Volunteers bring healthy, local food to Malvern
Posted August 18, 2012 9:56 pm.
This article is more than 5 years old.
There are many ways in which a community can come together, but few of them feel as vital or as resonant as food. Malvern, located in the north-east of Scarborough—a 40-minute drive from the core of Toronto, but an almost-two hour commute by public transit—is considered a food desert because of difficult access to healthy, affordable food.
The area carries the weight of being labelled a priority neighbourhood, not because of the inaccessibility of food, but also because of a stream of gang-related violence in 2003 and 2004. A transformation, however, is being attempted by a group of volunteers from the neighbourhood and surrounding Armadale and Morningside Heights, an effort that could serve as a template in restoring other parts of Toronto.
On a clear, sunny August day last year, a group of nine volunteers sat around a table in the Taibu Community Health Centre to discuss the results of the first Malvern Community Market. The market launched in July 2011, running four times over the summer in a nearby field by the community sports centre, supplying seasonal, local produce via the nonprofit FoodShare’s Good Food Market program. The attendance had been good, thought the volunteers, especially since 2011 had been the first year.
“It was more than what I expected,” says Auriel Haynes, an active volunteer in the Malvern area. Two key suggestions arose from that meeting last year: the organizing committee wanted to introduce more foods grown locally to the market and to change locations from the field to somewhere more visible, all ideas which have informed this year’s market days now in Neilson Park where another food-related community-building initiative has also caught on.
There are not many supermarkets in Malvern. A No Frills is the most accessible, part of Malvern Town Centre, considered a community hub. The two others, a Sobeys and a Walmart with a grocery department, are less easy to visit by foot, located in the southeast corner of the region’s boundaries, near the intersection of Morningside Avenue and Highway 401. The volunteers realized that a summer market wouldn’t be a permanent fix. But there were other compelling reasons to hold one: it acted as a focal point to draw people in the community together in a way supermarkets couldn’t and it provided an opportunity to educate citizens about food security.
Alex Dow, a Malvern resident and manager of Action for Neighbourhood Change, an initiative funded by the United Way of Toronto, helped guide the market, as well as community gardens set up around the area. He senses little connection between residents and their food—”where food comes from and how it grows”—but hopes the gardens sparks a realization, especially in the younger generation. “It’s not just what you pick up out of the No Frills across the street,” he says.
Haynes, who helps manage the gardens, suggests that education about food among youth is limited: “None of them knew anything,” she says. “None of them had ever seen anything growing.” Children were fascinated by carrots, for instance. “They didn’t know that a little seed like that could grow into a carrot, and then they didn’t know you had to dig a carrot up.” The disconnect between what arrives on the plate and how it was grown is exacerbated by the bounty of fast food outlets in the area, which, are the lunch spots of choice for students in nearby high schools.
The menu of a typical fast food joint stands in stark contrast to the myriad of vegetables growing in a garden on a plot of land between two high-rises near Malvern Town Centre, such as green and yellow beans, onions, tomatoes, leeks, peas, potatoes and lettuce. Gardens act as a way to help families bond, while alleviating the cost of buying vegetables, says Haynes.
For market volunteer Patrick Nadjiwon, a Malvern resident of eight years, the main benefit of growing your own food is the increased quality. “The tomatoes I had yesterday from our own garden,” he says, “it was just so sweet and delicious.” Nadjiwon worries about chemicals added to produce. Naturally grown produce, he believes, “has the real flavour of what food should taste like, instead of eating food that, although might have the colour and the size, doesn’t taste anything like it’s supposed to.”
The garden is a community effort that is shaping perceptions in the neighbourhood. Haynes says corporate volunteers, community organizations like Friends of the Rouge Watershed, and high school and university students helped prepare the land. Once completed, management from a nearby high-rise paid for maintenance.
“I think management saw how it looked [back then] compared with here, so they’re paying someone to keep it clean now,” says Haynes, “and that’s wonderful.” With the additional green space, children have been able to shift away from playing in the parking lot, which was not only more dangerous, but also causing issues with tenants. “There was a notice up about the kids scratching the cars, because there was no place here really to play,” says Haynes.
