West Village Community Development Co-operative: Growing Food and Community in West Guelph

The SDG Cities Academy is a supported, peer-to-peer training opportunity developed and delivered by SDG Cities. The course offered organizations, businesses and individuals a chance to deepen their knowledge about the SDGs and learn how to apply the principles and practices of the framework at the local level. As part of the training Academy participants explore alignment of their work with the SDGs and dig into their local impact.

The West Village Community Development Co-operative is a grassroots organization growing around a strong belief that community development and social change happens when neighbours engage with and support one another. For over 25 years, the group officially incorporated as a not for profit community development co-operative in 2015 and is a registered charity.

In all areas of their work the co-op actively supports the community in west Guelph responding to needs and service gaps across. The core mission of the Co-op is to empower people and celebrate diversity through community building, skill and asset development, and advocacy at the neighbourhood level.

The Village Co-op Garden 

A visit to the Village Co-op Garden, located next to St. Peter’s Catholic School on Westwood Rd., provides a wonderful example of the community-driven work of the Co-op. In only its second season, the garden is a space for community members to build skills around growing and preparing fresh food. With 10,000 sq. ft of growing space, the garden has created food growing opportunities for 70 families, feeding approximately 200 local residents with fresh seasonal produce. The garden is also surrounded by a “food fence” which includes various perennials including asparagus, raspberries, sunchokes, rhubarb, blueberries, haskaps and strawberries. Many of these perennials have been donated by other community gardens and local organizations.

Gardener Mannie posing next to his garden plot. Photo by Jonathon Barraball, Dilettante Hospitality

Breaking ground in spring 2021, the garden was brought to life with support from the Wellington Catholic District school board, design work done pro-bono by a local landscape architect and funding brought in by the co-op donors.

When designing the garden, accessibility was an important consideration. While the garden covers an area of 20,000 sq.ft, only half that is in production. This made it possible to include wide pathways and important infrastructure like large water tanks, a tool shed, and shade structure. There is also plenty of space for community members and gardeners to gather and connect. Four accessible beds have also been built that are used by community members with mobility challenges. 

Aerial view of the Village Cooperative Garden. Photo by Jonathon Barraball Dilettante Hospitality

The garden is located directly across from dense residential developments in west Guelph, with many low income and newcomers families. The proposed garden in this location was met with overwhelming interest from the community. As a result, garden spots quickly filled up with local residents, many who live in apartments with little to no outdoor space to grow food. 

In addition to providing space to grow food, the co-op supports gardeners by providing seeds, seedlings, tools and other support to ensure gardening is feasible and successful. As Ralf Mesenbrink, a co-op board director, puts it “gardening is a risk and a privilege. Someone living on a fixed income can go out and spend $100 on seeds and plants with no guarantee – or spend that money on food their family needs now. Part of what we do here is to provide resources and support to eliminate that risk and make gardening accessible to everyone.” 

Selam and her sons tending to pepper plants in their garden plot. Photo by Jonathon Barraball Dilettante Hospitality

In this way, the garden brings more than just fresh, healthy food to local residents. It also brings opportunities that might not otherwise be available, addressing inequalities faced by many in the neighbourhood.

“Gardening is a risk and a privilege. Someone living on a fixed income can go out and spend $100 on seeds and plants with no guarantee – or spend that money on food their family needs now. Part of what we do here is to provide resources and support to eliminate that risk and make gardening accessible to everyone.” 

Ralf Mesenbrink, Willow West Community Development Co-op Board Director

Meeting the Gardeners

Arriving just before the school bell rang – we caught up with some gardeners who were stopping by to pick up their kids after school and tend to their plots. Eilyn, and her 12 year old son Julian showed us their immaculately cared for plot with peppers, tomatoes (5 varieties!), bok choi, and beans all supported by elaborate trellises and fences designed and built by Eilyn herself. Eilyn lives nearby and says “if my kids can’t find me – they know I am at the garden.”

Eilyn tending to her garden. Photo by Jonathon Barraball Dilettante Hospitality

We also met Mannie, a retired custodian from a nearby school and Nancy, who currently works as a lunchroom supervisor. They share a plot which is abundant and well cared for. With the hot, dry weather many gardeners were visiting twice a day to keep up with watering. Selam and her sons, also stopped by to say hello, grabbing a few hand tools and watering cans before showing us around their garden plot. 

During our visit, other gardeners came by to check in on their plots, do some watering and harvest a few things for dinner. Many more will stop by later in the evening when the weather cools down. 

To ensure success and make sure that every inch of growing space is well utilized Linda Busuttil, Neighbourhood Development Coordinator for the Co-op, and others work closely with the gardeners. To further support learning, Mike Smith from the Guelph Centre for Urban Organic Farming (GCUOF) at the University of Guelph visits the garden throughout the season to participate in knowledge transfer and mutual learning with the gardeners. 

What’s Next? Building Neighbourhood Community Food Infrastructure and Co-operative Structures 

A supportive co-op board, volunteers and dedicated community gardeners have made the garden a success. “We are providing support and resources now, but we are also working to build capacity and set up the structures to manage the garden co-opertively” says Linda. She also adds “this is really an incubator – for civic engagement, economic and skill development as much as it is for gardening and food growing.”

Gardener’s hands holding radishes. Photo by Jonathon Barraball Dilettante Hospitality

Within the garden there is space intentionally set aside to be used by Indigenous community members. According to Linda, this is something that needs to be done over time with deep and authentic partnerships led by Indigenous residents. 

For the future, there could be opportunities where food produced in the garden can be prepared and processed for winter storage in a community commercial  kitchen. Linda and the West Village Co-op have submitted a funding application to improve nearby kitchen infrastructure and to make this an accessible reality. 

The garden is a wonderful example of the community-driven and transformative work the Co-op does in west Guelph. In recognition of their efforts, the garden was recently awarded a Greener Greenspace Award from the Society for Urban Organic Landcare. The work of the Co-op is focused on advancing a Sustainable Livelihoods framework which addresses social and economic exclusion. Over the years,  Linda and the co-op board have been working to also incorporate the SDGs into the community development work they undertake. They are currently developing a new strategic plan which aligns their work to all 17 SDGs.

To learn more about the garden and find out how you can be involved please contact Linda Busuttil by email linda@westwillowvillage.ca or phone 519-826-9930 (office).

To support the development of the Co-op Garden please go to Canada Helps to make a donation https://www.canadahelps.org/en/charities/the-west-village-community-development-co-operative-ltd/

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