Editor’s note: According to Volunteer Canada, International Volunteer Day takes place every year on Dec. 5 to shine a light on the impact of volunteer efforts everywhere. The Chronicle is proud to tell the story of community volunteers.
Carol Vandersanden, one of the founders of We Grow Food (WGF) in Oshawa is dedicated to the organization and helping others learn to grow their own fresh produce.
“From growing the seedlings in the spring to planting, to maintaining, to harvesting,” says Vandersanden.
“All of that is coordinated by us, so the volunteers can work in a stress-free environment. But we also want them to learn, so we spend a lot of time teaching people so that they feel empowered to grow food as well.”
Vandersanden closed her restaurant, The Table, more than three years ago. She says before closing the restaurant, it was successful in downtown Oshawa for four years. However, she consciously made the choice to close it, and dedicate her time to WGF.
The 60-year-old started her WGF journey with six other urban farmers in Oshawa.
“It started as just a little thing in 2013 and we have more volunteers now than we ever did,” she says.
One hundred people are registered volunteers for WGF, including Vandersanden and her partner, Michelle Perry, 45, who helped build and continues to maintain WGF’s five neighbourhood gardens in Oshawa and expand WGF’s work.
These gardens are South Patch Garden (863 Glen St.), Alexandra’s Bounty (364 Simcoe St. N.), The Carea Gardens (115 Grassmere Ave.), and The Pepper Patch and Berry Patch, (both on Albert Street).
Vandersanden says because of COVID-19, WGF had more control of where food from the gardens was going.
Perry says “being in the community and doing the work we do; you really get what the community is like. You see the positive, you see the negative, you see everybody come together when they need to.”
Perry adds “Oshawa has some struggles, but we need to keep in mind that there are struggles everywhere. But this is a great community.” She mentions how important it is to have organizations like WGF and others to bring people together without judgment, allowing them to be themselves.
“It opened our eyes to the things that were needed; that access to fresh food is paramount,” Vandersanden says. “There were so many people who just didn’t have the money to buy the produce that we were handing out.
“We don’t judge anybody; you come, you ask for food, we ask how many people you’re feeding, we give you food.”
Vandersanden says she worried this year about turning down someone in need because of a shortage of food, but “it never happened.”
She says WGF harvested more than 600 pounds of produce a week this season providing enough for the people who came.
To get WGF’s information out, Vandersanden says her and Michelle bought and retrofitted a trailer to include a greenhouse inside and called it the ‘Mobile Greenhouse Classroom’.
The initial plan before COVID-19 was to live in the trailer and visit schools and festivals to teach people about urban farming. Then COVID-19 hit and that specific plan was postponed. However, WGF and the education shared through the organization is still active and Vandesanden is hopeful for next season.
In response to COVID-19 and in an attempt to further involve the community, WGF created the ‘Kitchen Garden Kit Program’.
During the winter months, the kits will contain planters, potting soil, cuttings and transplants of herbs, as well as seeds to grow microgreens.
WGF handed out 250 free planters, in the spring and summer of 2020, with the financial support of some of its private funders including Taking IT Global and the Carea Community Health Centre.
“People could come pick them up and go home and begin to grow some of their own food,” Vandersanden says.
Vandersanden says the planters themselves don’t provide enough food to feed a family, however, the program creates an interest and excitement for people to grow their own food.
She has followed up with people who have received the kits and is pleased to know they used extra seeds given from the kits, showing genuine enthusiasm to grow.
“When we start to grow our food and get a better understanding of how that all works, I think we grow in respect for the food that we have, and we tend to waste less,” she adds.
She says a question she gets asked a lot is: How can her and Michelle afford to live if they are always volunteering?
The answer, in part, is from selling soup. The Table Soups Facebook page was created, which has a menu of soups from her prior restaurant. The menu is available for the public to choose from, for a weekly pickup or delivery every Friday.
They both volunteer full-time for WGF, about 40 hours a week, but during the summer, that goes up to around 60 hours a week, Vandersanden says.
Perry recalls the first time she met Vandersanden was at The Table. Vandersanden was offering a program – if a customer bought 10 soups, The Table sponsored a student from alternative education to take cooking classes.
“Being a child and youth worker in the community, that was something I thought was awesome and I wanted to support that,” says Perry.
“The second time I saw Carol after that – she asked me to help at the MCC (Metropolitan Community Church) of Toronto, to prepare a dinner to raise funds for the refugee program,” Perry says. “The more I saw her, the more I saw the community work that she was doing, and it was something that I was passionate about, too.
“It’s definitely nice to see somebody actually doing the work – not saying they’re doing the work – but actually doing the work in the community,” Perry says.
Adds Vandersanden: “I went from a paid job to a volunteer job and never looked back.”