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Ministry plans urban farm at local church

By Stuart Mann

In 2017, the Rev. Beverley Williams and her staff at Flemingdon Park Ministry had a conversation about the need for good, healthy produce for local residents. The Don Mills neighbourhood is home to many newcomers to Canada who struggle to make ends meet. The area’s foodbank mostly stocks canned and packaged goods, and the fruit and vegetables in the nearest grocery store are expensive.

While they were talking, Ms. Williams had an idea. “I said, wouldn’t it be great if we could just grow food, if there was land somewhere?”

The Rev. Beverley Williams, Esey Tewolde and the Rev. Vernon Duporte stand in front of garden beds at Our Saviour, Don Mills. Photo by Michael Hudson

She thought of churches and the land they sit on, then went to Google Maps and started searching for nearby churches that might have some land to spare. One seemed ideal – the Church of Our Saviour, Don Mills, an Anglican church about 7 km away. The parish had a large swath of grass next to its church building.

Ms. Williams got in touch the Rev. Vernon Duporte, Our Saviour’s priest-in-charge, and pitched the idea to him. “I proposed turning some of the grass space into garden space, where we could grow food for people who can’t afford it,” she recalls.

Mr. Duporte liked the idea and took it up with his churchwardens and advisory board, then with the rest of the congregation. Although there were a lot of questions, the church was supportive. “People saw this as an opportunity for mission, to reach out to the community,” he says.

With the church’s permission, Ms. Williams and her team of staff and volunteers put in six raised garden beds on the property last summer. With a $5,000 grant from The Big Carrot, a worker-owned natural food market in Toronto, they were able to buy seeds, seedlings and other items to get started. Other donors helped as well.

That summer, the team grew spinach, peas, several varieties of tomatoes and peppers, onions, eggplant, three types of beans, Romaine lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, bok choy, herbs and cucumbers. The Common Table, as the project was called, was born.

But growing the food was only half of the solution. They also had to find a way to distribute it to those who needed it. “We were growing vegetables – now what were we going to do with them?” Ms. Williams recalls.

The team developed a market system where families could register with The Common Table and receive shopping points based on the number of children and adults they had. To distribute the food, The Common Table received permission from the city to hold a market every other Friday in a park in the middle of Flemingdon Park. It set up a tent and a table and put out its first produce.

Ms. Williams was surprised by what happened next. “What we didn’t realize was the demand,” she says. In the first month of operation, 227 families had registered – about 1,200 adults and children. All the food at the market was usually gone within two hours.

“We weren’t growing enough food,” explains Ms. Williams. “We couldn’t meet the demand.” The team had to supplement its offerings with food from other sources. Local farmers, grocery stores and non-profit organizations provided fresh fruit and vegetables at little or no cost.  

Volunteers clean up some of the raised beds last summer. Photo courtesy of Flemingdon Park Ministry

Faced with the size of the need, Ms. Williams wondered if The Common Table could turn the entire swath of grass at Our Saviour – about three-quarters of an acre – into an urban farm, to provide much more produce this summer.   

Again, the church was supportive. “We see the potential as being very great,” says Mr. Duporte. “We don’t have a full sense of how it’s all going to unfold, but we know that the land is being put to good use and for a good purpose.”

Last fall, the team removed the six raised garden beds and replaced them with 16 larger beds that were dug right into the soil. Before the sod was turned, the University of Guelph tested the soil and gave it a clean bill of health; in fact, it was discovered that the church property was originally farmland.

“We’ve come full circle,” says Ms. Williams.

The team plans to plant the same vegetables again this summer, plus squash, beans and corn. The seeds and seedlings will go into the ground as soon as the frost is gone, beginning with peas and spinach. As the vegetables are harvested, volunteers with cars or trucks will be needed to transport them to the market at Flemingdon Park. Residents will be able to work at the farm this summer, earning more points for food on market day.

Some other changes are in the works. There’s a small worm farm on site to create compost, and an arborist is donating wood shavings to create walkways between the vegetable beds. There might even be a greenhouse in the future.

Ms. Williams is hoping that the market in Flemingdon Park can be open every Friday. She says it’s an important gathering place for the community. In addition to picking up their produce, residents can sign up for library cards, learn about government services and receive donated items like soccer balls and skipping ropes for their kids.  

 “It’s just a win-win on so many levels,” she says, reflecting on how far The Common Table has come since 2017. “It’s been phenomenal. It’s almost like we couldn’t keep up to God. God opened door after door, and we were scrambling to keep up. Things were falling in place. It was absolutely beautiful.”

Esey Tewolde, Flemingdon Park Ministry’s community engagement facilitator and project lead for The Common Table, echoes her comments. “The Common Table is a place where family, friends and neighbours can gather and share together and grow connections,” he says. “It’s a place of belonging, where everyone is welcome, a place that seeks to fight and confront injustices while seeking the well-being of our fellow human beings. We want to keep shooting for that, every day.”

The farm has prompted Mr. Duporte to think about other ways Our Saviour can connect with the surrounding neighbourhood. There are plans to put a deck with some benches and tables on the property for passers-by. Mr. Duporte would also like to see a simple labyrinth installed in front of the church. “That would be a wonderful signal of presence and outreach to the community – that whatever your faith or no faith, you can come and relax in the quiet and presence of that atmosphere.”

Flemingdon Park Ministry is a ministry of the Diocese of Toronto.