A Winter Update From Building Roots’ Urban Farm at Ashbridge Estate

The Building Roots urban farm at Ashbridge Estate is small (there’s not a lot of room in a city) but mighty – mighty enough to transform this worrying year to reliable joy for a dozen participants. From May through October we gathered weekly to perform and witness many small magics.

First there’s the obvious – from minuscule specks of seed and spindly 3” seedlings, we produced … food.

That’s peppers, tomatoes, peas, beans, zucchini, bitter melon, turnips, kohlrabi, garlic, chard, mint, dill, thyme, basil, and more.

We know the seed needs to be in the right place (for sun), with the right resources (water and good soil) and the right helpers (soil micro-organisms, and a human helper (to provide a stake, prune suckers, protect against pests and disease).  

So far, that’s just like a child growing up to be a poet or an engineer or an analyst – to flourish, both seed and child need  many things to come together: a suitable environment, resources, helpers – and time.

But then there’s the mystery of it. We don’t know all about how a seed becomes a mature plant, and certainly not about how a child explores and develops its talents. Watching something creative and mysterious unfold is a joy that nourished the farm crew every week. (It also sent a few of us to botany books!)

Second, the farm is volunteer-powered, raising this food not for ourselves but for the Building Roots produce bags distributed at the Moss Park Market year-round. 

The kindness of people to each other is another magic, one of the greatest there is. Our dozen participants joined a river of human decency that flowed this year. 

We also produced food for bees and other pollinators – borage, yarrow, dill, cosmos, zinnia, apple blossoms, and clover among our well-received offerings.

Over the season we put in more than 800 hours; why? Making a gift of time and attention is very satisfying and more-ish. There are reductionist explanations for the pleasure of giving to others (a boost of oxytocin is one), but the experiential fact is that we’re social beings and like to connect. 

At the farm – masked and distanced – we are engaged in a collaborative project, connecting strongly with each other, with the people who eat what we produce, with the warm-hearted staff at our host, the Ontario Heritage Trust, and with a dozen businesses and organizations that were generous to the farm. 

To name just four – Miceli’s Seasonals gifted us 15 (!) flats of seedlings; Lazy Daisy Café provided coffee grounds for soil amendment; FoodShare through CAMh gave garlic to plant and a beautiful cedar 3-bin composter; and with our participation Not Far From The Tree delivered a few hundred pounds of organic fruit to the Moss Park Market. (And Manning Canning turned some of that into jars of applesauce for the market.)

This is the instigation of a virtuous cycle – resources flowing to us that we put to use for others, enabling them in turn to be more for those around them. 

To all who supported the urban farm this year, our deepest thanks for enabling this flow of goodness.

We also gave to each other – blueberry muffins, nasturtium pesto, green-tomato chutney, kombucha starter, gecko keychains – and connections beyond the farm to mushroom foraging, tai chi in the park, and more – and ad hoc workshops on pruning, propagating, raising caterpillars to butterflies, hugelkultur, plant families, Three-Sisters plantings, tying secure knots and splices. The Building Roots urban farm is a learning place!

Third, every week we turned our backs on cement, pandemics, job worries, and odious politics … to spend a sunny morning surrounded by trees, flower beds, and birdsong, collaborating with companionable others in light physical exercise that has a kindly and creative purpose. 

That’s a checkmark on most of the major factors that contribute to personal and social well-being.

That’s how this otherwise difficult year paradoxically gave us six months of laughter, abundance, and delight. It’s how we delivered weekly harvests to the Moss Park Market. And it’s how, from small seeds, we at the urban farm nurture the Building Roots mission of social cohesion. To manifest its potential, social cohesion – like a seed or a child – needs a nourishing environment, resources, helpers … and time.

My wish for 2021 is that, whatever else is going on, ever more of us engage in the small magics that give others – and ourselves – the joy of flourishing.

This picture as a group was taken while health and safety regulations permitted gathering in small numbers with the express consent and awareness of each individual participating.

Moss Park : A Love Story

As Published in The Bridge for Nov. 2020.

By: Dustin Stern – Building Roots Director

Recently, I was in a conversation on Instagram with a devastated young local business owner. 

