If the grocery store in your neighbourhood closed tomorrow, where would your food come from? It’s a question that a lot of Canadians are asking these days, as they consider the environmental, social and economic impact of a system that relies heavily on imported food. Farmers around the world are facing their worst income crisis since the Great Depression, while corporations that supply farmers with seed and other supplies, and process their food for market are making record profits.
The United Church has long declared its stand on big-business agriculture that puts profits before people, in articles and papers such as United Church Social Policy Position on Sustainable Agriculture and Making Wise Choices: A Report on Genetically Modified Foods.
With some creative thinking and a commitment to a just and equitable food system, individual congregations can use the land, facilities and human resources they already have to help build vibrant food-centred communities with little to no investment.
Plant a garden
You don’t need a lot of land to grow food. At Westdale United in Hamilton, the vegetable garden is just 13.5 square metres, but at the height of the season, the gardeners fill at least one shopping bag each week with tomatoes, peppers and beans.
The church’s Study and Action Group for the Environment (SAGE) sowed the project 17 years ago. “They decided to grow an organic garden for Wesley Urban Ministries,” says Stephen Madill, who now oversees the project. The initiative to contribute to the city’s United Church-supported outreach ministry to the homeless also served as a lesson in food independence. “They got members of the church to help maintain the garden, so they could learn how to grow food.” The garden caught the attention of the media, and in 1993, Vision TV filmed the church’s second year of planting as part of a show on the urban-rural link.
SAGE is still involved in many aspects of greening the church and the surrounding community, but Madill took over responsibility for the garden four years ago. Growing a garden is the best way for individuals to ensure a food-secure community, where everyone has safe, dignified and reliable access to nutritious, affordable and culturally appropriate food. Yet Madill has never thought of what he does as political; it’s all about the environment, he says, and reconnecting church members with the earth and their food.
Planting day is open to everyone at the church, and later in the season, a whole morning is devoted to teaching the children about plants, and building scarecrows. To get people involved in the garden, Madill puts out a call for recruits every spring to take on the watering and weeding for at least one week through the summer. It’s at this time that the urban-rural disconnect is most evident. “There are lots who don’t feel they would know what to do,” he says. “They worry that the garden might die.”
Develop, join or support a farmer’s co-operative. It is a great way to meet the people who grow your food and ensure your food dollars go directly into their pockets. Trinity United in Thorold, Ont., offers its church hall as a distribution centre for the Niagara Local Food Co-operative.
The organization, a virtual farmers’ market with an online ordering system for its members, developed in response to the growing need to connect farmers with local customers, since food processors and large grocery chains started using mostly imported produce. Producers offer everything from naturally raised meats to honey, herbs, fruit, vegetables, bread and artisanal cheese. Every two weeks, they post the available products on the co-op’s website. Consumers order online, then head to the church to pick up the goods.
When the fledgling organization went looking for a depot, three United churches in the region were keen to help. Thorold was deemed most central to the farmers, and Trinity United stepped up to the plate. “They’ve been so supportive,” says co-op president Chris Frere, a beekeeper in nearby Wellandport. “We rent the gym every two weeks for almost nothing — maybe for the cost of the electricity. Many in the congregation have become members, too.” As membership in the co-operative expands, it will look to other United churches in the region to open more depots. “If we want to develop a grassroots organization, it has to happen this way.”
Educate and contemplate
Host a bus tour, a festival or a cooking demonstration to introduce your church and neighbourhood to the people who grow their food.
In Northumberland County, east of Toronto, St. Andrew’s United will hold its second 100-mile food fair in September. Rev. Phyllis Dietrich encouraged both of her congregations in the Castleton-Grafton pastoral charge to get involved in promoting community food security. St. Andrew’s picked up the ball, organizing what was to be a one-time event to educate the church community on the whys and hows of developing a sustainable local food system. Dietrich imagined a small gathering held in the church basement. “I was concerned that the bigger picture — the ties to social justice, and the world outside ourselves — would be lost if we took it big.”
The organizers decided, instead, to open the event to the whole community, giving everyone a chance to meet their area farmers face to face. On a rainy afternoon in September, they packed the local arena. Small producers from the county, with beef, fruit, vegetables and even farm-raised fish, set up booths, and a chef instructor from Fleming College in nearby Cobourg demonstrated simple recipes with local food.
To ensure the connection to the church was not overlooked, Dietrich made sure that posters broadcasting the United Church’s politics, theology and stand on sustainable agriculture were prominently displayed around the arena.
The event was a great success. “We worked hard at giving the small guys a chance. It was very local, and many of them will come back this year.” Yet Dietrich feels there is still a lot of work to do. “We have to talk about the theology behind what we are doing. People understand when you put seeds in the ground, but don’t want to do too much reflection on the stewardship, on understanding that it’s not all about us. It’s about the person who lives across the world. We’re protecting their land as much as our own.”
Host a farmers’ market
If your church has a shady piece of lawn or an empty parking lot, it can become the summer home of a local market — the neighbourhood place to be, with dozens of farmers and spontaneous entertainment every Saturday morning.
On Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula, St. John’s United plays a vital role in preserving what was once the breadbasket of Vancouver Island: a local farmers’ market has sprung up on the church’s property.
A few years ago, the nearby farmers’ market outgrew its home. Eco Cell at St. John’s, a group of church and community members that had tackled projects such as an educational campaign on global warming, was concerned. There was little question that losing the market would have a negative impact on the environment, the area and the farmers.
Some of the Eco Cell members developed the North Saanich Food for the Future Society to support a new market and to educate the public about food security and preserving farmland for the future.
“This community has a strong global awareness and an understanding of what’s happening to the Earth,” says Rev. Janet Silman, a parish minister who serves on the boards of both the new farmers’ market and St. John’s. “They understand the philosophical and ethical element of growing food locally. If they don’t get it, it’s our job as ministers to help them get it.”
Any congregation can plant its own seeds of hope, to build community around food. Whether you reflect on your role in caring for the Earth, share food with the hungry, plant a garden or respond with a political call to action, you can play a vital role in restoring dignity and respect to the people who grow our food, and fostering a safe, healthy and food-secure community.
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