About 12 children visit to help with the gardening on a regular basis, although Haynes encourages them to bring their friends as well. At special events, Haynes says attendance can hit 40. The engagement of youth isn’t only important to improve their understanding of food, but it also gets them involved in extracurricular activities. Malvern has one of the highest percentages of young people in Toronto, with nearly as many people under the age of 30 as over.
Alya Singh, who lives in Morningside Heights, but spent six years as a student in Malvern schools, says youth have been a priority. “Everything was always community-driven: There’s always community events happening, projects coming to schools to get help from the youth,” she says. “Definitely I think it’s something good because the youth are going to be carrying on the projects tomorrow and the future.”
In 2003 and 2004, Malvern’s youth were better known for engaging in gang-related gun violence, centred between two rival gangs, the Malvern Crew and the Galloway Boys. Raids by Toronto police in 2004 effectively shut down the violence, but Malvern was left with a nasty reputation. When a murder in Malvern occurred early 2012, for example, police immediately had to publicly dismiss the idea that the area was reverting to gang warfare. The reputation frustrates residents, who don’t see violence as representative of their experience living in Malvern.
Nadjiwon says he has noticed a positive change over the eight years he has lived in the community.
“Yeah, there were certain negative aspects that were happening on, but I think that’s been taken care of,” he says. “I’ve always felt safe walking around here at night. I walk my dog at night sometimes at midnight in the park [near] where I live, by the rec centre. There’s nothing ever going on negative.”
Haynes, who has lived in Scarborough for 10 years, five near the border of Malvern, adds that she has never been afraid. “I don’t see that much violence in this area and I’m not afraid to go, not even in the nighttime. Violence is everywhere in the world. Everybody has to take initiative to reduce it, and it’s everybody’s responsibility.” At the same time, she has noticed a focus on youth-oriented activities, with many city programs filled with youth. “If you read newsletters from community-related organizations, you will know how much the youth are doing here.”
During last year’s market, there was programming for adults, seniors and children, but very little for youth. Haynes felt the gap was important to fix for this year, especially since the market itself wouldn’t be enough of a lure. “They’re not going to come and buy vegetables for their parents— no,” she jokes, “We didn’t do that when we were young, right?”
A move to Neilson Park, described by Dow as “our big, beaut
iful flagship park,” could improve integration with youth, where, on some nights, film screenings will take place. As well, Dow says there are plans for barbeque events.
Over the past year, a garden has been planted at Neilson Park, which Dow says has attracted residents to a space that’s been considered underutilized. Outer fencing and piping arrived in the fall, while intensive landscaping happened in early May. Intrigued recreational park users, such as walkers, cricket players and seniors, have approached garden volunteers to ask questions, share gardening experiences, and ask about helping out, says Dow. “We are definitely meeting our neighbours and building community through the creation of these spaces.”
Even Nadjiwon senses a change in how Malvern residents interact due to the slate of community events. “Now we’re starting to find new friends and getting to know new people,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to go shopping, meet somebody—or see somebody—that says, ‘Hey, I saw you walking down the street yesterday,’ or ‘I saw you the other day on the bus,’ and they’d come over and talk.”
Dow takes pride in all the accomplishments, a nearly three-year process he has seen from the beginning. (He praises the support of local Coun. Raymond Cho: “He has been very supportive of both our market and community garden activities.”) In the process of getting ready for this year’s market dates, he reflects that the results have been “amazing.” There are more ambitious plans still, including the establishment of an urban farm at Old Finch Avenue and Morningview Trail, situated at the border of Malvern, near the Rouge Park.
It’s hard not to be struck by the level of activity in Malvern. In a tour around the area, Dow shows off all the arable land: with the efforts to transform the neighbourhood with gardens, you can imagine that one day Malvern’s reputation could become one of bountiful locally-grown produce, and, ultimately, of successful transformation.
The final market of the season takes place Aug. 25, during Coun. Cho’s annual picnic from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.