As of Nov. 24, Timeless Collective Toronto sees no way forward but to close up their physical shop (still operating online @timelesscollectivetoronto).

I started following the shop after stumbling in one day and learning about the owners’ philosophy that an artist is merely one who creates. Whether you’ve had years of success in the fashion industry or just last year discovered the healing powers of pottery and got inspired to now want to spread your shiny, pottery-shaped love, the owners would be willing to put your creations on shelf. I was touched by this, and devastated to hear of the loss of the shop.

I am waiting to hear test results from a loved one I was in brief contact with who was exposed to Covid-19, and therefore may have infected me. Home in isolation since the encounter, I do not think my risk was high, but it still terrifies me. All the people they might have infected, all the people their infector might have infected – you know the thought process.

This is all so messy. People call 2020 a horrible year, but I argue it’s as messy as it is merciless. So many firsts, so much change. The horribleness of 2020 is indisputable, so instead I focus on the messy.

Messy is uncomfortable, but no change was ever created from within “the comfort zone”. Push sometimes comes to shove whether we like it or not, and falling hurts, but it’s also how we learn to get back up. Perhaps if we’re smart, we can learn how to plant our feet and situate ourselves so the next time we won’t fall down when shoved.

For example, we could change our public perception of harm reduction initiatives and enact better laws around drug use, so that next time the city (or the world) goes into crisis, we don’t see an unprecedented spike in fatal overdoses.

We could ensure access to affordable, dignified housing for all, so it doesn’t take city parks filling up with an upsetting number of unhoused Torontonians for us to realize we are in a housing crisis that is not going away.

Speaking from my experience with Building Roots – a local grassroots organization that works collaboratively with just about every community agency and social enterprise in Moss Park (including the bridge, our proud partner and collaborator since its launch), and, most important, being on the ground hearing directly from those most vulnerable to the virus and its social implications – it’s clear that the answer is going to be found in cooperation.

Perhaps it is merely the circles I am grateful to find myself in, or being situated in the inspiringly resilient and beautiful Moss Park community, but for every story of an oversized pantry jam-packed with the local grocery store’s remaining stock of toilet paper, I can offer you three about the power of togetherness that could move you to tears.

People have found a million and one new ways to connect, to make one another smile, to ensure that no one goes hungry and that no one gets left behind. Speaking for myself, this community I have found in Building Roots and in Moss Park – people from walks of life I’ve never known existed, and displays of kindness I’d never have imagined – have made 2020 not merely a year of disaster, but ultimately a story of hope.

Thank you to all of my neighbours in Moss Park, housed and unhoused. We will get through this – and the next challenge, and the next – facing up to and taking action on our vulnerabilities, doing it together, and becoming more resilient and vibrant with each challenge we overcome.

Open Letter against Encampment Evictions from Building Roots

Dear,
Mayor John Tory
Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam
Mary-Anne Bedard, General Manager of Shelter, Support & Housing Administration
Janie Romoff, General Manager of Parks, Forestry and Recreation Department
Christine Elliot, Minister of Health,

December 3, 2020

I’m writing to you from Building Roots, a progressive grassroots social venture that began in 2013 in response to a lack of fresh food access and agricultural growing space across Toronto, more specifically, Moss Park and downtown Toronto East. We work primarily to build resources for social cohesion and co-create targeted interventions with communities. We collaborate closely with partner agencies, volunteers, community leaders, and local businesses to deepen and expand our reach. We develop innovative solutions to some of the city’s lowest income neighbourhoods and social disparities such as poverty, social isolation and inadequate housing.

Thus far, we have provided the Moss Park encampment with over 200 warm meals, weekly cases of fresh fruit, and 100 winterized sleeping bags and emergency blankets. Although a necessary and meaningful offering, this is not enough.

We care deeply about the encampments and our unhoused neighbours for multiple reasons and urge against encampment evictions. Folks in the encampment should be permitted to stay where they are until better and more dignified alternatives are available.

Firstly, we know encampments are the result of a decades-long housing crisis caused by public policy that encouraged the financialization of housing while cutting investments in affordable housing and Rent-Geared-to-Income options in the downtown core. 

