Urban Farming in a Pandemic: Implications for Urban Food Systems By Angela Gong

This past March marked the start of my family’s fourth growing season as Member Farmers at Fresh City Farms. After planning through the winter months, it was finally time to plant our seedlings in the Downsview Park greenhouse, and prepare our 2000 square feet of land for another summer of farming. As the Government of Ontario began to close down schools, non-essential businesses, and recreational areas in March, Fresh City Farms remained open, being a critical element of the Toronto urban food system. Thus, our growing season was allowed to commence with relatively little disruption.  

In normal years, our growing season goes roughly as follows: in March and April, we plant and transplant seedlings in the greenhouse to facilitate their initial growth; in May and June, we transfer our seedlings to our outdoor space, and directly sow other crops; and from July to October, we maintain our plot and harvest produce. This year’s growing season did not deviate much from previous years—at least not as a result of COVID-19. The long cold spell in May killed some of our seedlings and delayed time to harvest for others, but we were mainly allowed to go about our duties as usual with some restrictions on greenhouse practices and social gatherings at the farm.  

While we were previously allowed to visit the greenhouse anytime to work or check on seedlings, Member Farmers are now required to sign up for time slots to work, and only three farmers are allowed in the greenhouse at a time. We can no longer host barbecues and potlucks to share produce and home-cooked dishes among Member Farmers, due to physical distancing measures. Pandemic-related closures have also affected the food distribution process for urban farmers. Many Member Farmers sell their produce, flowers, and herbs at local Farmers’ Markets or U-Picks organized by Fresh City Farms, the former of which has only recently reopened, and the latter of which will not be reopening for the foreseeable future.  

For my family, these restrictions are inconvenient but widely overshadowed by the benefits of being able to continue farming through the pandemic. Through urban agriculture, we have had a space for outdoor exposure and physical activity, we can still socialize with other Member Farmers from afar, and we are able to distribute produce to friends and family by being mindful about physical distancing. In reality, while the pandemic has not significantly impacted our activities at Fresh City Farms, the urban farming experience has in fact improved our pandemic lifestyle. By regularly engaging in physical activity, connecting to nature, and maintaining some socialization, we have been able to stay physically and mentally healthy during the wholly stressful and unusual time of COVID-19.  

My family and I have benefitted greatly from being able to maintain uninterrupted access to growing space. However, many urban growers were not so lucky. This past March, as our growing season was starting, the Government of Ontario closed community and allotment gardens, thus taking away the growing space that many urban gardeners require. After strong public advocacy, including from Sustain OntarioToronto Urban Growers, and the Toronto Food Policy Council, the Government of Ontario issued an order on April 25 allowing the use of community and allotment gardens in Ontario. The initial closure of urban gardens demonstrated a strong risk that urban community food systems could close in a pandemic situation—what would happen to urban growers and other residents if urban food systems, including businesses such as Fresh City Farms, were forced to close? 

Urban food systems are an important source of food for many growers, particularly those facing food insecurity. My family is able to grow a diverse group of vegetable produce, with yields around 2-3 times more than we need to be self-sufficient (in terms of vegetable consumption, for our family of four). For food-insecure individuals and families, even a fraction of 2000 square feet could make a large impact in encouraging healthy, vegetable-rich diets. For example, the City of Toronto offers allotment gardens with 200 square feet of growing space, which would likely be enough to support 1-2 individuals for the summer (depending on production and consumption).  

In addition to nutrition- and diet-related impacts, the health benefits of urban growing include increased physical activity, and improved mental health. Urban gardens also provide an important source of community and social interaction, even with physical distancing measures in place. And for individuals who have lost income due to the pandemic, urban growing can help to reduce food costs of a household, and even become a source of income through produce sales. If urban food systems, both public and private, were to close again due to the COVID-19 pandemic, then all these benefits—health, social, and economic—would be lost.  

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity for cities to reflect on the importance of urban agriculture. The positive impacts of community gardens, particularly during a time of social and physical isolation, highlight the ways that urban food systems can benefit people’s livelihoods in cities. Ultimately, developing strong and far-reaching community garden networks can help not only to mitigate the isolating effects of a pandemic, but also to improve the daily lives of urban residents. 

For more information on Fresh City Farms, click here

Modified July 2, 2020: The list of groups who advocated for community garden reopening was expanded to contain Toronto-based groups, and the link to the health benefits of urban growing was modified to better summarize and reflect the main research findings in urban agriculture.  

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