Victoria mayor defends council decision to have parks staff grow vegetable seedlings

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps is defending a council decision to have parks staff grow vegetable seedlings for those in need during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Helps said Monday that people have raised concerns that the program will compete directly with local nurseries and plant stores, but she says that’s not the case.

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“The plant starts that the city distributes through the community centre network and the Urban Food Table will go to people who don’t have money right now in their pockets to go to a local nursery and to buy vegetable starts,” she said.

“We want to support our local plant stores, our local nurseries. They are still in business and growing food is really important at this time. So there is no competition.”

City council voted last week to expand Victoria’s Growing in the City program and temporarily reassign some parks staff to grow food plants from seed in the municipal nursery and greenhouses.

Fewer hanging flower baskets will be produced as a result, but the city expects to generate 50,000 to 75,000 plant starts over the next four to six months.

Coun. Geoff Young voted against the motion, brought forward by councillors Ben Isitt and Jeremy Loveday.

Young argued that it was not the time for the city to be embarking on a significant new program that will have minimal impact on the city’s food supply.

“In the long term, I guess the question is, are we going to repurpose our city staff to be farmers,” he said. “And I think the answer is no, for a whole lot of reasons. Our capital equipment, our land availability, our staffing, is all focused on our current ornamental plant objectives and not on producing food.”

Helps, however, said that “extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures” and noted that the city is looking at all the ways it can help residents during the pandemic.

She added that program is in keeping with the city’s history of using its resources to help those in need during difficult periods.

“In the Great Depression, city park staff grew thousands of pounds of potatoes in Beacon Hill Park and donated them to the orphanage and the Old Men’s Home and the Old Women’s Home — that’s what they were called in those days,” she said Monday.

“And then, during the Second World War, city staff through council direction, also participated in the Victory gardening program. So this isn’t new. This isn’t an idea that we came up with on our own.”

Helps said the city realizes that grocery stores are well stocked at present.

“But we also don’t know how long this pandemic is going to go on,” she said. “And so by asking our parks staff to grow plant starts this year for people who aren’t able to purchase them otherwise, it’s one small thing that we can do with our resources to help provide relief to those who need it.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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