A se­cret gar­den in Mon­treal fills emer­gency food bas­kets

Cape Breton Post - - CANADA - SU­SAN SCHWARTZ

MON­TREAL - For Michelle Della Corte, there is po­etry in the ur­ban gar­dens in which she spends her days — in the Swiss chard and kale now be­ing har­vested weekly, in the toma­toes and the corn, the egg­plant, the sun­light and the heat: all of it.

Della Corte is gar­den co­or­di­na­tor of Sun Youth’s two ur­ban gar­dens, both of which pro­vide or­ganic pro­duce for the com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tion’s emer­gency food bas­ket pro­gram. She works three days a week at the larger gar­den, at Sun Youth’s St-Lau­rent ware­house, and two days at its newer gar­den, a hid­den, ver­dant spot on the site of the former Outremont rail yard just along the road from Sun Youth’s ad­min­is­tra­tive cen­tre on Parc Ave. near Beaubien St.

The un­used por­tion of ter­rain on the Univer­sité de Mon­tréal’s new cam­pus, where a sci­ence com­plex is un­der con­struc­tion, is known as Pro­jets éphémères; it’s home to more than a dozen ur­ban agri­cul­ture projects whose usual ed­u­ca­tional ac­tiv­i­ties and gath­er­ings have been moved on­line this sea­son by the COVID-19 pan­demic.

Last year, a to­tal of about 2,000 pounds of pro­duce was har­vested from the two Sun Youth gar­dens; that’s a fair bit, al­though not enough to sup­ply all the pro­duce in its emer­gency food bas­kets, which go to about 130 fam­i­lies per day. That fig­ure is up from 100 be­fore pan­demi­cre­lated job losses, fi­nan­cial in­se­cu­rity and other trou­bles greatly in­creased de­mand.

Most of the fresh pro­duce in these bas­kets, at Sun Youth as at other com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions with sim­i­lar pro­grams, comes from Mois­son Mon­tréal and from whole­salers.

“But ev­ery­thing that is grown ends up in an emer­gency food bas­ket,” Eric Kingsley, Sun Youth’s di­rec­tor of emer­gency ser­vices, said in an in­ter­view.

Start­ing the gar­dens was “about want­ing to take con­trol over our food do­na­tions,” he said. “We de­cided we wanted to grow our own veg­eta­bles. We wanted to make it fun for the clients, with veg­eta­bles in­clud­ing pep­pers, kale, cu­cum­bers, zuc­chini, egg­plant — and not just turnips and pota­toes.”

He said clients were re­quest­ing more fresh veg­eta­bles and less canned food. “Peo­ple want to eat real food — and this is a way to en­sure good pro­duce.”

The plants are do­nated and pro­duce is har­vested all sea­son, said Della Corte — start­ing with radishes in June and through into fall: Some kale has been har­vested even af­ter the frost. Toma­toes and egg­plant love the heat — and this sum­mer’s hot weather has boosted growth, she said the other day as she worked on the Pro­jets éphémères site, which has about 30 rows of pro­duce. Net­ting cov­ers the kale and Brus­sels sprouts to pro­tect them from ground­hogs, “who like bras­si­cas,” she said, re­fer­ring to the genus of plants.

Della Corte, whose first job with Sun Youth was as a day camp coun­sel­lor, has worked in the gar­den for four sum­mers now. She said she de­cided to study agri­cul­ture af­ter earn­ing an un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in clas­sic civ­i­liza­tions be­cause “I was al­ready pas­sion­ate about gar­den­ing and grow­ing things.” She has one se­mes­ter left be­fore grad­u­at­ing from McGill Univer­sity with a de­gree in agri­cul­ture and an­thro­pol­ogy.

The pan­demic has kept away most of the vol­un­teers who usu­ally help out in the gar­dens — but not Ge­or­gia Jerkovic. She grew up on the Plateau and used to hang out at Sun Youth. A cou­ple of times, her fam­ily ben­e­fited from emer­gency food bas­kets.

“They were there for me and I wanted to pay it for­ward,” she said.

As mem­ber en­gage­ment co-or­di­na­tor for Foresters Fi­nan­cial, one of her jobs is to cre­ate vol­un­teer op­por­tu­ni­ties for pol­i­cy­hold­ers. She con­tacted Sun Youth about help­ing out — and learned they were think­ing of start­ing a food bank gar­den. That was seven years ago.

Jerkovic and fel­low vol­un­teers got to work clear­ing an over­grown space out­side the Sun Youth St-Lau­rent ware­house on Mon­tée de Liesse and, that first year, built 25 beds and planted veg­eta­bles. The fol­low­ing year, they ex­panded the gar­den and in­stalled an ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem. To­day the gar­den has about 40 beds.

POSTMEDIA NEWS

Michelle Della Corte is gar­den co-or­di­na­tor of Sun Youth’s two ur­ban gar­dens, both of which pro­vide or­ganic pro­duce for the com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tion’s emer­gency food bas­ket pro­gram.

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