Community Gardens Compete to Give More

When people think of food bank donations, non-perishable items like canned food, cereals or rice come to mind. Not many people realize that the Calgary Food Bank, an emergency food distribution hub, accepts fresh food donations as well. In order to promote fresh food contributions, organizers are running a light-hearted competition between community gardeners called the Fresh from the Heart Grow Challenge.

The food bank currently collects about 35,000 lbs. of fresh produce annually through donations, including two community-retiree garden projects, both about an acre in size. In addition to this, the grow challenge launched last year with five community gardens competing to grow the most fresh produce weighed in per square-acre (in order to level the playing field between gardens of different sizes). Organizers also keep track of who is growing what, since potatoes weigh more than lettuce, for example.

Last year’s winner, Harvest Hill, donated 103 lbs. of produce to the Calgary Food Bank. Now in its second year, organizers are looking to double the competition to include 10 participating gardens.

“Creating all these projects and events make community gardening about more than just growing veggies for your family, but into a larger culture, which is what we’re endeavoring to do right now. To me, that’s what’s going to make it sustainable — it’s the fun pieces of all of it,” says Janet Melrose, garden animator for the Calgary Horticultural Society.

Morissa Choptain, resource development coordinator at the Calgary Food Bank, works with Janet to organize programs with community gardens in the city, some of which grow food specifically for the food bank, while others donate excessive crops they won’t be able to use. She was incredibly touched last fall while she worked in the distribution line at the food bank: A family that came in to pick up a basket of fresh food was moved to tears at what they received.

“They hadn’t been able to afford or obtain any fresh, perishable fruits and veggies — she said in months they hadn’t,” Morissa recalls. “So that is a big motivation, to be able to provide that for clients.”

The grow challenge started through the initiative of the Mid-Sun community garden last year and word soon spread to other gardeners in the city. Gardeners can register their participation at the beginning of the season and can either drop-off or arrange produce pick-ups throughout the year for crops with ongoing harvest periods. The winner is announced at the Fall Harvest Fair.

“I really love getting to see the community gardens — what they grow and why they’re growing it. The neat thing about food banks is that everyone has a reason why they support them and when we think about people who have utilized the food bank, they are all our neighbours. They’re in every community. So having a community garden that then goes back to supporting the community is a really nice cyclical endeavor that feeds hearts and bellies,” Morissa says.

Morissa and Janet are also working to educate gardeners in Calgary about how to get the most productivity out of their plots. “Is it a one-harvest crop, like potatoes or carrots or beets?” Janet asks, “Or is it something like kale and Swiss chard?” Another point of education is around which produce items people in need are more likely to use. The food bank is currently developing recipes to assist families and individuals picking up produce from the food bank in order to facilitate convenient and nutritious ways to prepare meals.

“I want to use the Fresh from the Heart Challenge and the Grow a Row project as part of the growth of communal gardening in Calgary. Calgarians, like many other Canadians, have an individual ethic or ethos — we want to plant for ourselves. We want to try and encourage more communal gardening and this is a way to do that,” Janet says. “It’s a cultural change that I’m hoping to get out there, slowly.”

Photo caption: “Proudly Growing for the Calgary Inter-faith Food Bank” sign on display at Harvest Hills Community Garden.

Writer: Patricia Marcoccia

Related Story:
Food Sustainability among Questions for Growing City

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