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We Grow Food: Fresh food for all

Community gardens helping to feed families

Szanne Mcnutt (left) and Carol Vandersanden of We Grow Food have been working with volunteers in their community gardens in Oshawa, including The South Patch on Glen Street, seen here, to bring fresh, free food to families as demand has increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (photo by Courtney Bachar)

By Courtney Bachar/The Oshawa Express/LJI Reporter

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, families everywhere have faced various challenges.

Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have lost loved ones due to the virus; Ontario itself has seen just over 3,000 deaths, 181 of which have been Durham Region.

Families have not only had to deal with lost loves ones, but many have lost their jobs as well due to businesses being closed or being forced to shut down.

During these most difficult times, communities and organizations have worked with one another to bring support services to those who need it most.

Members of the community have come together to form groups to help one another, businesses shifted operations to produce personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer when there was a shortage, and women everywhere pulled out their sewing machines to make masks.

Food banks have struggled as well during the pandemic, as demand for their services has increased.

These charitable organizations have seen a significant rise in people needing help, as more and more families struggle to be able to afford their grocery bills as the pandemic continues.

Gardening organizations and community gardens everywhere have come together to provide thousands of pounds of fresh produce to families and the most vulnerable population during the pandemic. This includes one Oshawa grassroots organization which, through its five urban community gardens in Oshawa, has provided hundreds of pounds of fresh produce to families in need, all while promoting community grown food.

We Grow Food works to connect communities together through sharing natural, fresh produce in an urban setting, with the belief that “everyone has the right to access fresh produce.”

Run 100 per cent by volunteers, neighbours work together to keep the gardens alive and bountiful, while also providing their communities with fresh, free produce.

At the onset of the pandemic, community gardens were deemed non-essential by the province as part of the shutdown order to stop the spread of the virus.

In response to the pandemic and a growing need for food from the community, Carol Vandersanden of We Grow Food says they created “kitchen kits” which included planters, soil, seeds, seedlings and information on how to start a garden.

“It was enough to inspire people to watch something grow, and then hopefully they’re like, ‘How do I grow more?’” she says, noting the feedback from these kits has been positive.

She adds some people have been inspired to find “nooks and crannies” in their backyards to start their own gardens.

“People want and need more than non-perishable food from the food banks. It’s all about growing food and inspiring people and letting them know access to fresh, safe food is available.”

Organizations such as DIG and Sustain Ontario have worked to see community gardens reopened, which allowed them to continue to provide a much needed service to the increasing demand.

When community gardens were allowed to open, Vandersanden says they worked to schedule volunteers to keep the gardens maintained while also following all of the proper COVID-19 health and safety guidelines to keep everyone safe.

Planting started in early May, with the first harvest in mid-June, according to Vandersanden, adding they’ve been harvesting about 500 pounds of fresh produce weekly throughout the summer and hopes to continue through October. She adds they hope to keep the cold weather crops going until December, noting they’ve been succession planting each time they harvest to keep the produce coming.

Vandersanden says everyone is welcome to pick up fresh produce from the gardens.

The Oshawa Express recently had the opportunity to tour the gardens, starting with Alexandra’s Bounty, located at 364 Simcoe St. N.

“All of our gardens are unique. They’re all different,” says Vandersanden. “But this one in particular, for me, is beautiful.”

Built in the fall of 2016, the garden grows more than 40 different herbs, vegetables and fruits. The garden features a gazebo, wicking beds, row covers and bee condos, as well as a pollinator garden and butterfly garden.

Next, The Express travelled to The Pepper Patch, located at 139 Albert St.

The first of the five community gardens, The Pepper Patch was built in 2013 and has been a “huge asset to the area,” explains Vandersanden.

Directly across the street on the other side of Albert sits The Berry Patch, which was built one year later in 2014 and includes raised beds, built by volunteers with donations from Oshawa businesses, lots of herbs, and a small stage which brings local musicians and neighbours together.

The Carea Gardens was next on the tour, which sits behind the Carea Community Health Centre, located at 115 Grassmere Ave., and was the last of the five gardens to be built, bringing the total urban land farmed to almost two acres, according to Vandersanden.

The South Path, located at 863 Glen St. in Cordova Park, was the last stop on the tour. Built in 2015, the garden features 100-foot beds, raised beds, a hedge of raspberries and a few fruit trees.

Vandersanden says We Grow Food works with the community to help keep the gardens self-sustaining by its surrounding neighbours.

“We help get the garden in a neighbourhood and then the neighbourhood takes care of it. They do it all,” she says, noting they help with securing the location, education, and the plants.

She says she’d one day like to see a garden in every 10 city blocks so every neighbourhood would be able to have access to fresh produce, adding now more than ever is the time for people to be able to have access to good quality food, no matter what situation a person may be in.

“It’s about growing food, inspiring people and letting them know access to safe food is available.”

We Grow Food continues to harvest weekly and regularly hosts free harvest days for people to pick up fresh produce.

For more information, visit their Facebook page at