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Mall rooftop garden grows for a good cause

A local mall is extending a helping hand--and use of its rooftop--to help Edmonton’s Food Bank provide fresh produce to those affected by food insecurity.

Part of the Kingsway Mall rooftop is now doing double duty as a container garden. The shopping centre is growing a variety of vegetables including tomatoes, herbs, cucumbers, peppers and eggplants destined to become meals in the surrounding community.

It’s not the first time the mall and the food bank have worked together.

“We've collected for them at the past at our events,” said Kingsway marketing manager Bo Tarasenko. “Like last year at Halloween, we had everyone that came for trick-or-treating, encouraged them to bring items for the food bank … Staff events or any kind of tenant events, we collect for the food bank. We encourage our tenants if they're running events, ‘why don't you put out a box?’”

The mall rooftop isn’t accessible to the public; Its flat expanse is interrupted by monoliths of HVAC and electrical equipment, the machinery that supports the brightly lit, climate-controlled shopping experience of the customers below.

It doesn’t feel like an obvious setting for a garden, and to some extent that’s the point.

Kingsway marketing manager Bo Tarasenko hopes the semi-circle of 30 green plant containers overlooking the downtown and western skyline inspires other businesses to find innovative ways to support the food bank, and entice private gardeners to participate in the Plant, Grow and Share a Row program, no matter what spaces and resources are at their disposal.

“In our neighbourhood the need is really high,” he said. “Between donating everything (from the garden) to the food bank and maybe hoping to inspire some people to do the same thing, it makes sense.”

Food insecurity is a growing problem across the country, exacerbated by post-pandemic inflation and the end of government COVID-19 financial supports.

In its most recent Hunger Report, Food Banks Canada showed a 15 per cent rise in people using food banks across the country in 2022 compared to the previous year, and a 35 per cent increase from 2019. Alberta numbers are even more stark, with a 34 per cent increase from 2021 to 2022, and a 73 per cent increase from 2019 to 2022.

Edmonton’s Food Bank manager of strategic relationships and partnerships Tamisan Bencz-Knight said there are no easy answers.

“Food insecurity will never be solved by handing out food,” Bencz-Knight said. “It’s important: we have to provide food for people, but it is not going to solve it.”

“As government, as business, non-profits, that's where we need to see how can we get to the root of some of these problems? Substance abuse, addictions, houselessness … That's complicated. That's messy. But realistically, those are the hard conversations we need to have … Because that's the only thing that's going to solve it.”

Bencz-Knight cites the food bank’s Beyond Food program as an example of a holistic approach to food insecurity. The job-readiness and supports program offers resources including job-search assistance, resume help, mock interviews--even finding child care or accessible housing. 

The step-by-step approach of the Beyond Food program is mirrored in the Kingsway rooftop garden. The 300 pounds of tomatoes and other vegetables the mall expects to produce, will not in themselves fill the food bank’s needs, but they are an important contribution, and Bencz-Knight and Tarasenko hope it will inspire others to donate: all vegetables are welcome.

“We know root vegetables grow really well here,” she said. “We're talking beets, carrots, turnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes, those kinds of items … they're really good, they have a lot of nutrition in them.”

Another way prospective donors can help is perhaps less fun, but just as meaningful. Bencz-Knight said charitable donations in estate planning offers a chance to leave a legacy.

“You know everyone has their passions in life, but sometimes when they're doing their wills they think that they have to choose,” Bencz-Knight said. “And you don't have to choose.”

She said donors can be creative with their wills through tools like residual donations, fixed amounts, adding the food bank as a third child, or the transfer of securities.

Bencz-Knight said solutions for food insecurity won’t come only from governments, not-for-profits and business. Individuals also play crucial roles.

“Come out to Taste of Edmonton, enjoy some food, make a donation while you're there,” she said. “Go to Heritage Festival, make a donation there … Come in and volunteer and get a tour. Join the team.”

“Because it's not just the food bank, it's all of us.”