Secondly, clearing encampments spreads COVID-19. This is a public health issue. The CDC still recommends that encampments not be cleared: “Unless individual housing units are available, do not clear encampments during community spread of COVID-19. Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.” 

The City’s winter plan falls short on providing enough space for people. The plan provides space for 560 people but advocates and outreach workers estimate that there are over 1000 people sleeping on the streets and with the current ‘eviction blitz’ that number is going to grow. 

Thirdly, The shelter system is full. People calling central intake every night are not able to get beds. People will be sleeping outside regardless of whether or not encampments are cleared, but without the communities they’ve created over the past months and years. Additionally, shelter hotels don’t work for everyone. Facilities like the City Plaza at Jane & Wilson hotel are far away from people’s communities, families, jobs, friends, social services and overdose prevention sites, and don’t all have robust overdose prevention programs, which can result in death. One death is too many.

Lastly, at this time, it is critical that the City provide encampment residents with basic survival gear and access to sanitation, while also opening recreation centres and public washrooms 24/7 for encampment residents to stay safe, including during the day.

The City should follow the recommendations of the inquest into the death of Grant Faulkner, and provide survival gear, including fire safety, to those sleeping in tents. While City Council voted in favour of handing out survival gear on October 28, 2020, we have yet to see City workers do this on the ground. Thus far, City staff and police have confiscated people’s heat sources and destroyed people’s tents. 

As an organization, we will continue to do what we can to support our unhoused neighbours. We support the Encampment Support Network, and our unhoused neighbours in seeking shelter in encampments, and advocate against encampment clearings.

Thank you for your time,

Building Roots Team
Animal Liberation Kitchen
Community Matters Toronto
Jim Keenan, Minister, Saint Luke’s United Church

Join Us In Our Mission: The Support Our Unhoused Neighbours Campaign

Jeff Bierk of Encampment Support Network (ESN), a group of volunteers who organizes in a grassroots way to bring supplies, awareness, and acts of kindness to folks in the encampments across Toronto says,

“we’re just literally trying to take care of people … and we’re ensuring compassion is paramount,”

(The Star, September, 2020).

ESN, notably not an organization but rather the organized efforts of compassionate neighbours, has been integral in providing folks living in encampments essentials such as toiletries, warm meals, water, ice, sleeping bags, and more.

They connect with local agencies, businesses, and keen individuals to activate a diversity of essential supports, wholly rooted in compassion . Ultimately, permanent housing is needed, and until then, our neighbours in the encampment require support and understanding. 

Thus, Building Roots presents the Support Our Unhoused Neighbours Campaign.

On October 17th, Building Roots worked with ESN to organize “Food with Friends: Moss Park Encampment Action Day,” distributing over 100 warm meals from Tiffinday, with donations from Oh She Glows to folks in the Moss Park Encampment. We also supplied water and fresh fruit. We were truly inspired to see how the community and volunteers pulled together to make a wonderful impact. 

Now, with the help of our friends at Harvey Kalles, we’ve quickly procured funds to provide 100+ sleeping bags and emergency blankets to our unhoused neighbours in the Moss Park Encampment, slated to go out at our next Action Day in November. We know this is necessary as the weather gets cold, and have heard first-hand from folks living in encampments that these supplies will be appreciated and potentially life-saving. Yet we also know that many more supplies are needed still.

If you’re interested and able to donate toward the Support Our Unhoused Neighbours Campaign, supporting the Moss Park Encampment and taking care of those folks in our community who could most use winter warmth, you can do so on our website. Please specify in the message that you would like these funds to be used toward this campaign.

If you’re interested in contributing other forms of support or supplies (such as warm meals, skids or plywood, water, warm clothing), please connect with Hannah at hannah@buildingroots.ca.

