Protesters Want Queen's Park to Rethink Food Policy
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Protesters Want Queen’s Park to Rethink Food Policy

Occupy Gardens Toronto took to Queen's Park to advocate for community gardens and changes to the food system.

A sign spotted at Wednesday’s Occupy Gardens rally at Queen’s Park.

Occupy Gardens Toronto really likes puns. City Hall is known as “Seedy Hall,” “peas” is employed as a substitute for both “please” and “peace,” and before Wednesday’s event at Queen’s Park (titled SOILidarity City: Free Food For All Festival) the online invite encouraged participants to “mark your calendula.”

Wordplay aside, the group, a local chapter of what has become an international movement, is quite serious when it comes to food security and awareness. “The Occupy Gardens movement is a collective of guerrilla gardeners. We’re here to make a statement on the state of the global food system, as well as the food system here in Canada,” said Katie Berger, who organized Wednesday’s event along with Occupy Gardens Toronto founder Jacob Kearey-Moreland.

“Right now we have a hybrid state-corporate food system that wreaks environmental devastation and displaces people from their homes through migrant labour,” Berger added. “While there are some good points to the Local Food Act that was just proposed by Premier Wynne, it is quite shallow. It doesn’t address the fact that the ‘local’ food that it’s promoting is grown under slave-like conditions. It also doesn’t have concrete targets, because that would violate Canada’s free-trade agreements. So we’ve essentially made our country impotent in the global system and our province impotent in the national system.”

In an attempt to fight back against what Kearey-Moreland called “the clutches of global capitalism,” Occupy Gardens Toronto is trying to provide people with an alternative. A year ago, the group celebrated International Workers’ Day by planting a community garden at Queen’s Park. The City ignored the garden’s existence for five months, while group members tended to the plants and expanded the patch. The night before they intended to harvest the crops, however, City workers received orders to remove the garden (in the middle of the night, no less). “They destroyed the garden and all of the produce was thrown out. There was over five kilograms of fresh, organic produce that they threw in the garbage rather than donating to one of the hundreds of understocked food banks in Toronto,” said Berger.

The crowd at Wednesday’s Occupy Gardens rally.

Wednesday’s celebration served as an act of protest, with a group of about 100 gathering at Queen’s Park to plant another community garden. The afternoon also contained a number of workshops, speakers, and even a musical theatre piece. Over a hundred people arrived on the South Lawn for the afternoon’s kickoff, where they were treated to free vegan chili, red bean and lentil salad, hummus, and assorted fruits and vegetables. Students, seniors, and families with toddlers all lined up for the free grub. A couple of suits even checked their iPhones while waiting for their turns.

Issues of food access are central to the Occupy Gardens movement. “We need to recognize the right to food,” said Kearey-Moreland. “We need to guarantee a meal for every kid in school, and we can help by having a garden in every school. We have this situation right now where kids are going hungry, while other kids are fed junk food and becoming obese. Meanwhile the solutions are quite simple.” The group’s Free Food For All project consists of volunteers “gleaning” unwanted food by dumpster diving, taking donations, and picking fruit from trees, and then using the supplies to teach workshops on canning and fermentation.

Occupy Gardens Toronto also runs the Toronto Seed Library, which allows borrowers to take out free seeds to use in their gardens. Users are given information on how to grow different plants and how to harvest the seeds from them, which are then returned to the library so the cycle can begin again. “It’s all part of a global seed-freedom movement, which is about taking back the most fundamental part of the food system, which is the seed,” said Berger.

According to Brendan Behrmann, who works with the Seed Library, hundreds of exchanges have already taken place. “Our goals are three-pronged: to reconnect people with food and the growing process, to promote the conservation of heirloom species, and to push back against GMOs and industrial agriculture,” he said. Within the next few months, the Seed Library plans to expand to 10 branches across the GTA.

If it seems like Occupy Gardens Toronto has its fingers in a lot of different pies, it’s a reflection of the multitude of issues that revolve around food and agriculture. Since 2008, food bank usage in Canada has increased by 31 per cent, with four out of 10 users classified as children or minors. 2.7 million Canadians are currently deemed “food insecure,” which means they aren’t certain of where or how they will obtain their next meal. In 2012, Statistics Canada reported that 31.5 per cent of Canadian children were overweight or obese. And, as farms become increasingly more corporate, farming is losing its appeal for young Canadians. Over two decades, the population of farmers under 35 has fallen by two thirds.

As a response to food issues both global and local, Occupy Gardens groups have cropped up across North America, in locations like Montreal and Philadelphia. “Not everyone has access to land to grow a garden, and the City has made cuts to the Live Green grant program. The number of people on the waitlist to get into community gardens or start new ones is getting longer and longer,” said Kearey-Moreland. In addition to providing free food for the hungry, an Occupy Gardens community garden at Scadding Court at Bathurst and Dundas streets offers people the opportunity to grow their own produce.

On Wednesday the mood was celebratory, even if the new incarnation of the community garden at Queen’s Park would likely be destroyed again. (Queen’s Park confirmed that while the event would be tolerated, the garden would be removed once planted.) In the meantime, though, participants lounged in the sun, listening to music and enjoying the complimentary meal. Adam Heller, a volunteer who showed up to help ladle out chili, was happy to be participating. He has his own concerns about food security. “I’ve gotten a lot better at scavenging lately,” he said. “I think food should be free, if you don’t care what you’re eating. I mean if you really don’t care what it is, you should be able to survive.”