Garden grows community vitality and improves health for all

When Susan Critch first learned about the Wasaga Beach Community Garden through the South Georgian Bay Community Health Centre she planned to grow produce. She did,  but she also harvested another experience. 

"Since starting with the garden I find myself being much more active. I go to the garden at least three times a week and I look forward to seeing what has grown," says Susan who has been involved as a participant in the project since May. "It is the relationships that bring me back. I like to meet up with the centre's dietician, staff and whoever else shows up for a nice chat."

Susan also notes that the garden has had a big impact in her life and changed her approach to nutrition. "It means a great deal to me, it is a chance to grow, learn and take pride in what we have accomplished. I now grow my own food and have also learned different ways of cooking. And just being involved in the community is so rewarding. For that I am grateful."

Susan is one of several participants who found out about the garden's health benefits from the South Georgian Bay Community Health Centre, one of Ontario's 75 Community Health Centres (CHCs) that combine the delivery of medical services with community development initiatives.

The South Georgian Bay CHC rents three of the 52 plots at the Wasaga Beach community garden.  The CHC coordinates weekly meetings with their clients to grow and harvest fresh vegetables.   Moreover, clients can bring back fresh food to their families and if there is an abundance of vegetables, the community garden donates the fresh produce to the local food bank. This empowers residents to not only grow food from seeds, but in turn, give back to the community.

They also participate in a wide range of educational sessions: workshops about saving seeds, square foot gardening, canning vegetables and food preparation.

"It's such a simple concept, but so effective," says Shannon Gale, health promoter at the centre. "Our whole health team refers people to the community garden; the nurse practitioners, the doctors, the dietitians and the diabetes educators.  Gardens initiatives are so important as they improve people's health in so many ways."

The garden provides affordable and healthy vegetables to everyone in the community whether you're a garden member, a CHC client or a resident of Wasaga beach; anyone can get involved.  In addition to a harvest of nutrient rich fruits and vegetables, the Wasaga Beach community Garden grows something just as important for good health:  active and inclusive relationships, powerful bonds that strengthen peoples' resilience and their ability to thrive.

"The garden builds a more vital community where everyone feels they belong. It's a great way to get some fresh air, exercise and help reduce stress.   People from all walks of life and different age groups are getting together, helping and learning from each other.  They feel like they are part of a connected and caring community," says Gale.  "That's powerful medicine, especially if you are struggling with a chronic illness or trying to get access to fresh healthy food."

The garden also grows trust between the CHCs clients and their health providers. "Being out in nature together builds a rapport.  That means our clients are more likely to follow through on their goals and are more inspired to manage their healthcare," says Gale.  

South Georgian Bay CHC also mounts several other programs designed to enhance community vitality and people sense of belonging.  "When we are out at the garden, we get a chance to talk to clients about other groups the CHC has to offer (Nordic pole walking, fitness/wellness groups, cooking sessions, quit smoking groups and self-management/ diabetes groups).  It's amazing to see the clients at the garden participating in other programs we offer in the community.  It gives them a sense of belonging, promotes self-confidence, they get to meet other community members and they learn from one another."  

Research supports the rationale: According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, people with adequate social relationships have a 50% lower risk of death than those with poor or insufficient relationships.

Building community vitality and people's sense of belonging is a core principle of the Community Health Centre's model for delivering primary health care services.  Many of the  province's other 75 CHCs also run or participate in community gardens. "Good health is not just something you access in a doctor's office," says Gale. "Good health is based on what's happening in community. That's why Community Health Centres get our patients involved in the community gardens,.  It's a place to get grounded, reconnected to the earth, and connect to each other."

Note: This article was submitted by the Association of Ontario Health Centres.