Citations:

https://www.blogto.com/city/2020/09/tent-encampments-trinity-bellwoods-park/

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/toronto-homeless-tents-shelters-pandemic-1.5746955

https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2020/09/22/were-just-literally-trying-to-take-care-of-people-encampment-support-network-provides-supplies-and-compassion-to-homeless-people-camped-out-in-toronto.html

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/toronto/article-judge-dismisses-application-from-homeless-advocates-to-suspend-ban-on/

Resiliance & Presence: Winter Changes at the Moss Park Market


Nine months into 2020, we’ve had six months of living a new life. As we collectively learn a lesson about presence, resilience can be an underappreciated theme. Our resilience is founded in doing what we do best, safely, to get through the current difficult period together.

At the Moss Park Market, we’re making a few adjustments to how fresh food will be picked up this winter season. We want everyone to stay warm and safe in the coming colder months.

From 11am to 4pm, we’ll have five pick-up time slots of one hour each.

If you are already a regular at the market, nothing much will change; we just hope to shorten wait times. If you do not yet have a time slot, we will still serve you. We are just asking for cooperation in planning a pick-up slot once you do come!

Ultimately, our offerings are pay-what-you-can, but we suggest a donation of $5 for one bag or $25 for 4 weeks.

The Moss Park Market is fueled by community support: your presents support our presence. But we don’t define people by their ability to support us financially. We want to support our community’s resilience – you are welcome here.

We are always finding ways for helping hands to stay busy. If you want to get involved with Building Roots, you can follow us on social media to find opportunities.

If you have any questions about the new pick-up process, you can talk to us in person at the Saturday market.

We’ll see you soon. We’ll be there.

It’s Time to Connect – Building Roots Brings the Candidates to the Community

On Oct. 19, 2020 Building Roots hosted its Toronto Centre By-Elections Candidates Online Meeting and we couldn’t be more proud of what we crafted.

We were fortunate to have some positive energy from our community partners and support from the outside media to pull it all together.

We wanted to share this inspiring piece by Alastair Sharp of Canada’s National Observer as a great follow-up on the issues we are addressing entitled:

Moss Park residents hear from NDP candidate, new Green leader hoping to fill Morneau’s seat

Full link for the Article follows or click the photo below:
https://www.nationalobserver.com/2020/10/20/news/moss-park-residents-hear-from-NDP-candidate-new-Greens-leader

The park that gives the Moss Park neighbourhood its name has housed a tent encampment during the COVID-19 pandemic that has laid bare the lack of government action to help the most vulnerable.

Higgins and others from Building Roots have been hustling to engage low-income residents in the byelection campaign by telling them how and where to vote during the community group’s regular Moss Park Market events.

“They really want to see a community champion in this role,” he said of residents he’s spoken with recently, noting that “getting people to talk about what they care about has helped to grow the awareness and to think about what it is possible to change for the community.”

Also, you can catch the recap video of the entire Toronto Centre By-Elections Candidates Online Meeting on our Youtube channel below

Thank you for all those that tuned in and we are grateful for everyone who watched it afterwards!

For more information on political participation, or, how to vote visit www.elections.ca

Adaptability

An emotionally charged ode to how our year of change is progressing in an annual season of change this fall.

Outside my door bees are busy at the blue asters, robins and grackles are rustling in the Virginia creeper for the purple berries; yesterday geese were calling; the nights are drawing in. 

As a gardener, I’m deeply ambivalent about October. What’s done is done, well or ill alike; it’s time to say this story’s over, say farewell to the season. And yet in the same moment, I’m also looking to the next season, because the last fall task at the Ashbridge Urban Farm is to get ready for spring – clear and mulch the beds so they’ll be prepared for an early start. 

In just a month I’ll be poring through catalogues, trying to shorten wishful lists of heirloom food plants; eight weeks after that is not too early to start the seeds of woody herbs; four weeks takes me to cabbages; another four and it’s time to start tomato seeds; and a few weeks after that we’re off and running hard to keep ahead of the season.

The Roman god Janus, with one face looking to the past and the other to the future, represented transitions, both literal and metaphorical – doorways and gates, war and peace, motion and time. The month of January is named for the transition from one calendar year to the next; if a gardener had decided this, January would be a fall month.

