Garden box program in Cornwall helps food bank users become self sufficient, lowers grocery bills

A new initiative from the Agape Centre in Cornwall has gotten so big that high school students have been recruited to help with the project.

At a recent board meeting, a garden box idea was tossed out to provide sustainable food boxes for users of the food bank and soup kitchen.

"It's to give people the opportunity for healthy choices, to be self-sufficient and the ultimate goal is to lower grocery expenses," said Agape Centre executive director Lisa Duprau.

"Garden boxes seem to be pretty popular lately for people with limited space, so it was an idea that was low cost and hoping that we could serve a greater number of people," Duprau added.

The city of Cornwall jumped in to provide used pallets and soil for the initiative and Cornerstone Organics in Long Sault are providing seeds and plants.

Initially 50 boxes would be made, but that number soon grew to 175 people wanting the garden boxes.

The pallets quickly dried up, and Duprau posted about it on Facebook.

"Just mentioned it casually and it completely blew up. We were inundated from offers from the community saying, 'Hey, we have so many come and pick them up,' and now we are thanking people just for the offer and keeping a list of who has pallets available if we run out," Duprau said.

She then reached out to a local high school in Avonmore for help constructing the boxes.

"In the beginning, when we were aiming for 50, we had a few volunteers lined up who could throw together 50 boxes but when it ballooned we approached Tagwi Secondary School and they have a nice wood shop set up there, so they volunteered to make the boxes for us," Duprau said.

Tagwi wood shop teacher Jamie Poulin said the project was exactly what the class needed.

"In a normal school year, we have literally 30, 40 projects from the community that come in. They call us, ask us to build this, build that but since COVID nobody has really been calling us to ask us to do anything because the cost of lumber and just with COVID we can't have anybody in to the school," said Poulin.

"So this was perfect for us because now we have something to do."

While the Grades 9 to 12 students are particularly happy at the hard work of pulling used pallets apart, knowing their work is creating something useful is key.

"Putting something together at the end and saying, 'Jeez that came from a pallet to an actual garden box.' You know something that they can see the connection and see that we are not throwing all this wood into the dump," Poulin said.

Grade 11 student Amaris Edwards and Grade 12 student Brenden Bilmer say the work isn't that hard.

"They are fairly easy. They were a very great project. I thought it was awesome that we can all work together and have fun," said Edwards.

"It was an enjoyable chance, we got to do something good for the community so it was great to have some work to do," added Bilmer.

"I think we need them in the world and it's a great thing to get involved with," Bilmer said, noting other garden boxes can be expensive.

"We're trying to make them 2 feet by 4 feet," said Poulin. "But some of them are turning out to be two-by-two, some are two-by-three. It's dependent on what we can get out of the lumber."

"You've been to the grocery store, you can see the prices of vegetables these days and it's just so much easier, so much more fresher pulling it out of your own garden than buying it at the store," Poulin added.

In Long Sault, Jaime MacRae from Cornerstone Organics says seedlings and seeds will come with the boxes

"Carrots, peas, beans, beets," MacRae said. "For plants, It's going to be tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, things like that like a little bit of everything that people can mix and match what they want in their garden."

"I think it's so exciting that people are wanting to grow their own food right now. It's really awesome and fun to be able to harvest and eat your own food, so I'm not surprised that so many people are interested in it. It's a good movement." MacRae added.

"We really don't want to just hand out plants, we want to make sure that people know that we are here to help them grow and be successful with their gardening through the season," MacRae said.

Duprau says so many people have contacted her for a box, a plan is being put together already for 2022.

"We did have people from the community calling in and asking for a box that weren't receiving services here. So because it was so positive, I would like to next year open it up to the community and make it a fundraiser," Duprau said.

"It's just become such a positive, it's a feel good thing for us to do and everyone is so excited about it."

 The boxes will be delivered in mid-May, just in time for planting season.