When Hope Harrison left her family farm to live in the senior citizens home in River Hebert, one of the things she missed was working in the family’s garden plot. This summer, the 83-year-old resident of Highland Villa was one of those who oversaw the planning, design and planting of the River Hebert community garden. With the help of a host of volunteers from the River Hebert Garden Club, Villa residents participated in the creation of a series of container gardens planted with food crops, like tomatoes and beans. During those spring and summer sessions, many of the Villa’s senior residents were in their element, recalling farm practices from a time when a thousand family farms dotted the Cumberland County countryside. Those farms provided for virtually all of a family’s basic food needs.
Garden club member Su Morin led the Highland Villa community garden project. “The seniors turned out to be a great resource,” she said. “We feel really strongly about preserving skills that might otherwise be lost. They know how to garden organically and they know how to preserve food.”
The number of active farms in the county has dwindled to around 500 and the region has less food security now than at any time in a century. If the transport trucks were stopped at the Nova Scotia border, some estimates suggest the shelves in the supermarkets would be empty within three or four days. The cost of purchasing a basic nutritious diet for a family of four has risen 20 percent, to nearly $800 a month, in just eight years. Obesity rates, and the chronic illnesses that develop with it, are also on the rise.
That backdrop frames the actions of the Cumberland Food Action Network. The Highland Villa project is just one of several flowing from a train-the-trainer workshop held in Amherst early in 2012. Morin is a member of the network, which organized the workshop in partnership with Maggie’s Place, a family resource centre in Amherst. The workshop was funded with a leadership initiative grant from the Rural Communities Foundation of Nova Scotia. The goal was to train trainers to facilitate community-driven kitchen table talks, and to support ongoing food-security programming.
Springhill resident Lance Lockwood was among those who attended the training session. He is working with a group including local hospital volunteer services, the local recreation centre, Nova Scotia Community College and the local high school to plan a healthy food and physical activity strategy for the town. After initial discussions the group wants to brand the community – Healthy Active Springhill is one suggestion. This group is looking into a joint vegetable garden / food skills project between the hospital and the local recreation centre, and is evaluating community interest. They plan to seek student involvement, such as building raised beds for gardens and hosting taste-testing events at the local Nova Scotia Community College. Plans are in the works to host a broader community discussion to get an understanding of community needs, opportunities and interest and to explore possible actions for the joint community gardening / food project. Lockwood believes that the momentum of having many partners at the table in one small community has been generated as a result of the leadership grant.
The network wants to introduce food-related, skill-building activities to communities throughout the county. The aim is to promote local sustainable agriculture, and to transfer traditional ways of food production, preparation and storage to a new generation.
When Parrsboro resident Lisa Ward heard about last spring’s workshop in Amherst she jumped at the chance. She had already participated in a nutrition workshop, hosted by Maggie’s Place, so she had an idea of what might be involved. When the call came last year for facilitators that would help host other parties, she volunteered. Now she is hosting kitchen parties in her own community, providing residents an opportunity to socialize while passing on critical food preservation and cooking skills. Her kitchen parties are attracting a diverse group, not just low-income earners. She’s come to realize that people are drawn to these events for many reasons. Often it’s the only place they meet their neighbours. In most places, the congregation places – the post offices, the corner stores, even the churches – have closed.
The events are knitting together communities and reversing the isolation that rural living has increasingly come to represent. At a recent event the group welcomed a widow whose pet had just died. She was alone in her home. “Her kids are gone. She’s alone and it was a way for her to reach out and receive support,” says Ward. There are similar kitchen table events happening throughout the county, each with its own distinctive structure. “We’re hoping the ripples will widen throughout the community from these kitchen parties,” she says, adding, “you know, we’re not just sharing food recipes. We are sharing a community.”