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Backyard gardeners tackle hunger and unemployment head-on

The Avian Park Community Garden in Worcester supports soup kitchens, crèches and the elderly

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In Avian Park, a small community just outside of Worcester in the Western Cape, residents are tackling food scarcity and unemployment head on. The community has set up 34 backyard vegetable gardens and six vibrant community gardens, dotted throughout their neighbourhood.

The backyard gardeners joined hands in 2015 after Chris Arendse, a gardener at the local clinic, shared his vision for a community farming club with some of the students at Ukwanda Rural Clinical School.

Today, his vision supports seven soup kitchens, five crèches, a school, and senior citizens who cannot afford to buy food. “I wanted to create a platform where gardeners in the community could get together to share knowledge and receive training,” Arendse says.

To get the project going, Arendse and the students roped in Gerhard Carolus, an agricultural expert, who offered to support the project financially. At their first community meeting, only about ten avid gardeners from Avian Park and neighboring communities joined.

“Our members come from across Worcester, because it’s a poor town and people here need to have productive gardens,” Carolus, now chairperson of the Avian Park Community Garden Club, says.

Sophie Williams trains children in sustainable permaculture.
Sophie Williams trains children in sustainable permaculture.

Five years later the club boasts 46 club members who exchange gardening knowledge and skills by inviting agricultural experts to their meetings.

Avian Park resident and gardener, Sophia Williams, says the garden has helped her financially and she loves growing vegetables. “You must give the crops all your love. it’s just like raising children!” she says.

Williams, along with her colleague Martha Jaftha, earn stipends for growing spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, beetroot, peppers and onions in the main garden. They also manage their own satellite gardens.

Williams grows her produce on a plot next to a local primary school, where she trains learners in sustainable permaculture. She also supplies the school with food to supplement its soup kitchen.

Avian park is a community filled with many hardships and the garden club is known to help its residents during difficult times. A few years ago, heavy gang violence erupted in the area and residents were prevented from moving around freely. The Avian Park Community Garden Club started providing food for school children stuck in their homes.

“I wanted to create a platform where gardeners in the community could get together to share knowledge and receive training,” Arendse says.

According to the club’s secretary, Mia Duvenage, the club is an ideal support system. “The gardeners can talk about the state of their gardens, but are also free to openly share and talk about how they are doing.”

To keep the group of vegetable growers motivated and encouraged, the club runs an annual gardening competition, during which members are given an opportunity to showcase what they’ve learned. There are two categories in the competition – backyard gardens and the bigger garden category. Participants also have the choice of entering as a beginner or an expert.

“Participants have to adhere to specific food gardening practices. They are judged according to whether they follow organic and waterwise gardening practices, make their own compost, harvest their own seeds, and do not use pesticides.”

Prizes for the competition include food parcels, which, says Duvenage, were suggested by the club members who feel that food parcels would serve as a perfect reward. The winners also get certificates.

Martha Jaftha holding her freshly harvested beetroot in one of the vegetable gardens in Avian Park.
Martha Jaftha holding her freshly harvested beetroot in one of the vegetable gardens in Avian Park.

In 2018, one of the students approached Shoprite’s We Act for Change programme about the work they do in collaboration with Food and Trees for Africa (FTFA), and asked for assistance.

Shoprite donated a 5000-litre water tank, installed a well point and a diesel pump. The retailer also provided a fence, gardening tools, planting and educational material as well as ongoing training for the garden club members.

Programme facilitator and trainer, Dominic Doyle, says, “It’s amazing how much knowledge and skill is already in Avian Park. We are just giving it a chance to grow.”

The Avian Park Community Garden Club is hoping that their progress will entice more community members to learn about gardening so that they too can grow fresh vegetables for their own tables.

Duncan Masiwa
Duncan Masiwa
DUNCAN MASIWA is a budding journalist with a passion for telling great agricultural stories. He hails from Macassar, close to Somerset West in the Western Cape, where he first started writing for the Helderberg Gazette community newspaper. Besides making a name for himself as a columnist, he is also an avid poet who has shared stages with artists like Mahalia Buchanan, Charisma Hanekam, Jesse Jordan and Motlatsi Mofatse.
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