HALIFAX – Before he started gardening, Craig Cain had no sense of what he wanted to do with his life.
Cain grew up in Uniacke Square, a 250-unit block of low-income public housing in Halifax’s north end. The neighbourhood is beset by high unemployment rates, and a dearth of recreational facilities means it can be hard for kids to fill their spare time.
But when a local dietician established a community garden in a nearby park, Cain picked up a shovel – and never looked back. Nearly eight years later, he’s a scholarship recipient poised to study culinary arts at the Nova Scotia Community College, an achievement he credits directly to the Hope Blooms youth community garden.
“I’m pretty excited,” he said. “I’ll be able to pay for my school and books.”
Launched in 2008, Hope Blooms is an urban gardening program for at-risk youth between the ages of five and 17. The organization works with kids to grow fresh produce and sells dressings made from the herbs they produce.
“Hope Blooms is a bit of a special thing,” said program co-ordinator Alvero Wiggins. “It’s a community program and a social enterprise wrapped into one.”
“We really want to take a bite out of hunger in our community.”
Youth urban community gardens are intended to teach inner-city kids the value of food and growing it themselves, while at the same time tackling the problem of food security in these communities.
But studies have shown the gardens benefit their host communities and cities as well. A University of Illinois study showed youth involved in an urban gardening program in Rockford, Ill. had higher leadership skills and better dietary behaviours than their peers.
A 2012 report from the University of Waterloo argues community gardens prevent and reduce crime by creating a sense of community, empowering individuals and physically beautifying previously vacant areas.
Among the “green wave” of community gardens spreading across Canada – Vancouver alone boasts more than 75 – Hope Blooms in Halifax stands out as a success story.
Cain, who is now a mentor for young kids joining the program, says the impact of working to produce their own food is immediate.
“They get really excited when they come for the first night,” said Cain. “Seeing them learning how to grow stuff is really a great experience.”
About 70 per cent of the food the youth grow goes home with them, helping reduce grocery bills and boost the nutritional value of their meals.
“I didn’t really like vegetables but I started to eat them more. It changed the way I eat,” said Cain, who said he also discovered a passion for cooking that led to his plans to study culinary arts.
Hope Blooms earned national recognition in 2013 when representatives appeared on CBC’s reality show Dragon’s Den. During the emotional pitch, the program earned four $10,000 donations from the dragons on an all-students episode.
Profits from Hope Blooms go right back into the program or into a scholarship fund for graduates. Wiggins said the program, which started with nine youth, has boomed to more than 50 participants, and the garden itself has doubled in size.
Last month, Hope Blooms received another feather in its cap in the form of a grant to fund construction of a solar array and battery backup. The solar panels will help the greenhouse run independent of the grid and will extend Hope Blooms’ growing season.
The group made headlines again Thursday, announcing a deal with the national grocery chain Loblaws. Hope Blooms dressings will now be sold in four Atlantic Superstore locations in the Halifax area.
Organizers of community gardens across the country say they’re seeing similar growth – and success – from their programs.
The PACT Grow-to-Learn Schoolyard Gardening Program cultivates food on the grounds of five Toronto schools in “priority neighbourhoods.”
“The kids love it,” said Natalie Boustead, community garden manager for the program.
“In general, the kids are reluctant at first, but are amazed at what they can produce.”
Boustead said each school in the Grow-to-Learn program has a slightly different objective. Some gardens are for take-home veggies and another school has a business course where they set up a market to sell the vegetables, donating all profits to entrepreneurs in other countries.
During the summer, some students are hired as summer employees to maintain the gardens.
Boustead said the kids, their families, and society at large are benefiting from the humble task of growing plants in a garden.
“I think there’s a growing desire for them,” she said.
“For the relative low-cost of what it costs to maintain gardens, there’s all of these implications for learning and mental and physical health.”