I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.
Name: Rhonda Teitel-Payne
Job: Urban Agriculture Manager
“On a cold day in February,” says urban agriculture manager Rhonda Teitel-Payne, “this is the most brilliant place to be.” She’s talking about her office, which is part of The Stop’s Green Barn—a luminous space that serves as the base for The Stop’s agricultural programs and includes a greenhouse that holds the community food centre’s many crops. Even on a rainy spring weekend, the Green Barn radiates a warm glow and vibrant greenery capable of converting even the most plant-phobic individual.
Which, incidentally, Teitel-Payne once was. When she began working at The Stop 12 years ago as a combination community kitchen/community garden coordinator, she admits that she “knew nothing at all about gardening.” While she had a Master’s degree in social work and ample experience working in community development, Teitel-Payne says she got the job in part due to the obscure nature of the field. “At the time, there were hardly any urban agriculture programs, and the combination of urban agriculture and social work was really new,” she says. “I don’t think I would be able to get away with it now!”
Despite being new to the field, Teitel-Payne was a fast learner. “I was really lucky—most of what I know I learned from [The Stop’s] volunteers, who really know their stuff,” she says. She also began working with the Parks and Recreation staff, who helped her go into classrooms and start projects like planting seeds with kids. When The Stop grew large enough to split the community kitchen and community garden position into two different jobs, Teitel-Payne took on the urban agriculture role. “I was so hooked on gardening by then that it’s what I stayed with,” she says.
What exactly does an urban agriculture manager do?
It’s all about making gardening available to the widest possible group. We provide people with basic growing skills and access to land and tools, but we also want to create a safe social space for people to do it—a space where people can dip their toes in as much or as little as they can. People come from very different backgrounds and experiences, so we try to create many different ways that people can access programs.
If you are already knowledgeable about gardening, we have a Yes In My Back Yard program, which is a yard-sharing program—it’s when people in the area who have yards that they’re not using make that land available for people who don’t have access to that space. People have taken to it like I would never have anticipated; a lot of really innovative partnerships have emerged.
Then we have community gardens, which are more supportive: one at Hillcrest Park and one at Earlscourt Park. Our model is more collective than most community gardens —people can come for garden sessions as often or as little as they like. There’s staff to support and teach, and some people come that have never put a thumb in the ground before!
How do your programs operate in conjunction with The Stop’s food bank operations?
That’s one of the reasons The Stop got involved in community gardens in the first place: a lot of the food that comes into food banks is highly processed and of low nutritional quality. People are craving fresh vegetables, and community gardens increase the quality of the food.
It makes so much sense to have an organization that has community kitchens and gardens and advocacy programs. A lot of the people we work with are very marginalized, and will come into the food bank and meal programs to get access to food. Once they land there they find out that there are all these other services available, and that they can actually do something on a long-term basis to try to solve both their own issues and the fact that others in the community also don’t have access to healthy food. The people that are part of the community gardens get a share of the produce, and then some comes back to The Stop. It’s important for the gardeners because a lot them feel really stigmatized by poverty, and this is a way for them to give something back to the community that breaks down those stereotypes.
People may also not have the kitchen space to cook at home or they can’t cook for themselves, so they can then come to the community kitchen to cook with other people, make community connections, eat together, and learn about how to use the crops they grew.
What are your thoughts on the local food movement?
When The Stop started growing organic produce and then focusing on local food, people asked, “Why are you taking this environmental tract for people that can’t afford to buy food of any kind?” Part of our answer is that we are making resources available to people and teaching them to grow their own food, but also that if you want people to have access to healthy food, you have to have a healthy food system.
It became part of our mandate to support local farmers. And given our money constraints and being a non-profit, we had to find creative ways to do that. We realized that having a farmers’ market here at the Green Barn could be a way for farmers to find consumers in the area, and for us to purchase some of the produce to then take back to the food bank. We also grow seedlings here for other community gardens across the city, since there’s a shortage of greenhouse space in Toronto.
What’s your favourite crop that grows here in the Green Barn?
I love stuff that grows like weeds, like tomatillos, which you can make into salsa. I love callaloo—a Caribbean kind of spinach—that turns up in farmers’ fields; it grows like crazy, and you can cook it just like you would cook spinach. For a lot of people who have just started gardening, it’s all about what you can stick in the ground and just let do its own thing. A lot of gardening is observation and experimentation; it’s about turning to the person next to you and asking, “Hey, do you have any idea what this is?” A lot of gardeners learn from each other, just like I did.
The Stop’s Farmers’ Market and Market Cafe are open Saturdays throughout the year from 8 a.m. to noon at the Green Barn at 601 Christie Street.
Photos by Miles Storey/Torontoist.