Eugene Hennie rushed between the towering buildings of South Parkdale, Amy Ness and me trailing behind.
He had an important meeting to go to.
I’d have to visit the garden quick.
Their Thanksgiving harvest was more than a week ago. These were the hardy fall leftovers — some straggly eggplants, a few overgrown Brussels sprouts.
“You should have seen it two weeks ago,” Hennie said breathlessly. “There were tomatoes, cucumbers, hot peppers. Oh, it was beautiful. Seeing those plants grow from seed — it was like I was growing.”
Hennie and Ness aren’t community gardeners. They’re urban farmers. They’re employed here in the triangle garden in one corner of the Dunn Parkette. It’s their first jobs in years, since Hennie tumbled deep into addiction and Ness was diagnosed — wrongly, she says — with a mental illness.
It’s also offered them crisp produce, the likes of which they rarely saw on their threadbare social assistance paycheques. Hennie talks about making tea with a handful of fresh mint, the way most of us talk about summer vacations. Wistfully.
“I haven’t been to the food bank in 18 months, as a direct result of Co-op Cred,” he said.
Co-op Cred is officially a food security/employment program, run out of the bare-bones office of the Parkdale charity Greenest City. It is brilliant and should be replicated across Toronto.
It hires members of the Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre to work flexible shifts, watering plants and picking weeds. All of the workers are like Hennie and Ness — extremely poor, recovering from addictions and mental health problems.
They aren’t paid with money, which might mess up their social assistance status. Instead, they are paid with credits from the West End Food Co-op, where they can shop for local, organic food that’s typically far beyond their means.
Hennie buys organic chickens and cashews. Ness buys kale and avocados for a fresh salad mixed with garlic and olive oil.
It goes without saying, they are feeling better. You are what you eat, after all. But the work has done some magic too. Ness says it’s kept her out of hospital.
“For decades, my self-esteem hovered around my ankles,” said Hennie, 58 no fax cash advances. “Now it’s almost at my waist.”
All this produce they grow, where does it go?
That’s where this program becomes a perfect, virtuous circle.
The farmers pile their vegetables into baskets and walk them down to the Parkdale Community Food Bank, the very spot Hennie used to stop by weekly, for cans of tomato sauce to heat up on his neighbour’s hot plate.
This season, the farmers have donated enough vegetables to supply 50 people every week, the food bank supervisor told me.
“It’s a feeling of great self-satisfaction,” Hennie said.
Oh, there’s more.
The program got two start-up grants from local foundations. But, the money for the farmers’ credit comes from the West End Food Co-op’s annual Ride4RealFood fundraiser, for which participants cycle up to Brampton’s McVean Farm. This September, it collected more than $32,000.
Guess who was a leading fundraiser?
“I knocked on every business along Queen from Lansdowne to Dovercourt, except the convenience stores,” Hennie said.
The resulting $2,800 was five times more than he earned at the garden this season. So, Hennie gave back that way too.
For the ride, he borrowed a friend’s bike. The first time was ugly. He hadn’t ridden in 25 years, he said. But he worked at it over five weeks.
“I was able to ride 35 kilometres to Brampton with two flat tires, too.”
The experience has got Hennie thinking about building a new career. Before he “married his addiction” and landed homeless in Parkdale, he was an airport porter and limousine driver.
He applied for a creative writing course at George Brown College. He wants to get into marketing, and figured the course would hone his skills.
That’s why he was in a rush. His entrance interview was in an hour.
He aced it, and starts next week.
To donate to the Co-op Cred program, go to:
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