“Having a garden helped our family through COVID. It gave us a focus. We were in the garden every day.”
Like it did to so many others, COVID upended Rikki-Leigh Jacobs’ and her family’s lives. A working mom with three school-aged children, her younger brother, and her partner Billy all staying at home, she found that the family’s food budget was stretched thin and their stress levels were high.
Among many other disruptions, including the fact that her children no longer had access to school meals, Rikki-Leigh’s grocery shopping practices changed. “Since COVID started, we needed to bulk shop (so we didn’t have to go out a lot) and we really wanted to look at ways that we could be more self-sustaining,” Rikki-Leigh said. That’s when the idea of starting a home garden took hold.
Neyaashiinigmiing’s Healthy Living Program, Mino-bimaadiziwin, and its coordinator, Deidre (Dee), supported Rikki-Leigh’s family and many others to start gardens to combat growing levels of food insecurity, boost fruit and vegetable intake, and encourage healthy eating. Through the Healthy Living Program – a school meal and community-wide nutrition education and food sharing program that Canadian Feed The Children has funded since 2013 – families received bags of healthy food and snacks in lieu of school meals, supplementing the meals that were suddenly unavailable when in-person classes were cancelled.
Rikki-Leigh and her daughters were grateful for the food they received during the height of the COVID crisis. “The kids liked seeing the same foods that they are used to having at school coming to their home,” Rikki-Leigh said, becoming emotional speaking about how the COVID closures affected her family and many others.
Despite this support, COVID-related impacts were taking a toll throughout the community. Dee and a small team of volunteers maintained the community garden and also pivoted the Healthy Living Program to establish more family gardens.
EXPONENTIAL GROWTH OF FAMILY GARDENS DURING COVID
For Dee, who founded and has lovingly tended Neyaashiinigmiing’s community garden from the earliest days, she saw a silver lining in the COVID cloud: “It woke a lot of people up to being active participants in their own food security. It really got the community as a whole thinking about taking [some] beginner steps,” Dee said.
Neyaashiinigmiing was not alone. In 2022, CFTC’s Indigenous partner communities supported the creation of 142 new home gardens, a 38% increase in just a single year, and doubled the number of school gardens to 12.
At Neyaashiinigmiing, fully half of the households in the community now have home gardens, Dee reported with pride.
Rikki-Leigh and her family received fabric planter bags, soil, and an assortment of seeds through a garden supply giveaway organized at the local seniors’ centre. They worked with Dee to get some training and tips to get their garden underway.
For families whose land was too rocky or clay-filled to start a garden, Dee introduced them to container gardening using wooden pallets and other materials available at low or no cost in the community.
Although it was the first time she had her own home garden, Rikki-Leigh comes from a long line of green thumbs: “I’ve always been interested in gardening. I used to garden all the time with my grandma and I worked at a garden centre when I was younger.”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Building the garden was also a family affair. “My daughter [Bella, 9] and her dad built the garden. It took them all day and it was really nice to see them working together. They have really bonded over it,” said Rikki-Leigh. “The kids got to pick the seeds and decide where they planted everything. My older daughter really enjoyed it. It helped with some of the anxiety that she was feeling. She found it really relaxing.”
Bella was excited to share what they had planted their first summer. “We have peas, carrots, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and beans! We also have tall sunflowers,” she said, delighted when she learned that she could feed the sunflower seeds to birds. Bella had been part of a birding group at school before the pandemic, learning about local birds and enjoying filling and watching the school’s feeders.
Rikki-Leigh said that having produce from their own garden had changed the family’s eating habits: “The girls really like the sweet peas. I think knowing that they grew them helped [the children] want to try them. We normally don’t eat green and yellow beans but the kids ate them and continue to eat them – so I think growing their own food helped with this change.”
For Dee, this comes as no surprise: “The kids get it. They're sponges. They're our greatest activators and they'll just take whatever they learn and take that into their homes.”
Not only did the garden give Rikki-Leigh and her family new foods to try, but it brought them together around a shared activity during the long lock-down: “Having a garden helped our family through [the first months of] COVID. It gave us a good focus every day because we were in the garden all the time,” Rikki-Leigh said, adding that she took great pleasure and pride in seeing things grow. “It actually shocked me because everything we planted grew!” she said, laughing.
GARDENS AS TEACHING TOOLS
The school’s well-founded school food program includes a school garden which serves as a teaching tool. When students were able to return to the classroom, Dee led a project to re-landscape the school, replacing its decorative gardens with plants and bushes that all serve a useful purpose. Dee, school staff and Grade 7 and 8 students all pitched in to help. “Within a year and a half, we had all the school gardens and grow areas completely transformed into not just an edible [garden], I call it a beneficial garden. Every plant is either good for food, for medicine, or for crafting,” Dee said.
The process was rich with teachings. Dee leaned into existing partnerships with local horticulturists and the species-at-risk team to engage students in learning about what plants work where and for what purposes, what are invasive species, and also about the importance of making sure that the flora and fauna of the area are protected.
Another lesson was about how a lot of hard and unnecessary work can be avoided if the community is involved in the decision-making process from the start: Dee recalls a student who was struggling to dig up one of the invasive, non-native ornamental grasses: "The roots were just intertwined and connected. It was horrible. She said ‘Oh, my goodness, this is so hard.’ And I pointed out that it would have been so much easier if we had been asked what we wanted to have here in the first place.”
The opportunity for her girls to be engaged in these types of learnings is important to Rikki-Leigh: “I think it’s really important to have the Healthy Living Program. I know our family has definitely benefited from it. I love how our culture is incorporated into everything that is done and that my kids get to take that with them as they grow,” she said.