Building community food security in the middle of Vancouver

The backyard of a home cultivated by City Beet Farms in Vancouver.

Building community food security in the middle of Vancouver

If you could take a walk through the now-empty streets of Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant and Riley Park neighbourhoods, you would be surprised to see that front lawns aren’t only growing grass: they’re growing enough produce to feed families. Every year, front and back yards in these neighbourhoods are tended to by City Beet Farm – a  multi-site urban farm using sustainable, regenerative agriculture practices to grow food and challenge the way space is used in the city.

Katherine Couch Burroughs, a homeowner in the neighborhood, has lived in the area for almost nine years with her husband and three kids. About four years ago, she was looking for alternatives to the grass on her lawn - “We have a backyard and a front yard and getting the grass cut was really a drag, to be honest!” she says.

At the same time, one of her daughters in elementary school was learning about the decline in bee populations and the impacts it would have on the environment

“I kind of thought, what could we do? What I envisioned was more flowers around our yard, but my husband and I work full-time and we’re both small business owners, so we just didn’t have the time to put into a garden.”

When she came across a poster for City Beet Farm, it offered an alternative to her grass lawns. It was also run by two young women - Madelaine Clerk and Elana Evans, who have owned and operated City Beet Farm since 2016. “That really struck a chord because I’m a woman in business and I wanted to support two young women in business.” Couch Burroughs says.

The co-owners of City Beet Farm in front of an autumn CSA pickup - Madelaine Clerk, left, and Elana Evans, right.

Elana Evans

Couch Burroughs met with Evans four years ago - and her property now is one of 15 sites across Vancouver  by City Beet Farm. The homeowners allow City Beet Farm to cultivate their property in exchange for a weekly harvest of produce. 

These 15 sites support not only homeowners and their families with fruits and vegetables, but a total of 81 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members who pay in advance of the growing season. From June to October, these members can then pick up a weekly harvest of produce, market-style, and connect directly with the farmers of City Beet Farm.

Clerk, bottom right, pictured with CSA members picking up produce. 

Elana Evans

Beyond Vancouver, cities are turning to urban agriculture to support their populations. In Cleveland, former food deserts which have disproportionately affected African-Americans have become urban farms, growing a sense of community and economic opportunity. In Singapore - a densely populated country which imports nearly 90% of its food - community gardens are found across housing estates, schools, and national parks.

Couch Burroughs is now entering into her fourth year of partnership with City Beet Farms. Over the years, City Beet Farm has grown pumpkin, squash, tomatoes, sweet peas, and beans in her backyard, as well as some herbs in the front. “One year, they did an amazing tomato plant – we had almost 175 tomato plants in our backyard. They put up this scaffolding… One of my work colleagues popped over and he couldn’t get over it: ‘This is crazy, this is so cool!’

Tomato scaffolding installed by City Beet Farm.

Elana Evans

Couch Burroughs, like many CSA members, has been able to fulfill nearly all of her family’s produce needs through her weekly CSA pickups. City Beet Farms’ hyper-local model offers a sustainable alternative to the symptoms of a changing climate which threatens global food production across the world. Urban farming not only allows for community food security, but reduces the greenhouse gas emissions and potential food waste associated with the worldwide transport of fresh produce.  

The demand for City Beet Farm has particularly surged amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Inevitably, the demand for produce cannot be met entirely by urban farms alone. City Beet Farm, which only operates in full production from June to October, acknowledges the limitations of their practice. “We still need rural farms, we still need small-scale, regenerative, local farmers to supply our city.” Clerk says. “But I think something that’s really unique about what we’re doing is the ability to connect the community with how food is grown… and rethinking the use of space in our city.”

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