It seemed somewhat fortuitous that the only vehicle to offer us a ride when we hitch hiked across the border from Jackman, Maine (US) into Quebec, Canada was a strawberry delivery truck, ripe with berries and stories for us to mull over. Here I am exploring food systems in North American cities and it seems that without even trying I stumble across an aspect of it on a daily basis. From Dan the strawberry truck driver, to a chance meeting with a friend of a friend who runs blueberry operations for Dole, to being given a full selection of granola from the head of Nature’s Path, to a friend who volunteers in Vancouver’s city gardens, another whom sits on the Central Okanagan Food Policy Council – the past month in Canada has been fully packed with foody goodness on a daily basis.
When we are not eating tasty local healthy food we certainly are stumbling across it and talking about it! My partner and I are traveling North America, dubbing it the Good Food Good People tour, packing in great catch ups with friends and family with hearty foody explorations as we go. My first reflection is that not only is it harvest time with the fruits and veges ripe for picking across the country – the time is also ripe for city region food systems. It can’t be just a coincidence that everyone I bump into and stay with is either actively involved in this topic or knows someone who is… or can it?! Toronto, Vancouver and Kelowna have offered amazing examples on small and large scales of city region food systems. The reflections of this journey I will be sharing at the end of this week at the Explorer’s Club symposium on Salt Spring Island, in BC Canada. In the following three mini blogs I run through the best of the food system in those main cities. Next week we head south into the USA, biking from Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula down towards Santa Cruz, California. I’ll be continuing to check out food systems and see what the West Coast of the US has to offer.
Toronto – great social projects and reuse of derelict spaces for community enhancement
I spent a week in Toronto, Canada, on the shores of Lake Ontario and right in the heart of the Greater Horse shoe area, an agriculturally rich and diverse part of Canada. Toronto is a leading example of city-region food system and home of the Toronto Food Policy Council, which has been running for over 20 years. With that backdrop coupled with my interest in food, the first site I saw in Toronto was not quite as exciting as what I expected – the inside of the municipality’s Metro Hall, sitting through a three hour meeting of Toronto Urban Growers (not the usual port of call sight seeing as a tourist in the city, but anyway…as you do). This was a great insight to the work the city is doing.
On the agenda was the discussion of the Report on Scaling up Urban Agriculture in Toronto, one step along from the Grow TO report, which had resulted in actions on growing food for the city. The next step is for the Council committee to hear the report in September and so the purpose of the meeting I was privy to was to bring stakeholders together to discuss and offer feedback.
What was remarkable for me was the sheer number of actors present, from within and outside of, the municipality from gardeners to university professors and students, along with the Toronto Food Policy Council (run through city public health programs) city representatives from the Parks, Environmental Services, and Economic Development departments were present, illustrating the diversity of city sectors that need to be involved in planning for food systems, particularly urban growing.
Everyday gardeners asked grounding questions like –
“How can we navigate the maze of city departments and organisations when we are trying to start a city garden?”
“How can you link the city growers with land in the city?”
“Can there be incentives, like Feed In Tariffs?” (I wondered if the pun was intended…)
My impression of Toronto being a proactive and engaged city with lots of stakeholders on board to help make changes in the food system was further enhanced when I left the meeting room and started to explore the city.
We took a Saturday morning bike ride out to the Evergreen Brick Works, a site in the Don Valley that once was home to industrial sites with polluted soil and surrounding areas. This is now being regenerated into a hive of food system activity. Farmers Markets humming with produce as its peak season, local chefs cooking up a storm of good healthy food, a wetland area out the back for people to explore, a children’s environmental playground and garden to play in and make, the old brick works inside now a cool space to display art and hold functions, current exhibition being how to develop cities into the future, and it even becomes an ice skating rink in winter. What a site!
