Linda Busuttil and Ralf Mesenbrink pictured in co-op garden with Wellington Catholic DSB (WCDSB) director of education Michael Glazier. (Photo courtesy of WCDSB)

Guelph co-op garden grows community

By 
  • June 30, 2022

Since Sabina Strahija started working in the West Willow Village Co-op community garden at St. Peter Catholic School in Guelph, Ont., her eight-year-old son Sebastian has been by her side.

As newbie gardeners, last year Strahija started working their plot, growing fresh produce for her family while building relationship with neighbours working in the garden. 

In the community surrounded by high-rise apartment buildings, gardens are an amenity not equally available to everyone. Rising food costs — over the past year the price of food rose by 9.7 per cent while average hourly wages only rose by about 3.3 per cent, according to Statistics Canada — have had a significant impact on household finances. On the inside of the 600-foot-long fence the team has planted asparagus, raspberries, strawberries and rhubarb to be shared with the gardeners and others in the community once there is a decent harvest.

“He loves it,” said Strahija, a recent immigrant from Croatia and mother of three with two, including Sebastian, currently attending St. Peter’s. “When you see your kid’s face smiling brightly as when he picked his first zucchini and whatever we had grown in the garden, it’s God’s blessing. It can’t be described with words. Honestly it just warms your heart.”

To alleviate some of that pressure, members of the West Willow Village Neighbourhood Group approached the elementary school which happily jumped on the initiative. Director of education in the Wellington Catholic District School Board Michael Glazier immediately saw the benefit the garden could have on the school community. 

“As a Catholic school board there are many natural connections to this type of a project,” said Glazier. “We’ve been working on supporting, learning around Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ ‘on care for our common home.’ We have a healthy, active living program coach who has been involved in the program at various stages and has been helping support some of our students at St. Peter’s in learning more about how food is grown. They’re learning about all the ways in which we have to care for the Earth and the opportunity is there (through the garden) for students to see that firsthand.”

Glazier says the initiative has not only given families greater access to healthy nutritious food but allowed the opportunity to discuss with the students the importance of food security. 

Run by Ralf Mesenbrink, who is the garden volunteer lead, and his wife, Linda Busuttil, general manager, they got approval in late April 2021 to access the land and spent close to eight hours a day to get the garden started. By June, they had plants in the ground with several families accessing the half-acre garden. 

With 70 families currently allocated plots of land, many with children at the Catholic elementary school and parishioners at local St. Joseph’s Parish, the garden produce is directly assisting 200 people in the community. It’s also fostering skill development, food equity and giving people like Strahija a project to bond with her son over. 

Each family is assigned a block depending on their needs, skill set and what they think they can maintain. 

Mesenbrink, a former teacher and administrator in the Waterloo Catholic District School Board, says he watched his parents struggle in their early days after immigrating from Germany. As an educator, or now as a retiree helping lead the garden initiative, he has always had a heart for those struggling in the system. 

“I see poverty in the neighbourhood that a lot of people don’t see,” said Mesenbrink, who enjoys watching families take home bags of produce daily from the garden. “I want to do something to make sure that people have a better life in the future.” 

The West Willow Village neighbourhood is a diverse community in terms of culture and ethnicity and is home to one of the highest immigrant populations. The community’s need for food support was only exasperated by the pandemic. 

Busuttil has been leading the community-building aspect of the initiative. Hailing from a family that immigrated to Canada from Malta, she has a heart for equity. She has been helping to empower members of the co-op through their skill development, confidence building and helping marginalized families to navigate the Canadian system. 

In a survey conducted by the group they found the number one reason residents enjoyed the program, other than food security, was the community which allowed them to get to know people and share skills. It has also given many living on the margins of society a sense of purpose.  

“People tell us, ‘I want to feel valued,’ ” said Busuttil. “‘Just because I’m on social assistance doesn’t mean I don’t have value.’ People such as the gardener who comes over with a walker who has skills and experience and wants to share it. We’re creating a space of value. We have a number of youth who come and feel valued for their contribution in there.”

The goal, says Mesenbrink and Busuttil, is to develop the skills in the community for both the growing of food as well as the care taking, decision making and economic opportunities. Their hope is that in the near future it could become self-sustaining and their contributions obsolete. School administrators along with members of the co-op credit and celebrate the couple’s sacrifice, hard work and dedication to the project that is impacting the school and the wider community for the better. 

“It has been amazing for some of the people here in this community,” Strahija. “It’s honestly a godsend when it comes to meeting a need.”

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