Urban farms bring a bit of green to vacant lots

Two Toronto women want to fill Toronto's vacant lots with temporary vegetable and herb farms to supply fresh, organic food to community groups such as shelters and health centres.

The Bowery Project teams up with developers to create temporary farms to supply produce to shelters

The Bowery Project is setting up temporary farms in vacant lots around the city to supply fresh, organic produce to local community groups. (Bowery Project)

When you walk or drive past a vacant lot in the city, your first thought is probably to wonder how quickly it will become a condo or other highrise.

But two Toronto women want to fill those lots with temporary vegetable and herb farms to supply fresh, organic food to community groups such as shelters and health centres.

Rachel Kimel, co-founder of The Bowery Project, seeks out developers who own the vacant lots to get permission to set up the farms. Produce is grown in milk crates, which means they can be moved easily if or when plans for the land change.

"We can pick them up and move them to the next site when the developer or the land use is being transferred," Kimel told CBC's Metro Morning on Friday.

The group has established a handful of farms across the city, including outside the YMCA homeless shelter at Queen Street and Spadina Avenue. Last year, the farm of 1,500 milk crates produced nearly 400 pounds of produce for residents of the shelter.

Youth that are staying at the shelter help work the farm, as well as volunteers, a model that is followed at each site. The newest site is at Sherbourne and Gerrard streets, a lot owned by developer Oben Flats, which reached out to the organization after hearing about its other farms.

That project has connected with a handful of local groups, including the Sherbourne Health Centre, Robertson House and Anishnawabe Health Toronto, and food grown there will be donated to the Native Women's Resource Centre, Kimel said.

"We've got them engaged through programming and volunteering throughout the week," Kimel said, and then food will be given to volunteers to deliver.

The farms grow all manner of vegetables, including peas, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, squash and onions, Kimel said, as well as a range of herbs. They also include flowers, which helps pollinators like bees.

Because The Bowery Project is a non-profit, it seeks sponsors for each project. The YMCA garden is put on with the help of an Ontario Trillium Foundation Grant, for example, while a 500-crate garden at the Alexandra Park Community Centre will be supported by an innovation award from the Toronto Foundation.

"Each one has its own story," Kimel said of the gardens.

Kimel and her partner, Deena DelZotto, look for vacant lots and are committed to reaching out to developers to set up gardens, which Kimel says is her opportunity to help make Toronto "a better place and more resilient."

"Why can't we do something there and make something productive out of this grey and derelict space?"