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Harrison Ford is one of several celebrities helping to promote the Million Gardens Movement campaign

The local financier has teamed up with U.S. entrepreneur Kimbal Musk to launch an ambitious campaign that gives low-income Americans and Canadians their own home vegetable gardens

Frank Giustra knows a thing or two about gardening.

“I grew up as a son of immigrant Italian parents who came to Canada with not a lot of money and who had a very large garden,” recalls the Vancouver-based financier, entrepreneur and philanthropist, noting that food plays a key role in all aspects of his life. “We grew up with a cornucopia of vegetables in a one-acre plot. I can tell you for a fact, not only was the food good and nutritious, but it really did go a long way to supplement our food budget. We had lots left over to give to our neighbours, too.”

Given that upbringing, it’s only natural that the president and CEO of private equity firm Fiore Group would throw his weight behind the Million Gardens Movement, a new campaign that aims to get low-income people all over North America growing food for themselves. The initiative officially launched on March 20, the spring equinox, which it dubbed Plant a Seed Day.

With help and encouragement from a high-profile partner by the name of Musk, Giustra has big plans. “It’s our ambition to have one million gardens planted this year in North America,” he says. “We’re going to run a very public campaign.” To that end, Harrison Ford and Salma Hayek are among the celebrities who have lent their images and voices to promote the movement.

Giustra, whose business successes include founding film and TV powerhouse Lionsgate Entertainment Corp., isn’t kidding about his passion for food. Besides having launched his own olive oil brand, he’s the publisher of food magazine Modern Farmer. Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, he’s invested tens of millions of dollars in a farmer services network whose goal is to alleviate poverty at scale, he says.

He’s also watched with alarm as fast-food culture has taken hold and people have lost a connection to what they eat. “It’s been part of a 7,000-year history of us as human beings growing our own food, and just in the last few generations, we have no attachment to it.”

But when the world went into pandemic lockdown last spring, the Modern Farmer team spotted a hopeful trend—“an unprecedented spike in people looking for gardening tips, especially novices,” Giustra says. “That gave us the idea that there was something going on.”

While some were discovering—or rediscovering—the pleasures and benefits of gardening, others were lining up at food banks. “Then we found out that one in four Americans during the COVID shutdown either skipped a meal a day or had to rely on some government food program,” Giustra says. As people looked to fill their bellies, “gardening fit that bill, too.”

When a team member hatched the idea for a campaign modelled after the victory gardens that were popular during the world wars, Giustra didn’t hesitate. “I thought, Let’s create this Million Gardens Movement as a means of allowing people to supplement their own food budgets to create a healthier lifestyle, and to be an act of resilience during these very, very difficult times.”

Credit: Paul Joseph

“We’re going to show people how they can grow their own vegetables in very little space,” says Frank Giustra

Let’s make this a real culture change

The idea gained traction when Giustra met Kimbal Musk, younger brother of Tesla founder Elon Musk, during a visit to New York about a year and a half ago. Food entrepreneur Musk is founder of nonprofit Big Green, whose efforts include building outdoor learning gardens with more than 200 low-income schools in the U.S.

“We hit it off because we have a very similar view of the world, a very similar view of food, a very similar view of giving back,” Giustra says.

Like his brother, Musk doesn’t think small. “When he bought into the Million Gardens concept, it was him that suggested that we go a lot bigger than I had planned,” Giustra remembers. “I loved the idea that he thought, Let’s make this a real culture change so that we change the entire culture around growing food,” he adds. “It was music to my ears, and here we are.”

Modern Farmer and Big Green joined forces to run the campaign, whose animating idea is to give people in low-income communities gardening kits so they can start growing their own vegetables. “Anyone that hasn’t gardened before is a little bit intimidated by it,” Giustra says. “We’re going to take that whole intimidation part out of it and show how easy it is to garden.”

To kick things off, the partners are giving away 5,000 Little Green Gardens—grow bags filled with soil and seedlings—to families in several U.S. cities. In Chicago, they’re working with the Food Depository to distribute these starter garden kits along with 20,000 pounds of natural and organic food. “The idea is that we continue to give communities at need gardens with food drives,” says Courtney Walsh, Musk’s publicist. “So people go and pick up food, and they can pick up gardens as well.”

Designed for newbie gardeners, the kits will fit just about anywhere—on a windowsill, a fire escape or a balcony. “We’re going to show people how they can grow their own vegetables in very little space,” says Giustra, who is calling for donations to pay for the kits so they can be shipped throughout the U.S. and Canada.

The starter gardens are meant to be an entry point to get people into gardening, Walsh says: “We see them as an empowering motive to get their hands dirty.” The Million Gardens Movement also provides plenty of how-to information on its website, she adds. “We’re going to be refining the system, but it’s meant to also be weather-specific.”

The initiative will make a difference in low-income areas known as food deserts, Giustra reckons. “There is no ability for people in those communities to access nutritious food,” he says. “It just doesn’t exist. And so this is going to be a great benefit.”

The economic argument is compelling, too. On average, it costs about $70 to create a home vegetable garden, Giustra says. But the average garden yields about US$700 worth of produce a year, according to a 2014 research paper. “That’s a great ROI,” Giustra observes. “If you add all of the other benefits, the ROI goes through the roof.”

Credit: Courtesy of Million Gardens Movement

The campaign is distributing starter gardens with soil and seedlings

A very long and growing campaign

So what can businesses do to help?

The Million Garden Movement is just getting started, Giustra stresses. “This is going to be a very long and growing campaign, if we have anything to do with it,” he says. “There’s definitely a role for corporate America and corporate Canada to get involved.” To that end, the campaign is crafting a business outreach program that will involve corporate sponsorships.

Giustra also intends to make B.C. part of the movement. “Once we can start travelling back and forth here, I plan on setting up a Big Green distribution system.”

As Giustra points out, his local philanthropic efforts include working with the Greater Vancouver Food Bank and creating the Streetohome Foundation, which provides supportive housing to people experiencing homelessness. When the pandemic lockdown started last spring, he donated to struggling caterers so they could stay operating and deliver food to seniors, and teamed up with Vancouver Food Runners to build distribution.

“We have a system, so I want to implement this in British Columbia,” Giustra says of the Million Gardens Movement. “I think we’re going to do it on a pretty large scale here.”

To give a garden to a family in need or to learn how to start your own, click here.