I was fortunate enough to be given a tour of the city by Lauren Baker of the TFPC to see some of the inspiring projects that are run in the community. The Stop community food centre is a great example I want to share. We went to The Stop’s Green Barn at Wychwood Barns Park, a site that was formally the street car storage facility. Revamped by the same architect as the Brick Works, this is another great example of a formally industrial site being revamped as a community hub, with playgrounds, art live in spaces, community rooms, a community kitchen and many more interactive spaces for people to use. Initial local opposition to the project has faded given that house prices have soared for surrounding residents. It hosts a weekly farmer’s market and also events in the large spaces indoors. What is great about The Stop is that not only do they have educational events at the site they also have a greenhouse growing produce on site and numerous cultural gardens around the area. In other areas The Stop runs satellite community gardens that we went and visited, bringing people together in low income areas to create better food systems. The garden was humming with people weeding and harvesting – August is such a great time to visit! And great to see such community diversity and outreach.
The second program we visited was the Food Share, which creates food boxes for low income families and provides a canteen with healthy food for students, whilst also offering catering courses and education. Again, the site has gardens growing the food and also regional farmers supplying the fruits and vegetables to the vege boxes that are then delivered around the city, reaching 155,000 children and adults across Toronto every week.
Vancouver – providing employment and opportunities for the less fortunate
Next stop was Vancouver. Recently the city of Vancouver has put in place a food policy strategy and so I was keen to see some local examples of what is happening there. One project of note – and keeping on the theme of socially aware aspects of food programs – is Sole Food. I met the guy running the program at the Wednesday afternoon farmer’s market outside the Pacific Central station in downtown Vancouver. They have a great stall with locally produced produce from their city gardens. With over 40ha of gardens in 4 farms across the city they employ a number of gardens and provide them with training. Often coming from struggling situations and sometimes off the street, the Sole Food street farms give people a second chance and some great new skills and employment. One of the farms I saw on Hastings street, a pretty down and out part of town, and the other was an orchard growing trees in planter pots. The soil in downtown Vancouver where the sites are is contaminated so these raised beds are the best option.
Kelowna – inspiring young actors creating employment and social change
Heading up into the fruit bowl of Canada into the Okanagan valley was a tasty treat. The region is ripe with vineyards and orchards – the plums, peaches and apricots were practically jumping off the trees and throwing themselves at me. I was inspired by Jenica Frisque and the work that she is doing along with the Central Okanagan Food Policy Council (COFPC). Not supported by the city council like Vancouver and Toronto, the COFPC is project based and runs off the love and spare time of committed locals. Their projects are varied and include using space donated by locals to grow produce, a great farmer’s market on the weekend, helping Food Not Bombs share produce with less fortunate people and trying to rally support for local produce. Jenica sums up their work as follows –
“The COFPC has three main projects on the go. 1. The Fruit Tree Project (where volunteers pick fruit from homeowners’ back yard trees and donate it to local charities, so far this summer we’ve donated over 5000lbs of food!). 2. The Food Forest Project (we are collaborating with the Regional District of the Central Okanagan to plant a food forest and in doing so, educate people about urban agriculture, permaculture design, and the sustainability of our food system) 3. The Farm Project (long term planning for a community farm).”
What is also impressive is the scale of urban farms that are happening there – rental properties digging up lawns and putting in big greenhouses to grow produce to supply CSA. One such site we visited has a farmer who employs three people, runs a busy CSA business and earns himself around $50,000 CA a year in the process from all his hard work. In a region that is horticulturaly rich and diverse to see such city focus on agriculture was unique and inspiring. Check out www.okanaganfood.com
It is also inspiring to see young people creating employment and positive change through the food system!
My reflection on the city region food systems I’ve seen in Canada are that they are everywhere (at least this time of the year), very accessible, and like most projects with food – everyone who works with them loves to speak about their project and does so with passion. I have a feeling there is a great movement happening and recommend summer as the time to check out the diversity of projects. So while you travel around Canada you might think it’s a place awash with Wendy’s McDonalds or KFC, which it is, but if you look a little closer – perhaps on every street corner – you’ll see an impressive system of community based socially inclusive food systems.