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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 9 | Sep. 4, 2003

A Garden Grows in Surrey

Arts Co-op student helps transition house harvest hope

By Erica Smishek

Give a woman and her child potatoes and you feed them for a day. Teach them how to grow potatoes and they can feed themselves for a lifetime.

It’s an old lesson gaining new momentum at a Surrey transition house program for women and children who have left abusive relationships, thanks in part to UBC Arts Co-op student Allison Hawkey.

During her Co-op work term this summer, the fourth-year geography major has worked with external agencies, community partners, program staff and residents to develop a community garden that will one day supply fresh fruit and vegetables for the program’s community kitchen. Hawkey started with no existing land, supplies or substantial budget -- but countered with a solid knowledge of gardening and ecology, loads of creativity and the determination to make a difference.

“Gardening is a very reliable and affordable source of food,” says Hawkey, 25. “Fruits and vegetables are more expensive in Surrey. We don’t have a lot of produce markets here like you see in places like Vancouver.

“When I came here, I knew there were great socio-economic differences between Vancouver and Surrey, but didn’t really understand how the politics, income assistance and legal system affected real lives,” she continues. “We’ve been taught in geography that the wealthier areas like Vancouver get more programs and that the poorer ones miss out.

“But I lived in a Vancouver bubble. It’s been a real eye-opener.”

Located in central Surrey, the Koomseh Second Stage Transition House Program supports women and children who have left abusive relationships and have significant barriers to affordable housing. They include women of colour and aboriginal ancestry, immigrant women who speak little or no English, young mothers with little or no education or job skills, women needing to flee a geographical area or needing extensive advocacy for court proceedings, and women coping with alcohol and drug abuse issues.

Koomseh, a First Nations word, means wholeness and well-being. Its umbrella organization, Atira Women’s Resource Society, takes its name from Atira, a First Nations female deity symbolizing a bountiful harvest, strength and power without being warlike.

The 12 women and 23 children currently in the Koomseh program live in a unique complex of 11 townhouses and can access various on-site support programs, including the community kitchen.

Program co-ordinator Linda Djadidi explains that most of the residents have a lower socio-economic status and struggle financially, with little money for food by month’s end.
“When I started here it was during the bus strike (2001),” says Djadidi. “I saw that the women had no way to get to the Food Bank. We started to provide rides and child care. We finally arranged a bi-weekly food pick-up at the Food Bank.

“The sad reality is that what’s given to families by the Food Bank is through donation and much of the food is not very nutritious and rarely includes fresh produce.”

Women meet weekly to prepare meals together. They exchange favourite recipes from their cultures, cooking tips,
lessons and stories as they chop vegetables and stir the steaming pots.

“The issue was poverty,” Djadidi says. “It was also a way to bring people together with a group activity. Cooking is a really good way to build community while providing nutritious and economic meals. They cook together and share the food and have some to freeze for future meals.”

Djadidi imagined a community garden as a way to supply the kitchen and “try to become as self-sufficient as we can.” A position was posted for a Community Garden Co-ordinator with UBC Arts Co-op, which had supplied students previously to Atira.

The energetic, articulate Hawkey, whose family lives on a farm and who has spent many an hour building her own patio garden, got the job and was soon contacting area businesses for donations of plants and gardening supplies and encouraging residents to tackle planting in their backyard garden areas.

Hardware / home improvement retailer RONA has been a big supporter, donating fertilizer, soil, rakes, shovels, hoes, children’s gardening tools and seeding trays for next year. Local nurseries and farms generously donated plants.

“I write good letters,” Hawkey explains. “My strategy was to ask lots of businesses for smaller donations. Everyone has been very generous. Everywhere I stopped they said, ‘Here, take a flat of plants.’”

Hawkey contacted the City of Surrey Parks and Recreation department, which is exploring developing a municipal community garden managed by local participants, and was quickly recruited to its community garden committee. The City and Atira are now looking to combine their needs into a community garden that serves both.

Hawkey has attended City meetings and been actively involved in site selection, assessing locations for proximity to high-density housing, visibility, accessibility to water, public transportation and parking, and soil suitability, and she is now recruiting volunteers to help organize an open house to unearth potential gardeners.

As a small scale back-up plan in case this municipal garden does not see fruition, Hawkey also applied for and received permission from the housing society where Koomseh is located to develop a small garden at a site selected using aerial photos obtained through the City of Surrey.

“Gardening is very rewarding. Especially for people who will be here at the end of the harvest, it’s a great feeling when you can pick your own tomato to eat,” says Hawkey. “But even people who are not here from the planting to the harvest can still participate. It gives people the opportunity to get together. It’s therapeutic and fun and social.”

Residents concur.

One woman, whose identity cannot be revealed, kept a garden in her former home and worried she would miss it after leaving her abusive partner. When she arrived at Koomseh, she was thrilled to pull up the huge weeds in her backyard and plant some vegetables and flowers.

“It has made it very cozy, made it my own space,” she says. “I find gardening very peaceful. It makes me relax, it’s tranquil -- and it’s a great hobby, something I can share with my daughter.”

Another resident, who has volunteered to serve on Surrey’s community garden committee, says gardening “is a healthy thing to do. It’s a good social thing and it helps us communicate with the community and with each other.”

Hawkey has developed a formal plan for next year’s growing season, mapping out when vegetables need to be seeded and when and where they can be planted outdoors. She says the itinerary should make next year’s garden bountiful and allow the community kitchen to plan meals around the harvest seasons.

Though she returns to UBC this month, she will remain part time at Koomseh as the community kitchen co-ordinator.

“I’m glad I’m staying on. I started something and I feel like I want to see it through.”

Spoken like a true gardener.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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