Touws River community garden plants seeds of compassion and keeps hunger at bay
Volunteers tackle food insecurity in Touws River by growing vegetables in home and community food gardens. It’s a town where many people are unemployed and struggling to make ends meet.
In the old railway town of Touws River, Western Cape — situated along the N1 about two hours outside Cape Town — residents are tackling food insecurity by creating home and community food gardens.
The initiative, driven by the soup kitchen Compassionate Hearts, aims to equip people with the skills and tools to pursue a more self-sufficient lifestyle.
Volunteers tend a community food garden on the grounds of Touws River’s Steenvliet Primary School, with all produce split equally between the school and the soup kitchen.
Those working on the project are mostly unemployed members of the community who receive support from Compassionate Hearts.
“Most of my time, I spend it here in the garden, and I love this garden because the food we have and can grow is food for the community… I’m just thankful to be here and … I like very much to work with [the gardening team],” said Dirk Noble, one of the volunteers at the school.
Noble, who has lived in Touws River his whole life, is blind. He and his wife, Allison, started working at the food garden in October last year, after being approached while collecting food at Compassionate Hearts’ soup kitchen.
“[There are] many challenges. I learn every day… [I handle working in the garden] like any person. I just want to thank Willem [Nolte] and Compassionate Hearts [for seeing] me as a normal person, not just a person who is blind, because I want to handle myself like a person, just like them,” he said.
“We’d like to grow more and more for the community. I do this to tell people like me [that] you can’t … sit back. I can’t do that. Stand up and do it.”
Nolte, who worked at DeafBlind SA in Worcester before moving to Touws River, is the supervisor of the gardening project at Steenvliet Primary School. He is one of several volunteers who are also growing food gardens at their homes.
“I got the seeds from [Compassionate Hearts] but before that, I bought my own seeds as well… It helps a lot — it’s for our kitchen and house, and for the people next door as well. I also gave them veggies,” he said, adding that the most successful plants have been eggplant and cabbage.
Allison Noble told Daily Maverick that she and her husband were also planting vegetables in their garden at home. She said it had been satisfying for them to work together on the community garden project.
“I love working with the ground and plants… This is my passion,” she said.
“Because we can grow [vegetables] ourselves for the community, they don’t have to go out. In our situation, we don’t even have money to buy food at the shops, so this is amazing. We can produce the food for the school and [soup] kitchen.”
Dire unemployment levels
The Compassionate Hearts soup kitchen was founded during the Covid-19 pandemic — a time of great difficulty for Touws River. The already dire unemployment levels worsened, and many residents struggled to get food. Some estimates put the unemployment rate at above 90% during this period.
Gift of the Givers partnered with Compassionate Hearts in 2020, and continues to provide support for its feeding scheme, said Rashaad Baker, cofounder of the soup kitchen. Although there have been minor improvements in local employment rates since the pandemic, many people still struggle to get work and find opportunities to develop their skills.
“We’re making a difference, but the impact we want to see happening in this town is that families can start supporting themselves.
“That’s why we have partnered … with the Department of Agriculture, where we support households now with starting their own food gardens so that they can become self-sustainable,” Baker explained.
“We have assisted 284 households … with starter packs — they get the equipment, they get the seeds, they get the compost, everything. And we have a 60% success rate on that.”
The Department of Agriculture has helped by providing starter packs, as well as recently approving R108,000 in funding for the garden at Steenvliet Primary, he continued.
“The funding is for the irrigation system which we need to install [and] for the pump that comes with the irrigation system… Then there’s also more equipment and clothing for our workers there — shoes, gumboots, gloves,” he said.
Cornelius van der Merwe, a 73-year-old volunteer at the community garden, has been involved in the project since it started just over a year ago. He told Daily Maverick a lot of work needed to be done before any planting happened, including the removal of stones and bushes.
“I did it because it’s for the community… We’re hoping to go further with the garden, and we’ll come right… It’s hard work, but we will win,” he said.
The project has faced challenges. In December 2022, heavy rains in Touws River caused flooding that wiped out much of the volunteers’ progress.
“In January  we had to restart everything again, but … we learnt in the process. It’s trial and error,” Baker said.
“So you can see your beds were too low, now you must bring [them] up higher so that if you have floods again or too much rain, then it won’t flood your stuff. And for this winter it worked.”
Across the board, volunteers at the community garden reported satisfaction at being able to contribute to supporting the community through Compassionate Hearts’ soup kitchen.
Baker emphasised that the nonprofit’s policy was never to turn away a person in need.
“Most people who come to eat here, they don’t have a second meal for the day or they don’t know where their next meal is going to come from,” he said.
“It takes a lot to come and stand in that queue, and we feed indiscriminately. We don’t ask questions. We don’t judge people.” DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.