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Free community food garden removed by City of Toronto workers

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Without any advanced notice and under orders from City of Toronto Parks Director Richard Ubbens, workers removed all live plants and food from the five month old People’s Peas Garden in Queen’s Park on Friday.

When Occupy Gardens began planting on May 1, the event was reported on by multiple media and took place under the watchful eye of police.

“So they knew it was here and left it undisturbed for almost five months,” said Jacob Kearey-Moreland, in an interview on Saturday in Queen’s Park north.

Kearey-Moreland said Occupy Gardens had erected a sign with their contact information. 

“And the city workers removed the sign and told my friend who was here that they’re keeping the sign for legal purposes in case they wanted to press charges or something like that.”

But on Friday, the Globe and Mail reported that Ubbens said, “The city did not touch base with the organizers of the People's Peas Garden because it had no contact information for the group.”

The Globe and Mail also reported that “Toronto parks director Richard Ubbens said the garden was removed because it was planted illegally.”

“They could have just as easily put a notice up in the garden saying we’re going to remove it at this time,” said Kearey-Moreland.

That would have given Occupy Gardens the time to harvest the plants and save the seeds from the rare bean varieties that they were growing.

Kearey-Moreland said city workers ripped out all the plants, put them in garbage cans and took them off to the dump site. Afterwards, they came back with rolls of sod to lay over top of the soil.

Since Friday, an unknown group of people removed the sod, placed it around the edge and wrote “Y. Not” with the remaining pieces.

Before it was destroyed, Kearey-Moreland told me that there was a main pathway through the garden and a beautiful archway with purple beans and flowers dangling off it.

“The garden was more than just a garden,” he said. “It was a home to countless numbers of insects, butterflies and plants.”

Kearey-Moreland pointed to a spot where two days ago a big row of tomatoes were growing. There were patches of asparagus, chives, peppers, egg plant, peas, cucumbers and several varieties of squash.

There was also kale, basil and thyme.

“It was lush with flowers and beautiful colours,” he said.

Occupy Gardens had been harvesting produce for the last four months. And thousands of passersby were free to help themselves to whatever they needed.

Kearey-Moreland estimated at least 500 people tasted produced from the tiny 40-foot by 15-foot garden. 

“And a lot of those people genuinely needed the produce.”

People who don’t have the money to buy fresh, organic vegetables. 

Kearey-Moreland said the plan wasn’t to feed the entire city. But rather to plant a free community food garden in a high profile public space to raise food consciousness and to inspire others to plant their own food gardens.

“If we had leadership from the City we’d have a food garden at every school educating children about healthy eating and ecology and biology,” he said.

“We have a childhood obesity epidemic and here we’re demonstrating a viable, sustainable alternative that has strong popular support.”

Many people have invited their city councillors to visit the Gardens, to the picnics and potlucks.

With the destruction of the food garden, Kearey-Moreland hopes city councillors will see the importance and value of community gardening and how many people are behind the project.

On Monday, Occupy Gardens is having a “Right to Food Rally - No Garden is Illegal” at Toronto City Hall from noon to 1 pm when they’ll plant a free community food garden.

Kearey-Moreland hopes Monday’s rally will be the catalyst for implementing an urban agriculture strategy in Toronto that’s already been developed by community partners over the last several years. 

In the same Globe and Mail story, Ubbens said, “It (the garden) was planted without notice or contact with our community garden program folks or our operations folks.”

Kearey-Moreland explained that the reason the group didn’t follow “due process” was because it’s backlogged and inefficient. 

“The one staff member they have is overworked,” he said. “So the actual process is very slow in this city. And we have incredible need for food in the city now.”

There are thousands of people lining up for non-perishable items at food banks. But the food bank cupboards are bare and they don’t have fresh vegetables.

“And there are waiting lists for people to get into existing community gardens,” he said.

One of the most sophisticated urban food systems, said Kearey-Moreland, is in Havana, Cuba, where during tough economic times ordinary people began planting food gardens everywhere.

Elsewhere, major U.S. cities with high unemployment and growing income inequality have converted vacant urban lots into community gardens.

But lack of municipal leadership forced people to begin occupying vacant lots and independently plant community gardens in consultation with the surrounding community.

In Toronto, Kearey-Moreland said Occupy Gardens evolved as a free space that anybody could join and contribute to and participate in.

“So we literally had hundreds of people bringing different plants and seeds, ideas and energy to the garden at different times,” he said.

“With a network of gardens, instead of having food banks, you just have people go to the gardens and participate in their own empowerment rather than simply getting handouts after handouts. It was as much about building community as it was about growing food.”

On September 17, the group travelled to Ottawa and planted a heart-shaped on Parliament Hill. Their message was simple: Food is security.

“So rather than our government spending billions of dollars on fighter jets and prisons in an attempt to make us safer, said Kearey-Moreland, “let’s provide basic human needs for the millions of Canadians who don’t have it while supporting the billions around the world who are food insecure.”

Next spring, Kearey-Moreland imagines 100,000 striking workers planting food gardens at community centres, schools, churches with the people.

“It’s not a throwaway action,” he said. 

“They’re giving back to community. Not just asking more for themselves and their families. But doing something positive.”

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