Although it is widely accepted that community and school gardening has countless benefits for health, well-being and education, it is important to realize that these benefits do not magically appear when gardens take root.
Over the past six years, I have worked closely with educators, community workers, activists and community members in Tio’tia:ke/Montreal as we create, fund and support gardens and gardening teams in schools and community organizations.
We have set up adult education placements to provide hands-on gardening and teaching support to explore the extent to which gardens act as forums where people address social and environmental justice. Some participants encountered barriers to employment, food insecurity and homelessness.
This research and community work has demonstrated how critical it is to advocate for broader social, urban and educational structural changes to support the work of community gardens – and to understand the importance of having realistic expectations about this. that people can accomplish in and through gardens.
Who benefits from the benefits?
In Tio’tia:ke/Montreal, community gardening unfolds in many different ways, which can include gardening efforts at community organizations and city-run gardens.
There are significant waiting lists to access a garden plot in the city, exacerbated by the fact that community gardens were historically reserved for private owners.
According to the mayor of Montreal, “for many people, community gardens are more than a hobby. They allow them to feed their families and obtain fresh produce at a lower cost.
Such statements obscure more complex questions about who controls and accesses community gardens and deeper social inequalities rooted in land rights in a colonial capitalist society that privileges ownership, whiteness, and hierarchical modes of relating.
Relationship with food insecurity
My findings challenge claims that suggest that community gardening is inherently an activity that reduces food insecurity in underserved communities.
Reflecting on my efforts to grow food for organizations that work with food insecure people, through a project called Gardening for Food Security, I cannot claim that gardening has helped alleviate the concerns of food insecure people in measurable ways.
This is despite producing an immense amount of food harvested on a weekly/bi-weekly basis from late June to early November in 2018 and 2019.
Although the gardens are thriving, the organization has never reduced its food order from Montreal’s largest food bank. This may be because although participants ate harvest from the garden, their reliance on it did not reduce their need for other foods. The Gardening for Food Security project, however, has modestly supported a food bank and once-a-week meal service.
Mixed effects for communities, individuals
By gardening and investing in gardens for different social, educational and environmental reasons in neighborhoods undergoing gentrification, we have helped increase land values in a process described as green gentrification.
Despite these critical observations, some benefits of the project included:
provide meaningful paid employment to young adults facing barriers to employment, food insecurity and homelessness;
providing mentorship and opportunities for underserved young adults and students to express themselves (through art, photography, music, film, gardening);
facilitate partnerships between schools and organizations with social and environmental justice mandates for mutual benefit;
acquire sustained financial, learning, and human resource support for educators, learners, outreach workers, and community members, while developing ethical relationships and collaborating to achieve common goals.
The last three types of benefits are difficult for funders to quantify.
Problems with school gardens
Gardening as part of environmental education is not a compulsory common core in Quebec. Gardening at school often takes place outside of school hours, during lunchtime or after school. Taken together, organizing gardening experiences for students in most public schools adds extra work to already overstretched and undersupported educators.
For gardening to be relevant and add educational value for teachers and learners, gardens should be integrated into every core curriculum area (French, English, Maths, etc.) and not just used before or after school hours. class and during lunch time.
Read more: School and community gardens are planting seeds of change to fight global warming
Many of my teaching staff have said that they are fully engaged and interested in creating garden-based learning experiences for their students. But obtaining the authorizations translates into administrative work. This can interfere with the organization of other important aspects of creating gardens, such as establishing funding, building relationships with collaborators or making curricular connections, etc.
Small community change
Tio’tia:ke/Montreal, like many Canadian cities, has a long winter and a short, intense summer. For school gardens to work, the planning and administrative work and permissions for a spring garden should take place at the start of the school year to account for inevitable delays.
If educators or third parties wish to support school gardens with funding and labor, I strongly recommend that students lead the creation, development and especially the evaluation of the garden as a project.
When gardens are prematurely celebrated for producing expected outcomes such as health, well-being and food security, without greater recognition of how these complex issues are affected by systemic barriers, much can be lost.
This includes the welfare of teachers who invest immense labor in something they believe in with limited institutional support and affordable living spaces for people who are dispossessed of their homes, communities and networks by green gentrification.
No easy solutions
There are no easy solutions to the social and environmental problems of school, community gardening or greening.
Often teachers and community members want and need a garden, but they need more: financial support, pedagogical support, human resource support, more time, fewer students, academic freedom, development relevant professional and field that is not part of a larger capitalist system of private property or tied to bureaucracy.
Even a small community change takes time and requires a continuous collective effort.