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Creating an urban farm, building social cohesion

UTSC partners with local community

Urban farms provide students with opportunities for research and hands-on learning (photo by Wolfram Burner, courtesy Flickr)

The University of Toronto Scarborough is partnering with a local community action group to create the Eastern GTA's newest urban farm – a move that will bring students "unique experiential learning opportunities" while helping the community.

A Memorandum of Understanding between UTSC and Malvern Action for Neighbourhood Change (Malvern ANC) acknowledges the university's role as the primary academic partner as Malvern ANC pursues a major urban agriculture project in Rouge Park.

Founded in 2009, Malvern ANC is a resident engagement and community development group funded by the United Way and delivered in partnership with Malvern Family Resource Centre. Malvern ANC already runs a number of community gardens in the Malvern area of Toronto, which is home to many new immigrant and low income families who struggle with the cultural and economic impacts of 'food insecurity.'

Food insecurity, according to Health Canada, refers to "the inability to acquire or consume adequate diet quality or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so."

"This agreement will serve as a great model for university and community partnerships around urban agriculture," says Alex Dow, Manager of Malvern ANC. "Malvern is a transitional neighbourhood, where people are continually moving in and out, but we have very strong participation with this project. It represents our largest working group right now, which is a testament to its importance."

Through workshops and hands-on activities, the farm will educate and assist local people in provisioning fresh food for themselves, and to help Malvern residents develop a stronger sense of social cohesion in a predominantly transient part of the city.

"As Malvern ANC moves from neighbourhood gardens to a full urban farm it makes sense for them to find a partner on the academic side," says Professor Dan Bender, Canada Research Chair in Cultural History and Analysis and Chair of the Department of Historical and Cultural Studies at UTSC, who together with Professor of Human Geography Ken MacDonald has spearheaded UTSC's involvement.

"This isn't about studying the community," says Bender. "It's about studying with the community. There is an incredible wealth of knowledge out there that can tell us a great deal about the meaning of food in ethnic communities, the experience of diaspora and migration.

"It's not just about food itself, but how we understand diaspora through food, and vice versa."

The educational upsides for UTSC students will be vast.

"Our approach is to provide students with unique experiential learning opportunities on a working urban farm," says MacDonald. "Through hands-on activities and research projects they will learn more about the political economy of food provisioning in relation to class, income and city structure. They will gain insight into the dynamics of community formation. And they will be exposed first-hand to many of the issues that face many new immigrants and others with low incomes when it comes to food security."

The MOU will also provide Malvern ANC with the capacity to develop research projects that will help the farm develop and flourish.

"Students could help evaluate the suitability of different types of plants, monitor how well they're doing and help improve organic techniques that would impact crop yields," says Dow. "Faculty could help run our community workshops, so people can take new understanding and agricultural skills back to their own neighbourhoods."

Dow and his colleagues at Malvern ANC hope to review their proposal with officials from Parks Canada this fall. If all goes well, by the summer of 2014 their shovels could be in the ground.

Andrew Westoll is a writer with the University of Toronto Scarborough