A secret garden in Montreal fills emergency food baskets
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.
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.