Skip to content

Efficacy of Community Gardens as a Tool to Enhance Food Security

I Introduction
II At a Glance: Background and Efficacy of Community Gardens
III Community Gardens and First Nations
IV Benefits of Community Gardens
V Challenges of Community Gardens
VI Conclusion

Submitted by Sara Awija

I Introduction

Approximately 1 in 10 Canadian households have experienced food insecurity. Food insecurity leaves those Canadians nutritionally compromised, and with poorer physical, mental, and social health. Lack of access to nutritional foods in low-income communities leads to poor diets which are high in calories but inadequate in nutrients. Obesity and food insecurity concerns overlap as they disproportionately affect low-income minority households and communities. In addition to a low income, there are other factors that constrain food purchasing which contribute to household food insecurity. [1]

Community gardens may be an important strategy to improve community nutrition, increase leisure time physical activity and strengthen neighbourhoods. Present and past research has demonstrated that gardens have potential to yield fresh food and increase physical activity, as well as bring the community together. [2, 3]

Many cities have the resources to expand and develop community garden programs. Three major cities that have developed community gardens are Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. [4, 5]

This article outlines the potential community gardening has as a tool to enhance food security and health efforts within low-income and First Nations communities.

II At a Glance: Background and Efficacy of Community Gardens

According to national surveys, severe food insecurity is associated with similar risk factors including declining income, reliance on social assistance, and living in a single parent household. However, the criticism has been made that the long-term goal of creating local food systems such as community gardens could distract from the short-term and larger goal of addressing food security overall in low-income communities. [2, 4, 5]

An objective of community gardens is to help address issues of food security for low-income neighbourhoods. This is to be accomplished by providing an opportunity for people to grow their own food, thereby increasing access to affordable nutritious food. [5]

Generally speaking, however, existing community garden programs have struggled to ensure high enough rates of participation to have significant effects on overall rates of food insecurity.

Studies of community gardens have also raised questions about their capacity to address issues of food insecurity due to factors such as limited scope and inability to address the food needs of those living in severe poverty. Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto still have a significant percentage of their populations living under the poverty line. It was also found that other strategies were common such as delaying paying bills or rent and terminating telephone and other services, and using this money to buy food. [4, 5]

Overall, while community gardens appear to be a promising practice that might contribute to alleviating food insecurity, they should probably be combined with a variety of other measures in order to address food insecurity in a comprehensive manner. Of particular importance are policy reforms leading to the alleviation of overall poverty in order to ensure that low-income households have adequate resources for food. There is also a need to examine how community garden programs are structured to ensure they provide the maximum benefit to the most vulnerable members of the community.

III Community Gardens and First Nations

First Nations are highly affected by chronic disease and poverty. [6] Surveys conducted in these communities demonstrate that not enough families are eating the daily recommended number of servings of fruit and vegetables. In fact their consumption is significantly lower than the rest of the population. [9] First Nations face other dietary challenges such as higher rates of poverty and levels of fast food consumed. Fast food restaurants are often much closer than grocery stores, with grocery stores being 5–10 km away. Approximately 44% of First Nations need to drive 20 km or more to get to a store.

The people in First Nations communities face a variety of barriers including high cost of food relative to income; easy access to fast food options; capacity constraints at the community level to work toward reducing food insecurity; lack of skills required to make healthy food choices, cook, gather and harvest, garden, and store and preserve foods; limited access to grocery stores; poor quality of foods in community stores; and lack of input as to the kinds of foods that are readily available/accessible. To address some of these challenges, First Nations communities have requested the establishment of additional and more accessible community gardens. They have also identified the need for programs that focus on family nutrition and cooking, and increase local knowledge about growing, harvesting and using traditional foods.

Community gardens are well aligned with First Nations’ traditional values and are welcomed by communities. In the last five years, approximately 40 communities were awarded grants through the Aboriginal Agriculture Initiative in order to develop community gardens, and buy the necessary tools, bedding, plants and seeds.

The funded communities demonstrated great success in terms of improvements in community wellness. Healthy lifestyles were promoted through increased consumption of fresh, local produce, and in addition the gardens were a source of great pride. There were also improvements in the local economy as the excess produce was sold for extra income. Other benefits were also experienced including environmental improvements, better overall health, and decreased crime.