We’re all in a transition now, as the pandemic reality sinks in: this isn’t a 3-month sprint, it’s an 18-month marathon. It’s very not clear how we get through it – individually, or as a city, or an economy, or as a species. But as I think about it, my thoughts keep drifting to peoples and countries that have gone through – are going through – far worse disruptions.

This isn’t a 3-month sprint, it’s an 18-month marathon.

The people of Fukushima and Chernobyl and the Three Gorges Dam. The people of the Gulf of Mexico and Puerto Rico. The peoples of the Arctic and California and Australia and the Amazon and Fiji and the Maldives and the Solomon Islands. The people of Afghanistan and Syria and North Vietnam and the Crimea. The people of Greece and Brazil. The Rohingya people of Myanmar, the Buddhists of Tibet. The people of Minamata and Grassy Narrows and Flint and Love Canal and Bhopal. The child soldiers of the Congo and the children of the Sixties Scoop.

These are just highlights you might recognize; there are terribly many more.

So I think some balance is called for. 

Yes, coping with covid-19 is disruptive. Yes, being so unsure of what to do next or what comes next makes us anxious. Yes, we in Canada have been living in a bubble of stability compared to the rest of the world, and so a big change leaves us unprepared, unnerved, unsure how to adapt. 

But good golly, the essence of being human is our amazing, outstanding ability to adapt! We can do this. Most of our families have, within one or two generations back, surmounted major change; we too can adapt – to this transition period when the virus is loose, and again when it’s been quelled.

Looking forward – adaptation will require spirit, ingenuity, collaboration, lateral thinking – we humans have got those totally covered. And looking back, in a Janus spirit, to January – my first post of the year, before we were even aware of the pandemic, was about adapting to (a different) change by embracing it.

It began,

“The past year had me continually adapting to new circumstances, both bad and good. Jolting change is wearing, but it may be what 2020 has in store for most of us. If that’s right, we will need to keep each other’s energy up, and our own,”

and ended,

“Change is coming… Here’s to seeing a 2020 when our choices are better because we require it – and when we help each other embrace them.”

Just two months after that post, the Building Roots team adapted instantly to the pandemic, embracing the reality of the situation and putting better choices on the table (literally as well as figuratively) for people. We’re not the only organization to do that, to be sure. Every one of us has the ability to use mind, body, and spirit to adapt and to help each other. 

Here’s to having that very human capability strengthen us in this “season” of pandemic – and to having it give us empathy with other people’s troubles. It may be October now, but any farmer will tell you that when trouble hits we band together to get everyone through it – and that April is up ahead.



Kate Hamilton is the Urban Farm Manager and coordinates the Building Roots urban farming initiative at Ashbridge Estate and skills workshop series. You can find Kate almost weekly at the Ashbridge Estate location or writing inspiring articles such as this piece.

A Story of Hope: Our Personal Retelling

A personal summary of our experience during the COVID-19 Pandemic as featured in the community newspaper The Bridge earlier this October.

Building Roots has always been committed to cultivating vibrant and resilient communities. COVID-19 put that mission to the test – on March 12, 2020, everything changed. 

Having to think fast, we used past insights and input from the communities we serve and set in motion a slew of new programs and partnerships. 


All programming aimed at three specific goals: providing food for the most vulnerable in our community; offering at-home educational and recreational resources for children, families and seniors in need; and ensuring access to vital information about COVID-19 and government supports that they would not otherwise have received. 

We quickly connected with residents, partner agencies, community leaders and volunteers to achieve these goals. With gratitude, great learning and even greater collaborations, in the first 25 weeks of Community Helping Community, together we accomplished: 

6000+ food bags of fresh and local produce, non-perishable staples, and delicious meals and treats distributed to 300 households;

500+ activity kits procured and distributed to children and families, as well as 1000+ books and colouring books with works of local artists, with a focus on promoting mental health;

200 Veg2Grow Kits for Kids to families in Downtown East Toronto, so children could learn how to grow food safely from their homes; 

25+ socially distanced performances by Black, Indigenous, women, people of colour and LGBTQQIP2SAA+ musical artists and dance performers.  We worked with community members to animate public space so everyone could safely enjoy the summer.

