Welcome Gardens helps newcomers find food—and community

by Myles Sauer

One Friday evening last November, three teams of people, each assigned a random assortment of fruits, vegetables, and proteins, were asked to create a meal from scratch in the kitchen of St. Aidan’s United Church, a short drive from the University of Victoria.

The event, co-hosted by the Shelbourne Community Kitchen and Welcome Gardens, brought together people from a range of nationalities and backgrounds, many of whom were unfamiliar with one another, in the spirit of sharing and collaboration—and to have some fun, of course.

Lennor Stieda, a German-Baltic immigrant who has lived in Canada since 1951, found herself paired with a woman from Uruguay and, by her account, they made quite a team. “We ended up cooking just an amazingly well-tasting vegetable stir fry and rice,” she says.

But the “pièce de résistance,” says Stieda, was a chicken-based dish prepared by a South African woman and her teammate, bedded on fettuccine cooked with tomato, and topped with white yogurt, cherry tomatoes, pomegranate seeds, and green parsley.

“Can’t you just see it in front of you?” Stieda asks me, laughing. “It was so amazing!”

PLANTING SEEDS THAT SPROUT NEW KNOWLEDGE

 The Mystery Meal Challenge was one of many events hosted by Welcome Gardens, an initiative by the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society (VIRCS) to bring locals and newcomers together to grow food in household and community gardens.

The program has around 135 active participants from 18 countries who partake in workshops, community dinners, and other gardening-focused events, with funding from the United Way of Greater Victoria, the Victoria Foundation, and the federal government’s New Horizons for Seniors community projects program.

Pam Devito, the VIRCS volunteer coordinator and a blueberry farmer who grew up farming and cattle ranching around B.C., saw a need when she hosted gardening workshops at in Royal Oak. “I had all these young people coming in and wanting to learn how to grow,” she says. “And then I had these old-timers coming in. They don’t need to learn anything, but they’ve grown in Royal Oak for 40 years, and they just needed for someone to hear that knowledge.”

So Devito brought the two groups together to sit and talk. She witnessed a transfer of wisdom and knowledge between the younger visitors and old-timers.

That first intergenerational meeting inspired Devito to create a recurring program of get-togethers. “Partly so you don’t lose that information, because it’s hard to grow in certain different areas of Victoria,” she says. “For instance, tomatoes in Royal Oak compared to tomatoes in James Bay are greatly different.”

In its original form, Welcome Gardens matched recent immigrants with gardeners aged 50 and up with experience growing in Victoria. Each pair would share and work a garden. Organizers soon realized, however, that this arrangement often became “too intense” for participants, due to language barriers or the physical and mental energy required to garden together.

Welcome Gardens shifted its focus to participant-driven group learning activities, which have been far more successful. “What I found was that the more times we came together as groups, the more organically different relationships would start,” says Devito. “People would find themselves. People are saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that!’ ‘Well, you should come over and see this!’ And so that was the kind of stuff you’re hoping for.”

At the heart of it all is the goal of creating the same communal experiences of growing, cooking, and eating together that she and other members grew up with.

“My Italian community, my grandparents and their siblings all came to Powell River,” Devito says. Her aunt raised goats while her uncle made cheese from goat milk and worked as a fisherman. Devito herself spent part of her childhood on a cattle ranch that her parents bought in Hazelton, where she learned how to grow vegetables and raise livestock. “I grew up with that understanding that this is a community thing,” she says.

That same communal experience was central to Lennor Stieda’s upbringing as well. Her family immigrated to the Okanagan from Riga, Latvia, following the Second World War, and her father eventually bought his own orchard.

“I grew up with doing chores after school all the time,” says Stieda. “We had to learn how trees were pruned, how to pick up prunings, how to set sprinklers, how to pick cherries and other fruit without damaging anything. And my mom raised chickens. I’m sort of a country girl at heart.”

Welcome Gardens, says Devito, is “really about producing food in your household garden to feed your family but then also to share with your local community. And that’s where the networks are born.”