The important role that agriculture plays within traditional customs contributed to the high success rate of community gardens within the funded communities as did the adequate level of funding for the land, education programs, and tools needed to be successful.

IV Benefits of Community Gardens

Crime. Vacant lots draw illegal dumping, drug dealing, and other criminal activities. Community gardens can turn vacant lots into a resource that benefits the community. It has been demonstrated that neighbourhoods near community gardens across the country experience a decrease in the amount of criminal activity as increased social activity provides “eyes on the street.” [4, 5]

Environmental. By growing food locally, the use of fossil fuel-based pesticides and fertilizers, as well as long-distance transportation, packaging and refrigeration are decreased. Pollution, such as carbon dioxide emissions, is also decreased. Community gardens also provide inexpensive water filtration environments and control storm-water runoff by using rainwater as a resource for growing food; gardens absorb approximately 15% more rainwater than lawns or vacant land. [7]

Economy. For low-income families and communities, these gardens can be very cost effective. For example, gardens produced more than $2.1 million worth of produce that have helped provide healthy, nutritious foods to every neighbourhood in one city. It has been estimated that for every dollar invested in community gardens, six dollars of vegetables are produced. Therefore, families could save up to $700 annually with the food they grow in their gardens per family. Eighty percent of the cost associated with community gardens is in the labour that the gardeners already provide. Community gardens tend to increase values of surrounding property, and have a substantial impact on land values in the poorest neighbourhoods. [1]

Health. People who suffer from food insecurity have a higher risk of diabetes, stroke, asthma, obesity, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic health issues. [2] Low-income women are especially vulnerable to food insecurity, and are also 50 percent more likely to become obese than women of higher-income. Factors that lead to purchasing unhealthy foods include high cost of healthy food, travel time to stores and poor quality of products available. Community gardens offer fresh fruits and vegetables that are flavourful and less expensive. Studies have found that those who participate in community gardens have higher intakes of vegetables than those that don’t participate. Canada’s Physical Activity Guide recommends that adults get 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity per week, accumulated in bouts of 10 minutes or more. One hour of gardening results in all three identified areas being achieved: strength with lifting bales, endurance from raking and digging, and flexibility through weeding. In one study, gardeners reported sharing recipes, tips for growing vegetables, and exchanging healthy foods at garden events. [7] This suggests the potential for this set of social behaviours to impact health within and beyond the garden neighbourhood.[2, 6]

V Challenges of Community Gardens

Start-up costs. Families with food insecurity have limited incomes. Therefore, they face challenges with costs that include water, tools and equipment, seeds, renting land if necessary, and site management and maintenance. At times, government agencies can provide grant money to assist those families with garden-related costs. Often business communities will donate seeds and tools. Sometimes communities are allowed to use hydrants to water the gardens. [4, 5]

Skills and knowledge. Many community members who want to be a part of the community garden do not have the knowledge and skills to do so. Knowledge such as planting the right type of plant at the right time and properly spacing plants has an important impact on garden yields. This is especially important because most community gardens are on small plots of land and meaningful yields are required. Most community garden programs do provide non-profit horticulture projects, public education and demonstrative help. However, knowledge of the availability of these programs is low and governments need to promote them to increase awareness. [4, 5]

Undesirable vacant lots. Sometimes, vacant lots are not immediately suitable for community gardens. These areas can be unsafe, contaminated, pose health risks for residents, and promote a sense of hopelessness within a community. Soil contamination can negatively affect gardens and the type and degree of contamination can differ. There is a danger to human health if community gardens are growing produce on land that is potentially contaminated with heavy metals such as lead. Therefore, soil must be tested in areas identified for potential community gardens. Often, grant programs exist for this purpose and help to reduce or eliminate costs. [4, 5]

Land tenure. Most participants do not own the land they use and at times they can be exposed to unexpected changes in the availability of their plots for gardening. In addition to being discouraging, this can result in a struggle to find reliable land, and leave community members emotionally worn out. While some cities have a large amount of available land, in general, securing land can be a difficult task. In some cases, land trusts can be used to help purchase lands that ensure a community garden’s longevity. If land cannot be purchased, community garden projects are generally encouraged to try to obtain three- to five-year leases to guarantee some security for participants. [4, 5]

