season. Municipalities need time to prepare agreements and get training set up, and individuals will need to make sure they have seeds — which are in high demand, explained Garahan. 

British Columbia has listed community gardens as an essential service, and Garahan said New Brunswick and some cities in Quebec, including Gatineau, have done the same. 

"Both for household food security and for community sharing of fresh food during the summer, [community gardens] always have been and need to be understood as the essential food services that they are."

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