A community agriculture program in the heart of Saskatoon is helping youth close the gap between the (urban) farm to the table.
Each summer, the Askîy Project (Askîy means the Earth in Cree) gives a batch of interns the opportunity to learn how to plant, maintain, harvest and sell food using sustainable techniques.
The project has grown during the last seven years, but it took a big step forward after it acquired a new plot of land at the old Riversdale Lawn Bowling Club site last summer.
The additional land meant the interns could now offer food in a new way.
"This year we decided to try a community shared agriculture model (CSA)," said Terri Lynn Paulson, an urban agriculture co-ordinator with CHEP Good Food — the community organization that runs the askîy internship program.
Previously, interns were limited to growing food in containers on a "brownfield site," meaning seeds couldn't be sowed directly into the ground. Now, they can use an expansive, in-ground plot.
"Because we have this in-ground space, we have irrigation and it makes it a lot easier to grow more food and have more predictable yields."
Through the CSA model, people pay into the program at the beginning of the season, becoming subscribers in exchange for a share of what's harvested.
"Folks sign up at the beginning of the year and become members," Paulson said, noting the model relies on trust. "Our members are saying: 'Yes, we'll support you for the whole season.'"
In turn, Askîy interns supply members with biweekly boxes of seasonal vegetables, fruit, flowers and herbs throughout the summer and fall.
Paulson said CSAs can build relationships and provide a stronger purpose for the people growing the food, because they have to deliver.
"It makes a connection between the people growing your food and the people eating your food, and that's really important to me, and I think it's been really essential to our interns, as well."
The interns include a newsletter with each CSA box, sharing the joys and challenges of urban gardening with the people receiving the food.
"It definitely warms the heart, knowing that I could help out the community and just be a part of this," said Matthew Recollet, an intern with the project.
The program aims to create a more sustainable food economy in the city. In addition to the CSA, they sell food Monday through Friday at an outdoor market and also donate to the free community fridge.
"By supporting the local farmers and a project like this, you're supporting local people," Recollet said.
Recollet is studying education at university, and he wants to use the skills learned through this internship as part of land-based teaching for his future students. Knowing where your food comes from and how it's grown is part of that, he says.
Olaf Olson, another intern, says transforming a mostly empty piece of land into a thriving, full plot with dozens of different plants is inspiring. The cultural teachings, such as understanding how plants typically viewed as weeds can be used as medicine or ingredients, and connections with the land have also been a key experience for Olson.
"It's really important to have that connectedness with the land, and knowing how that food can be grown and how to build sustainability, especially in the middle of the city, right?" he said. "A lot of Indigenous people, like myself — I kind of lose that connection here in the city."
There are five pillars of the internship program:
Enhancing cultural connections — interns learn growing practices from elders and knowledge keepers.
Building social enterprise.
Learning food growing skills.
Promoting environmental sustainability.
Olson is going into his second year of nutrition at the University of Saskatchewan. Like Recollet, he also hopes to carry knowledge from this experience to his future career.
But for now, he and his fellow interns plan to enjoy their final weeks sharing food with the community and tending to the plants.
"It's like a little slice of heaven," Recollet said.