As part of our series Spotlight: Youth Food Leaders and COVID-19, Kaitlin from TYFPC spoke with Cindy from Ryerson University Urban Farm about the organization’s pivots during COVID-19, how they’re maintaining a sense of community during COVID-19 and discussed about what food justice means to her.
You can view the interview below and on our Instagram (@toyouthfoodpolicy), or keep scrolling to read the full interview transcript.
Kaitlin: Cindy is from Ryerson’s Rooftop Urban Farm and I am so honoured to have the privilege of interviewing you today. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself and your role at the Urban Farm.
Cindy: In 2013 we were given the opportunity to see what we could grow and test pilot on the engineering rooftop. So we test piloted a small plot just to see what we could grow and it turns out we could do anything that we wanted! And so in 2014 we converted the whole rooftop into a full scale farm. So now we have two farms, one on the engineering building which is 4 acres and is our original farm and we have a new farm that is across the street on the Daphne Cockwell Complex and that will be a new one and will be growing starting next year. I am now the engagement coordinator so I plan the programs and I work with volunteers and I do work with engaging the community back into the farm. The farm is by the community, for the community so we really want that community aspect. I work a lot with people among the community to work together with Farm.
Kaitlin: Thanks for telling me a little bit about the work you do. It sounds like you have such a vast experience with the Ryerson Urban Farm. That’s such a beautiful place to be – located downtown! Also located in a food swamp. Could you expand on how you feel your organization advances food justice?
Cindy: For sure. So we donate a lot of our food to the Good Food Centre. In terms of our distribution, we had up until this year a 40% harvest share we also sold to the farmers market on campus. We also bring a lot of our food to the Good Food Centre, about ¼ of our food was brought to the Good Food Centre. We want to be a marker of what food could be. Our current industrial system – our system of agriculture – is so disconnected from where we are as individuals. A lot of people don’t know where their food comes from, where their food is grown. I’ve talked to kids on the street who believe their food comes from the grocery store. There’s such a disconnect from where our food is grown to where we buy and eat it. We want to be that place where people can learn and people can learn, grow and connect with their food.
Kaitlin: As program engagement coordinator, I assume that program engagement has been a little bit different during COVID-19. Would you be able to touch on that? How has your operation and engagement been affected by COVID-19?
Cindy: We were really excited at the beginning of the year. We were planning on bringing programming back into the farm because for the past two years we’ve been closed for safety upgrades and infrastructure upgrades. We hadn’t really had volunteers, tours or events at the farm. This year, we were planning on it being an opening year where we would welcome the community back to the farm because the farm itself is for the community. We really wanted to bring back that this farm is for everybody. When COVID-19 hit, we were completely shut down because the university was shut down. We weren’t sure what to do. We had to meet and transition to online office work which wasn’t what we had been doing so it really stopped us in terms of our programming, pieces of our production and growing the food. We were allowed to go back in around the middle of May/end of May and what we would do is go in once a week to do some maintenance, tending to the farm. We needed to maintain the soil and the weeds, and we also had garlic that was growing from last year. We needed to harvest and do little things to maintain the health of the farm. We ended up going in once a week and decided to grow low-maintenance, high-density crops. Things that we could grow and just leave there, [things] that we didn’t need to maintain too too much. We decided to grow the Three Sisters: corns, beans and squash. It was really on the go and on the fly. We were trying to figure out what we could do and what we had the capacity for. Especially ongoing information coming out so quickly, we never really knew where we were going to be at so we had to pivot a lot in that direction. All the food we grew this year we donated to community organizations around the campus and community organizations within Ryerson as well. We donated food to Building Roots in Moss Park and Ryerson Powwow and other organizations as well. In this time where people need food, we wanted to bring it to the community and the community around it.
Kaitlin: You folks still persevere during that time and it’s still amazing [with] everything going on you still managed to grow the Three Sisters. I’m curious why you chose the Three Sisters and maybe you could talk a little about why you chose that.
Cindy: Yeah. We wanted things that were pretty low maintenance and that we wouldn’t have to maintain too much. We planted winter squash initially. It kind of just came together. We planted winter squash and we’d visit once a week to maintain it. Then, we had some corn seeds that were donated to us a couple years ago. It was a white corn variety and we were like “Hey, why don’t we try to grow it?” So we grew that and we were like now we have corn, now we have squash, we should grow beans too. It’s an Indigenous growing practice where they all support each other. It’s kind of like a little ecosystem. The squash lays at the bottom and protects the soil, the corn stalks grow up and the beans grow on the corn. Which is a cool method where they all work symbiotically and together so they can really boost each other up.
Kaitlin: It seems like you folks were able to have a positive experiment during COVID-19. So that’s amazing! Let’s shift to talking about how community has shifted on the farm.
Cindy: The farm itself has always been a social space. It’s a place where people can come and really network and connect with each other. I think that that kind of shifted with COVID-19 because we weren’t allowed to stand within 6ft of each other. It was really hard for us to wrap our heads around not being able to welcome people and volunteers and researchers and even people from different countries who wanted to come in and help, to be a part of the farm as well. It was really hard for us to wrap our heads around that. The sense of community has shifted because we really wanted to have a space where people can come and connect with nature and learn not only from the plants, and not only from us, but from each other as well. It’s such a beautiful educational and social space. It definitely shifted because we weren’t allowed to be there, we weren’t allowed to walk people up. It was all up in the air about what we were allowed to do. It’s such a beautiful space and not being able to have people up there was a really, really sad part. We had so many plans to be a real community space as well. Having open hours for students to eat their lunch or study there. Cinema nights or move nights, or music nights, or yoga and meditation! All of these exciting plans so it was hard for us not to be able to do that this year. We’re hoping that maybe next year. I really want the programs to be built by the community. I really want there to be a real community element to it. Having students really be able to shape the programs and have their input and feedback for what the programs will look like. I hope that next year that will be the case because it was really sad not being able to show people all the real beauty of the farm.
Kaitlin! Yeah! You mentioned bringing folks up to the rooftop farm, were you connecting with folks in different ways?
Cindy: Yeah, definitely. So we did a lot of webinar series and workshop series in lieu of in person workshops. We did a bunch of webinars for Ryerson and then outside of Ryerson. We tried to connect as much as possible on social media, on Instagram. We were trying to do how-to videos and small tips, things like that to [help us] feel connected to people and to the community as much as possible. With COVID-19, everything shifted to the online world and we wanted to maintain that connection and help aspiring growers.
Kaitlin: Last question before we let you go. I’m wondering what does food justice mean to you?
Cindy: Food justice, to me, is a system where food is produced and processed and distributed in a way that’s for the people and by the people. We have a real connection to our food system and just seeing the system as equitable and fair for all. I think that food justice for me is when we’re looking closely at our food system and really seeing that it’s really serving the community and it’s really a part of it – we’re a part of it. Not just us as humans, but the plants and the animals is this whole system of equity and fairness.
Kaitlin: If folks want to get in touch with you, or get more involved with the farm, how would they go about doing so?
Cindy: They can send us an e-mail at email@example.com. Or you can follow us on instagram @ruurbanfarm. Get in touch in either way! If students have research projects they want to do on the farm, we’re really receptive to people who really want to do research. If you’re a Ryeron student, we also have Career Boost opportunities every season. If anyone is super interested in learning, growing, working at the farm, those are opportunities that are available. Hopefully next year we’ll have lots of volunteer opportunities.
Kaitlin: I hope folks get in touch virtually. In the meantime, thank you so much interviewing with us today. TYFPC thanks you!
Cindy: Okay, thank you!