Thank you to everyone who supported us, funded our projects, volunteered, donated or otherwise cheered us on through this incredible show of community spirit the past few months. 

These have not been easy times for anyone … thank you for being part of our story of hope. 

Read our whole Story of Hope at buildingroots.ca/a-story-of-hope-covid-19 .

Building Roots Through Social Justice

Through this challenging year of the devastating Coronavirus, Building Roots continues to work with the Moss Park community to create a grassroots network of nourishment and compassion. As an organization, we tackle socio economic issues with food justice, music and social justice, and justice for children.

Food Justice 

It all starts with food. Whilst food banks are a lifeline for many, often they mostly provide canned and non-perishable items. We think every human should have the right to chose fresh food. So our pay-what-you-can market of fresh food is for anyone in need.

Music and Social Justice 

Representation matters. Women, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour), and LGBTQQIP2SAA+ (lesbian, gay, bi, trans, questioning, queer, intersex, pan-sexual, two-spirit, androgynous or asexual) people are grossly underrepresented in the live and electronic music scenes, despite there being no shortage of great performers. There are as many expressions of music as there are people, and promoter bookings should reflect that. We all deserve the richness and full spectrum of musical experience. To redress the imbalance, Building Roots exclusively books women, BIPOC, and LGBTQQIP2SAA artists and performers for our weekly Mini Social Distance Concert Series.  

Justice for Children 

Children have the right to play, creatively express and access educational and recreational resources. This is why we have created a weekly art zone, and toy/book giveaway for kids.

In a system rife with inequality, injustice and marginalization, it can be difficult to know how to support change. Starting “small” – working with what we find valuable and necessary to maintain social harmony and equity – has shown some success in social empowerment. Starting small can seem insignificant, but to some it is immeasurable. In many cases, it’s best to work at the local level, close enough to hone in on a community’s desires and direct needs.

Article written by Building Roots Market Animator Danielle Collrin, originally for the Moss Park paper the bridge.

Summer Fun at the Moss Park Market

This summer, Moss Park Market will be bustling with fun activities!

Live Music. While large gatherings and indoor concerts are off the table, Building Roots has stepped up by offering a bi-weekly concert series in the beautiful green space outside the Moss Park Market, every other week starting June 27th (weather permitting). The performances will take place 12:00-2:00pm, with an emphasis on cultural diversity. Don’t be surprised to see a variety of circus acts as well! We are thrilled to be able to support artists during this very challenging time, as well as bringing the joy of music and performance art to our community members. 


Fun Zone for Kids. Alongside the live music will be our Fun Zone for Kids. This feature will take place on a weekly basis from 12:00-3:00pm. The Fun Zone is where parents from all over Toronto’s Downtown East can come to pick up educational and recreational resources for kids. This includes a wide variety of books from the Children’s Book Bank, art supplies and creativity kits, outdoor activities such as hula hoops and sporting equipment, and even toy packs sponsored by Pokemon Canada (while supplies last). The Fun Zone will also have an activity area where families can safely enjoy the outdoors this summer and children can play with their new toys.  We will have chalk markings on the grass to encourage social distancing, and volunteers helping to enforce these safety measures. 

Toronto Grown Food. The Moss Park Market will continue with curbside pick-up of fresh food bags which are all pay-what-you-can. We are ensuring everybody has affordable access to fresh food during these financially difficult times, and also that community members most vulnerable do not have to travel far or go to crowded indoor spaces for fresh food. In addition to our fresh food bags containing organically grown food from our very own Urban Farm at Ashbridge Estate, they also contain freshly grown food from a whole community of local growers. Our Growing Meals Together program, designed as a solution to potential overcrowding at our urban farm, has people from all over the city growing food in their backyards and rooftops like the Ryerson Urban Farm, and Carrot Green Roof and contributing the harvests to our food bags. Lastly, we’ve partnered with a few other local farms, making the Moss Park Market one of very few farm stands operating in the city of Toronto. 

The Moss Park Market is open 11:00-4:00pm every Saturday. We are located at 260 Queen St. E, one block east of Sherbourne (Queen and Seaton), across from Kim’s Convenience.