New farming project in hydro corridor aims to bring healthier food to Flemingdon Park

A new project in Toronto's Flemingdon Park area is aimed at making food grown in hydro corridors available for sale in the community for the first time.

Officially known as Flemo Farms, pilot project will work with local residents to grow urban crops

Flemo Farms, built in a hydro corridor in Flemingdon Park, will be part community garden, part commercial farm. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Construction is underway on a new urban farm in Toronto's Flemingdon Park area that could break new ground in the way communities feed and support themselves in the city.

Part of what's new about the project, called the Community Economic and Entrepreneurial Development (CEED) Garden, is that it's being built in a hydro corridor. While patches of land in hydro corridors have been used for urban community gardens and recreational spaces decades, the idea behind the CEED Garden is that for the first time, food produced in these corridors will be available for sale in the community. 

Rhonda Teitel-Payne, who is with a group called Toronto Urban Growers, has been involved in the project dubbed Flemo Farms since the beginning.

She says communities like Flemingdon Park — a diverse neighbourhood in North York largely made up of recent immigrants where roughly a third of the population lives below the poverty line — don't have enough access to healthy, fresh food, and access to land is critical.

"We have lots of available land in Toronto, but it's not actually accessible. And so this pilot is meant to showcase a way in which people could get access to this land for food production," said Payne.

"The project started in 2015," said Orlando Lopez Gomez, the manager of community food growing with FoodShare Toronto, a non-profit organization devoted to getting healthy food to communities.

Orlando Lopez Gomez of FoodShare Toronto says they will grow 'culturally appropriate' crops like okra, callaloo and other greens that are hard to find in supermarkets. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

And although it's partly the result of a partnership between the city, Hydro One and FoodShare, it was the people of Flemingdon Park who pushed it forward, Lopez said, adding they had "consultations with more than 200 residents," to help design the space.

Gomez said the idea behind the CEED project is to work with "local residents who are marginalized," to address a lack of access to affordable food, and at the same time offer the opportunity to also generate a small income from the farm.

'Culturally appropriate food'

Part of the half acre of space will be reserved for "five local residents," said Gomez, to grow food they can then sell back locally in the community. 

As well, they will be given "training and workshops and tools," including "seeds, seedlings, soil." He said they will learn "how to operate all the equipment and tools."  And they're hoping to grow 'culturally appropriate' crops like okra, callaloo and other greens that are hard to find in supermarkets.

The Flemingdon Park site, which the group hopes will be fully operational by the fall of 2021, is one of two planned in the city to operate under this model.

Mussarat Ejaz says the farmers market associated with the farm will be an opportunity to gain access to fresh produce at affordable prices. (Paul Borkwood/CBC News)

Mussarat Ejaz,  a community health worker at the Flemingdon Health Centre, says a lack of access to affordable, healthy food is a real concern in the area.

"There is a high incidence of diabetes, high incidence of obesity, high incidence of hypertension in the community," she told CBC News.

Payne says the project is particulary important now that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the vulnerabilities in our food system, and so has the Black Lives Matter movement.

"The reaction to police violence against Black and Indigenous people is just making people realize how powerful and how profound the inequalities in our city are," said Payne.

"We need to to come up with some really concrete solutions, some tangible solutions. And gardens are one way for people to to reclaim some power in their life, to take back control over a system that's not working to their benefit."