Yesterday I was lucky enough to represent Green Thumbs Growing Kids at the Parks and Environment Committee meeting at Toronto City Hall (super bonus: beating the heat in air-conditioned Committee Room 1). In case you’ve missed (or perhaps avoided) the recent media coverage, the accounting firm KPMG was hired by the city to perform a Core Services Review in an effort to identify areas where City Hall may be able to save a little extra cash – a tidy sum of $774 million dollars, to be exact. While there are lots of “opportunities” on the table, one that is particularly concerning to us at Green Thumbs is the proposition of “a reduction or elimination” of the Toronto Environment Office. How incredibly fitting that the value of the TEO, which participates in policy planning and promotes sustainable living to Toronto residents, was being discussed on a day where the humidex temperature measured in at 47 degrees C (a clear indication that climate change isn’t just a myth!)
Okay, okay – I won’t get into that. I would like instead to impart with you the thrill of being in a buzzing room of passionate Torontonians. Over 100 people presented deputations to the Parks and Environment Committee championing organizations and services that are currently on the chopping block – the Toronto Environment Office, urban agriculture, Riverdale Farm, and other city parks, just to name a few. The meeting didn’t end until a quarter to midnight and was concluded by a recommendation to pass these issues to the Executive Committee meeting next Thursday. Mayor Ford is inviting the entire city to come to the meeting and make a deputation – “even if [he] has to stay three or four days.” So here’s where I make a little plea for this beautiful city that we call home: if you feel strongly about any of the services whose loss we are facing, I strongly urge you to go out and show your support.
Want an idea of what to write? Here’s the deputation I presented yesterday:
My name is Meghan Poultney and I am a Master’s student at Ryerson studying Nutrition Communication. For the past three months, I have been a placement student at a St James Town-based not-for-profit organization called Green Thumbs Growing Kids. The mission of this group is to teach children the vital skill of growing food while providing education about urban agriculture, nutrition, and environmental sustainability. They do this by operating four school gardens in the St James Town, Cabbagetown, and Regent Park areas. They also host programming at city-owned Riverdale Farm and Allan Gardens.
Green Thumbs has been a beneficiary of several grants from the municipal level including the Live Green Toronto Community Investment Program, the City of Toronto Parks, Forestry, and Recreation, as well as a Community Service Partnerships One-Time Grant. These grants are absolutely imperative to the survival of Green Thumbs Growing Kids as well as many other community groups who promote environmental sustainability, urban agriculture, and greening of this city. This is why my colleagues and I are very concerned about the Core Service Review recommendations made by KPMG to the city, especially the termination of the Toronto Environment Office and the reduction of community services.
As many may be aware, the communities that Green Thumbs serve tend to have a high proportion of low-income and newly immigrated families. This is a section of Toronto’s population that would be severely affected by the cuts that are being proposed by the Core Services Review. A 2009 study on twelve low-income neighbourhoods in Toronto by Kirkpatrick and Tarasuk stated that two out of three low income families had, at least once, experienced food insecurity. Considering that the areas that Green Thumbs serves have been identified by census information as primarily low or very low income, it is obvious that food security is an issue in these neighbourhoods. Having hungry constituents is certainly not the way that the city may inspire economic productivity, a reduced crime rate, civic pride, or a high standard of living. Many of the groups and services supported by the city including Green Thumbs, promote food security through education as well as food production. The garden drop-in that we operate each Tuesday and Wednesday nights in our garden allows community members to participate in gardening and harvesting. In return, they are able to bring some of the newly cultivated produce home with them. May I also add that access to fresh fruits and vegetables is inadequate in these neighbourhoods, both in terms of the supply as well as economic feasibility.
Green Thumbs and similar groups are also incredibly important to develop relationships between members of the neighbourhoods that we serve. For instance, the garden drop-in that we hold is not only valuable for the food that is distributed but also for the creation of a tight-knit community in areas where social exclusion is otherwise prevalent. This is supported by a study by Wakefield, Yeudall, Taron, Reynolds, and Skinner (2007) that focused on downtown Toronto community gardens. This study found that these spaces are vital to promote social interaction and community pride. Green Thumbs is also a valuable community asset for youth engagement through after-school programs that provide education and encourage leadership. We are also able to provide summer jobs for neighbourhood youth during the summer months.
The KPMG report to the City of Toronto also states that urban agriculture is a service that could be eliminated in a bid to save money. Urban agriculture, however, is a growing area of research that will become increasingly relevant to food production as the population of the city grows and available farmland outside the city diminishes. Urban agriculture may also be advantageous for the city’s economy, especially through the creation of jobs. As a student of Nutrition, I can’t help but mention the role that urban agriculture plays in human health. Many urban children believe that their food comes from the grocery store, not from a garden or a farm. This is not surprising considering that the average family doesn’t grow their own food in their backyard the way they did one hundred or even 50 years ago. At greater risk of becoming detached from the environmental component of food are those that live in apartment buildings; St. James Town itself has 23 buildings that are home to 17,000 people. If we want to decrease rates of chronic disease that are projected to cripple our healthcare system, the promotion of accessible fresh foods as a foundation of a healthy diet is necessary. Urban agriculture is a very important way that we city-dwellers may be able to do that.
In conclusion, I will again urge the members of this committee to advocate for the invaluable merit of the Toronto Environment Office and the services that they provide to communities throughout Toronto. The proposition that this work can be reduced or, worse, eliminated may make “cents” in the short-term but bodes extremely poorly for the future of the city and those that call Toronto home. Thank you for your time.