“It’s mind-boggling to think back seven years to what One Tomato looked like when we first started and see what it is today,” says One Tomato’s board chair Darren Hakker.

In 2009, inspired by the Victory Gardens of World War II, Megan O’Neil-Renaud and Darren Hakker began encouraging residents to bring back the concept of home gardening. They asked everyone to plant, grow and eat more vegetables, giving extras to local food banks.

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Supporting the movement, they joined many other volunteers in handing out tomato plants at Sarnia Artwalk and wrote updates on their progress for local media, which enthusiastically supported what they were doing.

“We knew it had to be done,” Darren continues. “This was right after the 2008 recession and the food banks were desperately in need of help. One Tomato’s simple message of planting vegetable plants and giving away extras made an immediate impact.”

Myles Vanni, the Executive Director of the Inn of the Good Shepherd, says that “As a food bank that receives the donated produce, One Tomato has been a tremendous benefit for us. It has created a large volume of food coming in during the summer months which traditionally is a period of slow donations.”

One of the high points of One Tomato’s growth was when it planted a small vegetable garden at the Sarnia Library, free for anyone to visit at any time. That summer, people were complaining that there never seemed to be ripe produce on the plants. It was discovered that homeless individuals, who often slept in the adjacent park, relied on the garden for their daily food intake.

One Tomato knew what it had to do, and pushed forward.

“So, we were encouraging people to give their produce to food banks and we were also starting to build a network of ‘communal’ gardens,” says Darren. “But 2011 really took things to a whole new level.”

In the fall of 2011, One Tomato received funding through the Sarnia Community Foundation to run an in-class elementary school program called Food Works to prepare youth with the basic culinary skills required to make healthy food choices in their homes. The program targets grade seven students and teaches them about food groups, healthy living, food skills and environmental responsibility.

In the following years, through a partnership with Goodwill Industries Essex Kent Lambton Inc., One Tomato accessed funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to propel Food Works to teach 1,000 students every year about the benefits of local food, healthy eating and kitchen skills. Students’ kitchen abilities and food knowledge increased exponentially through the eight-week program, with some students admitting that spinach is “actually good. Really good!”

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Although Megan and Darren both worked and volunteered with a number of charities, playing lead roles in a grassroots not-for-profit organization took a great deal of time and energy. But it was rewarding. Nothing compares with teaching someone how to plant a tomato seedling or seeing the eyes of a student light up when they taste something healthy and delicious or seeing a One Tomato garden benefiting an entire neighbourhood.

Over time, One Tomato has grown to be much more than just a grassroots project. One Tomato Environmental Education Inc. now has a long list of local partnerships, including the Inn of the Good Shepherd, DeGroot’s Nurseries, Sun Life Financial and many more. With their support, One Tomato has been able to ‘grow’ its vegetable garden program, home gardening program and local food program whenever and wherever possible.

In seven short years, with a new mission of ‘growing healthier communities one tomato at a time’, One Tomato has tackled the issue of Lambton County’s health head-on, with a focus on solving the local food problem using a ‘from the ground, up’ approach.

“Every day, a One Tomato volunteer is thinking about how we can continue our quest to grow a healthier community, reducing poverty and securing our food sources, but One Tomato has still only just begun,” says Darren. “With greater collaboration and support, anything is possible.”

For more information visit: www.onetomato.org