A first of its kind public garden in Ashcroft is coming together, and Yoriko Susanj, executive director of the South Cariboo Elizabeth Fry Society (SCEFS), hopes to be able to open it volunteer gardeners very soon.
The project is one that Susanj has wanted to pursue for some time, and will augment the SCEFS food bank program, which operates on the first and third Wednesdays of each month. Public gardens are planted and maintained by volunteers, with the produce available for free to anyone in need.
“The idea came from what Kamloops is doing,” she says. “They have public garden plots all over the city, including at bus stops, not just in one area; but in Ashcroft it made sense to have the garden in one spot.”
Susanj heard that the Village of Ashcroft was planning to move forward with a community garden in a downtown location, and approached the Village about the possibility of SCEFS becoming involved. She then asked if it would be possible for a public garden to be established on a vacant piece of ground behind the SCEFS office that was previously used as a daycare playground.
Having obtained the go-ahead, Susanj began enlisting help. “There’s been a lot of community support already coming through the office,” she says. “Numerous people already want to donate plants, and are holding them at their houses.” Koppers donated 100 untreated railway ties for the construction of raised planters, and fencing of the area has nearly been completed. Once the area has been levelled, construction of the planters can begin, with volunteers ready to start work on them as soon as the site is ready. “I’d be very happy to get them around the perimeter [of the site] this year,” says Susanj, who plans to eventually have an L-shaped bed and a picnic table in the centre of the site.
She says people can plant what they want, but that they are not looking for anything too fancy. “Our clients probably wouldn’t eat kale. Common garden things our clients will eat would be good; keep it simple. Cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, radishes.”
The ripened produce will be available for free to clients, with any excess going to the food bank for distribution. Susanj says that they are always grateful to get excess summer fruits from people who can’t use them. As there is limited storage space at the SCEFS office, she asks anyone donating fresh fruit or vegetables to bring it down the day before, or the morning of, a food bank day.
Susanj notes that food bank use has increased dramatically since she took over nine years ago. “Then, 25 individuals or families using the food bank each day was busy. Today 50 to 55 families and individuals each day is the norm.” She adds that the pattern of who is using the food bank has also changed completely.
“Nine years ago we needed infant formula, baby food, and baby diapers; those were our big expenses.” Now, however, the food bank in Ashcroft sees very few families, and those who do use it are not regulars. “We see them once or twice, because dad got laid off or they had a big unexpected expense.” Instead, says Susanj, 85 to 90 per cent of food bank users she sees today are aged 55 or older, existing on government programs. What worries her is that the vast majority of these clients—some 80 per cent—are between the ages of 55 and 65, meaning the need for the food bank will continue well into the future. “I don’t see that number going down.”
That is one of the reasons she is glad to be getting the public garden up and running this year (the community garden, in a separate location, is planned to start in 2017). The beds will be available for anyone who wants to plant them, and will be maintained by volunteers and by SCEFS clients. “It means the clients have ownership of it. And it gives them something to do, a reason to get out.”