In just two years, a Kent County community group has given more than 3,000 pounds of fresh garden vegetables, free of charge, to people in need. The vegetables are being grown in a collective garden established in the spring of 2016 by Notre Environnement, Notre Choix (Our Environment, Our Choice) next to the Kouchibouguac Village Senior Citizens Complex.
Notre Environnement, Notre Choix (NENC) is a group of volunteers working to strengthen local communities. Its members are from the St-Louis-de-Kent, Kouchibouguac, St-Charles and St-Ignace regions of Kent County.
Community gardens usually consist of a number of small garden plots assigned to individuals or families who want to grow their own vegetables. The vegetable harvest is often limited for various reasons, including that most people don’t have much gardening knowledge or experience.
NENC’s 4,500 square foot collective garden at Kouchibouguac Village, however, does not have any individual plots. Instead, people participating in the garden work together on the whole garden under the direction of NENC member, Gilbert Blanchard.
Of note is the fact that, when planning the garden, NENC members decided that at least 50% of the food produced each year would be given free of charge to people in need. That decision was taken because provincial government social assistance rates for people in need, including the disabled and children, are so grossly inadequate that people are being forced to live in poverty and to go hungry as a result.
NENC’s community garden could prove to be a model for individuals and groups working to combat poverty and hunger in New Brunswick. The collective approach means that people learn gardening skills while producing vegetables for themselves that are fresher and more nutritious and healthful than what’s normally available in stores.
Non-organic produce in stores and supermarkets is usually contaminated with glyphosate. Glyphosate is widely used in agriculture and forest spraying, but information has come to light in recent years that glyphosates are a threat to public health. According to the World Health Organization, this chemical likely causes cancer.
“We don’t like to use fertilizer and chemicals in the garden and so use compost instead,” said NENC’s collective garden project manager. Having an experienced gardener like Blanchard to organize and supervise food production for the entire collective has proven very effective.
In addition to providing fresh produce for the volunteer gardeners themselves, in just two summers, Blanchard, NENC members, and other volunteers have given more than 1500 pounds of potatoes, 600 pounds of beans, 700 pounds of tomatoes, 300 pounds of cucumbers, and several hundred pounds of other vegetables, including onions, carrots, beets, corn, radishes, herbs, garlic and so on to people in need.
“We’ve had solid volunteers in the garden and we have an agreement to use the land at the current location through the end of 2019,” Blanchard said. “All sorts of people who need it are getting the food, and we know from delivering the fresh vegetables that people need it.”
“We had about 15 or so volunteers in the garden over the two summers the garden has been in operation, and the garden helped 30 families who would otherwise simply not have had fresh produce this year,” Blanchard said. As well as NENC and garden volunteers, Blanchard also reports that the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame de Montreal convent in St-Louis-de-Kent also help distribute food.
Next year, Blanchard will be putting what he’s learned about the benefits of collective gardening to work for the Kent Community Inclusion Network (KCIN) as he begins a term on the network’s board of directors.
Colette Lacroix is the Executive Director of the KCIN. When NENC was establishing its garden in 2016, the KCIN helped with the start-up costs, including seed for the first plantings and related garden supplies. As well, volunteers from United Way in Moncton helped build garden boxes for residents of the Kouchibouguac Village Senior Citizens Complex.
Lacroix likes the “teaching garden” concept employed by NENC. She said that having an experienced gardener on hand to help people learn how to garden is an obvious benefit of NENC’s collective approach.
“The NENC garden is a very good model,” Lacroix said. “It combines working and learning, and giving and receiving, and that’s good for everyone.” By next spring, the KCIN hopes to have 10 community gardens operating in Kent County, each with its own experienced gardener on hand to help.
“We expect to have 10 food mentors in place next year,” Lacroix said. “Having a food mentor working at each garden will enable people to learn or improve their gardening skills.” She says that “in an ideal world, everybody would garden,” but cautions that a lot remains to be done in confronting the hunger problem in Kent County.
For example, some food banks are only open a few days a month, and food banks lack freezers for storing food. Similarly, most people living in poverty don’t have freezers, and that means they have no means of storing food they produce during the winter months.
“As well as learning to garden, it’s important to teach people how to process the food they’ve grown,” Lacroix said. “The KCIN has established educational kitchens that teach people about nutrition and how to process fruits and vegetables for storage.”
Lacroix notes that it is difficult to know with any precision how many people are living in poverty in New Brunswick. “We don’t have good statistics about the number of people living in poverty in New Brunswick generally, or Kent County in particular,” she said. “New Brunswick hasn’t yet established its own benchmarks or measurements to determine how many people here are living in poverty.
However, common poverty indicators such as the Low Income Cut Off (LICO) or the Low Income Measure (LIM) show a very serious poverty problem in New Brunswick. From these poverty measures, it’s evident that more than 80,000 New Brunswick citizens are living in deep poverty, and it is well known that people forced to live in poverty are also often forced to go hungry.
Tackling poverty and related issues such as illiteracy has never been a priority for provincial governments in New Brunswick. Provincial inclusion networks are under-funded, and often simply a way for the province to dump its responsibility for dealing with poverty and hunger onto under-funded volunteer networks.
Unlike the provincial government, however, many people do care about others who go hungry and work as volunteers, with NENC, KCIN and other groups combating poverty. NENC’s collective garden at Kouchibouguac Village shows what can be done when people care.
“Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much,” said Helen Keller.
Dallas McQuarrie is a Kent County-based journalist for the Media Co-op.