A Welcome Gardens’ fermentation workshop

BUILDING SOCIAL CONNECTIONS

The connections that form through Welcome Gardens are essential for newcomers to Victoria. Even though social isolation is a problem that affects most demographics across Canada, refugees and immigrants are most at risk of feeling segregated as they adapt to their new surroundings.

“One of the things that is difficult and creates health problems and/or social problems for immigrants when they come is the lack of a sense of belonging,” Devito explains. She says one can only imagine the struggle of moving to another country but not being able to taste or smell your own culture.

While group-based activities help to alleviate symptoms of isolation, community gardening has been identified as an effective way to help newcomers grow into their communities. In a 2016 paper titled “Community Gardens for Refugee and Immigrant Communities as a Means of Health Promotion,” published in the Journal of Community Health, authors Kari A. Hartwig and Meghan Mason found that refugee gardeners felt they had received physical and emotional benefits from gardening. They observed that “gardens may serve as a meaningful health promotion intervention for refugees and immigrants adjusting to the complexity of their new lives … and coping with past traumas.”

Helping new arrivals adjust is one reason why Luisa Ramirez, a post-doctoral researcher at Royal Roads University and a Colombian immigrant, gets so much joy from Welcome Gardens.

“As an immigrant, I can easily understand the struggles of other immigrants, not only in Victoria but also coming in to Canada,” says Ramirez, who started with Welcome Gardens as a volunteer in 2016. “For me, it was a great opportunity to be able to share with these people that I knew struggles that they were going through, but also to feel that I was useful, that I could try and help them to connect by building bridges between them and what we were doing.”

Lennor Stieda isn’t new to Canada, but the benefit of a close network of gardeners became apparent when her husband Roland suffered a stroke three years ago that left his right side paralyzed and confined him to a wheelchair. Stieda became the sole caretaker of a massive perennial garden at their Central Saanich home. She needed help.

“We put out a call,” she says. “‘Can somebody come help clean up the gardens so more vegetables can be grown?’” Thankfully, Luisa and her husband could lend their hands. “So we had a little work party in the garden. That was really successful and helpful,” says Stieda.

Beyond social isolation, immigrants and refugees new to Canada also struggle to access food. Welcome Gardens’ mandate includes addressing that issue. Devito says that newcomers are often unsure of where to shop for affordable food that they’re familiar with. They may need to take extended trips on public transit to find it. Welcome Gardens helps by providing a small amount of funds for transportation.

Welcome Gardens also offers workshops on preserving food. “It’s about ensuring that there’s more bang for the buck with what we’re growing,” says Devito.

Photos: Lili Stewart

COMMUNITY COMES INTO BLOOM

While Welcome Gardens provides a vital service to the Victoria community, Devito stresses that similar initiatives are happening all over. “We’re not unique,” she says. “You’ll see it in other places. Even the Yates Street Community Garden, they’re doing the same thing. It’s community building. It’s bringing people together and sharing.”

As the seasons change and winter gives way to spring, Welcome Gardens will pick back up for planting season. Devito is ready for the increase in numbers the warmer weather will bring. “We have 135 people who participate, and it’s getting bigger and bigger, and that’s through word of mouth,” she says. “We don’t really need to recruit that hard.”

“This is a completely successful program because it brought together two different parts of the community that were isolated,” says Ramirez. She mentions her own relationship with Lennor Stieda and Pam Devito as an example of the friendships that have grown beyond the Welcome Garden events.

“Pam, Lennor, and I became very good friends, and we still get together every two weeks, or at least once a month,” she says. “There’s a big generational gap between the three of us.” The youngest of the three, Ramirez is 42, while Stieda is 77. “But that’s great! That has been fantastic for me, a great opportunity to learn from them and to feel very inspired.”

Stieda agrees: “Everybody has different backgrounds as far as gardening goes, and it’s a neat way to include people in a non-threatening way in community.”

Whether it’s assembling meals from random ingredients in the kitchens of St. Aidan’s or learning how to grow tomatoes in community gardens around the city, everything that Welcome Gardens does goes back to the communal experience of sharing not only good food but good company. And as more people choose Victoria as the place to make their home, a sense of belonging will always be needed. If Devito and company keep up their hard work, a warm (and nutritious) welcome won’t be hard to find.

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