Distance. Often, community gardens are located in urban areas, leaving low-income families living outside of the center of the city with poor access. Travelling long distances is time consuming and inconvenient, or may not even be possible. [4, 8]

Seasonal. Gardening is seasonal. This means that other year-round programs to help with nutritious food intake are probably necessary to complement community gardens. For example, some local governments and nonprofits have increased access to affordable nutritious foods by collaborating with private businesses to provide supermarkets in low-income neighbourhoods. [4]

In order to overcome challenges, local governments, the community at large, non-profit/community development corporations and outreach offices need to work together. As well, community gardens cannot solve food insecurity alone.

VI Conclusion

Community gardens have demonstrated promise in terms of improving community nutrition, increasing leisure time physical activity, providing environmental and economic benefits and strengthening neighbourhoods. First Nations communities that have received funding to develop community gardens along with additional resources (such as skill development in the areas of making healthy food choices, cooking, gathering, harvesting, gardening, and storing and preserving) have enjoyed considerable success.

Across Canada, overall rates of participation in existing programs have been lower than desirable. As well, studies indicate that community gardens’ might have limited scope in terms of their capacity to address issues of food insecurity of those living in severe poverty. So far, community gardens have reached a relatively small proportion of those in need.

Therefore, there is an increased need for an examination of these programs to ensure that they are structured to provide the maximum benefit possible to the most vulnerable members of the community. In order to overcome the challenges associated with community gardens, local governments, the community at large, non-profit/community development corporations and outreach offices need to work together.

On a positive note, the First Nations communities that have received funding to develop more community gardens with the necessary resources, including skill development in the areas of making healthy food choices, cooking, gathering, harvesting, gardening, and storing and preserving, have had great success.


This paper was prepared through an internship at the Heart and Stroke Foundation in fulfillment of the Dietetics and Human Nutrition undergraduate program at McGill University.


  1. Anderson, M. (2008). Making Healthy Food More Accessible for Low-Income People. Farm and Food Policy Project, Fall. September 28, 2011, from Food%20More%20Accessible%20for%20Low-Income%20People.pdf.
  2. Cohen, L., et al. (2004). Cultivating Common Ground: Linking Health and Sustainable Agriculture. Oakland, CA:Prevention Institute.
  3. Dorn, Sheri. August, 1996. Gardening Really is Good Exercise. Virginia Cooperative Extension. Retrieved September 27, 2011. From
  4. City of Toronto, Public Health: Food Policy Council. (n.d.). (2009) Retrieved September 28, 2011, from
  5. Cosgrove, S. (1998). Community Gardening in Major Canadian Cities: Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver Compared. City Farmer. Retrieved September 29, 2011, from
  6. Vancouver Coastal Health. (2008). Aboriginal Health and Wellness Plan. Aboriginal Health: Strategic Initiatives. Retrieved on October 1, 2011 from
  7. Comis, Don. (2000). Phytoremediation: Using Plants To Clean Up Soils. Retrieved September 29, 2011
  8. A Study of Access to Nutritious and Affordable Foods. (1998). US Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services, April. Retrieved September 27, 2011, from
  9. Sharma, S., et al. (2007). Dietary Intake and Development of a Quantitative Food-Frequency Questionnaire for a Lifestyle Intervention to Reduce the Risk of Chronic Diseases in Canadian First Nations in North-Western Ontario. Public Health Nutrition; 11 (8): 831-840.

Related Resources

City of Toronto – Community Gardens:

Community Garden Listings in

Toronto Community Garden Network – Encourages a healthy community gardening movement in the City of Toronto, supporting and linking community gardeners:

Community Garden Listings in

City of Vancouver – Community

Community Garden Listings in Vancouver:

Community Garden

Ontario Horticultural Association Website includes for information and events

Seedy Saturdays and Sundays – An event for seed exchange and donations.

Ontario Horticultural District 9 Convention 2012 – “Gardening Then and Now” a convention to display horticultural heritage and encourage gardening excellence