What is Project SOIL?
Project SOIL is a feasibility study that explores the potential of on-site food production at public health care and educational institutions.
Why are we doing this project?
In Ontario, several institutions are already producing food on their properties as a way to generate revenue; supply nutritious fresh food for consumption (by staff, patients, students, etc.); provide therapeutic benefits; and build social enterprises. Based on existing literature, on-site food production can provide a range of benefits to institutions and their clients.
Those benefits can include:
- access to fresh foods
- revenue generation
- skills training
- therapeutic value
- savings to grounds maintenance budget
- aesthetic benefits
- community outreach
Arrangements with local producers, for example ‘renting’ land in exchange for fresh produce, can also contribute to community development, particularly where access to farmland is limited and/or expensive. Our project builds on emerging production models that can flexibly adapt to institutional resources (including SPIn or Small Plot Intensive farming – see example here), as well as land tenure models that could contribute to community food production, health and well-being. If you are interested in learning more, please see our short literature overview and the section on benefits below. You can also check out some useful links to examples from across the province – and beyond.
Who is involved?
Funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and Ontario Ministry of Rural Affairs (through their New Directions Research Program), the project is headed by Dr. Phil Mount (Wilfrid Laurier University / My Sustainable Canada). His team includes community partners at Hôpital Glengarry Memorial Hospital in Alexandria, the Homewood Health Centre in Guelph, the Food School Farm – Centre Wellington District High School in Fergus, KW Habilitation in Waterloo Region, and GreenWerks in Thunder Bay. His research team consists of Irena Knezevic (Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at Laurier), Brendan Wylie-Toal (My Sustainable Canada), Linda Varangu (Canadian Coalition for Green Health Care), Alison Blay-Palmer (Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at Laurier), and Karen Landman (University of Guelph).
What is the project time-frame?
This is a three-year project that was launched in September of 2013.
What does the project entail?
The first phase of this work builds on our literature review and it involves developing case studies that explore existing initiatives. For example, Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital in Thunder Bay donated one acre of land to a social-purpose business, GreenWerks, that now grows food for the hospital, local markets, and food bank. Our other case studies look at School Grown Market Garden at Bendale in Toronto (in collaboration w FoodShare), Ottawa Food Bank, Ontario prison farms, the Ontario Regional Centre, and McGill Feeding McGill.
Informed by the case studies we are currently surveying public institutions to identify capacity to support food production. Later this year we will also be interviewing institutional key informants to understand existing opportunities and constraints. In phase 3, this will be augmented with cost/revenue assessments and in-depth site analyses to explore food production models and cooperative opportunities with existing local food producers, organizations and networks.
At the same time, five pilot projects are being supported to test economic and institutional viability of production models. These pilots will test the therapeutic benefits at gardens on the properties of two health facilities: Hôpital Glengarry Memorial Hospital (which focuses on post acute stroke rehabilitation) and Homewood Health Centre, a leading addiction and mental health treatment facility. Two other projects, one with St. Joseph’s Care Group (Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital, Thunder Bay) and the other with KW Habilitation (Waterloo Region), are focused on skill-building and channelling fresh local produce into institutional food supply. The fifth pilot is taking place at the Food School Farm, in a partnership between the agroecological education program at Centre Wellington District High School and the Wellington Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.
Tell me more about the benefits of on-site food production.
On site food production provides the most direct access to fresh foods. Many institutions are increasingly interested in including healthy, nutritious, local produce in what is offered through their food services. Some of this interest is the result of increasing pressures on institutions to be leaders in better nutrition. Showcasing food production on-site offers direct access to at least some small amounts of fresh produce and it also serves a public relations purpose as it becomes a public, explicit expression of the institution’s dedication to better food.
There are already excellent examples of good revenue generation through on-site food production. For example, Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital’s GreenWerks garden has grown to produce some 2000lbs of produce a year. Additionally, GreenWerks garden is a site of job creation and skill training, which points to long term economic benefits to the communities in which institutions operate. Additional economic benefits are found in the potential grounds-keeping savings. Many institutions are situated on large parcels of land, which results in high grounds maintenance costs. Moving some of that land from lawn to food production can reduce the overall maintenance expenses.
Food gardens and greenhouses on institutional land can also be sites of food and environmental education. Many health and nutrition advocates have been critical of the apparent loss of food knowledge in North America and have been calling for increased hands-on food education. Involving children, youth, and adults in gardening has been repeatedly shown as effective way to encourage food learning but also learning about the environment, seasons, soil, and so on. This is an important positive outcome for any institution, whether or not its primary purpose is to provide educational and skill-training services.
Numerous therapeutic benefits have been attributed to gardens. Having a living green space is always a desirable feature for any institution. Moreover, the act of gardening has been shown to have calming effect, and contribute to individuals’ sense of skill and purpose. Gardens (and greenhouses) also provide unique spaces for social interaction and collaboration.
Green spaces can also result in aesthetic benefits especially where mixed gardens (vegetables and flowers) replace plain lawns.
Finally, all of the above benefits facilitate better relationships with the community. Gardens and greenhouses can offer opportunities for community members to get involved. They can get involved to benefit from the garden (e.g., having access to produce, meeting others, being outdoors, learning about food growing and preserving) or to support the garden (e.g., sharing their gardening and preserving knowledge, mentoring other participants, volunteering to help build a greenhouse). Indirectly, an innovative institution that makes an effort to provide healthier food, save money, provide education and green spaces, and be a leader in improving the local food system is certainly better positioned to garner and maintain community support in all of its work.
Where can I find more information about the benefits of on-site food production?
Our website hosts a brief literature review we prepared in 2013 leading up to this project. We will be adding more information along the way so be sure to check back every now and then. In the meantime, we invite you to also look at some useful links or contact us with questions.