Eat, play, live

8 food activism initiatives that are changing how we eat and live


#1: Food Not Bombs

By Geeta Sehgal

Food Not Bombs is an anti-poverty and anti-war movement that started in the early 1980s as an offshoot of protests against nuclear weapons. Twenty-five years later, Food Not Bombs groups continue to protest militarism and war while recycling food that would otherwise be wasted.

The origins of Food Not Bombs are somewhat mysterious: some report that a bake sale to benefit the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament led activists to call for spending on food, rather than bombs; other stories mention a mock soup line being used as street theatre when demonstrators asked the First National Bank of Boston to stop investing in a nuclear power station. What is certain is that the first Food Not Bombs servings were held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the early 1980s by anti-nuclear protestors and the movement has since spread worldwide.

Each chapter of Food Not Bombs is autonomous, and each chapter’s activities vary depending on community needs and resources. One element common to each group, however, is the anarchist idea that food should be treated not as a commodity or source of profit for corporations, but as a source of nutrients and health for everyone regardless of their ability to pay. Food Not Bombs chapters also work against militarism and the poverty and inequality associated with society’s focus on war. By dumpster diving and salvaging surplus foods from restaurants and grocery stores, Food Not Bombs is able to redistribute nutritious food that would have gone to waste and provide healthy meals to hungry people in communities around the world.

The Edmonton chapter of Food Not Bombs has been operating for over 10 years, and continues to hold weekly servings in a public square downtown. The serving is treated as a community lunch rather than a charitable initiative. Dishes, utensils and pots of hot food are placed on park benches and anyone who would like to eat is welcome to help themselves.

Organizing a serving starts with someone collecting the food from a grocery store willing to share its surplus, or from one of the few dumpsters in the city where excess food isn’t crushed to prevent people from acquiring it without paying. Volunteers then pick out the healthy vegetables and compost any that are spoiled. Then decide on a recipe, start chopping vegetables, and get creative, combining spices and exotic ingredients. The cooking can sometimes be described as “experimental,” but if it’s not burnt, it’s usually considered a success.

A large number of Food Not Bombs volunteers are teenagers; others are senior citizens. Some volunteers devote 10 hours to the group every week; others attend a cooking session on occasion simply because they like to talk politics. When a somewhat motley and leaderless crew of volunteers can take concrete action to prevent food waste and address food security issues, it makes it clear that society as a whole should be able to change its approach to food. Every week, Food Not Bombs demonstrates that people can come together to forage, prepare and share healthy, nutritious meals without paying the money corporations demand or adhering to the rules that the powerful dictate. People can survive without fast food, without constant regulation and without weapons spending.

As one of the unofficial Food Not Bombs mottos states, we need community not control. We need homes, not jails. We need food, not bombs!

#2: Community gardening

By Yolanda Hansen

“Community gardening” is a term that deserves to be understood both literally and figuratively. Like gardening itself, there’s as much going on beneath the surface as above: the gardeners who nurture the rows of lush greenery every growing season are meeting new people, sharing techniques and ideas, enjoying nature and perfecting the art of co-operation. They are growing community.

Despite its multiple benefits, community gardening is often misunderstood as a temporary and transient use of vacant lots awaiting “full” development. Yet community gardening has been a lasting feature of urban food spaces in North America for nearly a century. In Regina, for instance, community gardens were operating as early as 1913 when the Regina Vacant Lot Gardening Association (VLGA) rented acres of land to unemployed men and their families to grow vegetables. The need for urban food provisioning swelled as World War I strained domestic food supplies. The success of the VLGA made it a model for other prairie cities to emulate. Urban community gardens were also important during the Great Depression and World War II as both a means of addressing food security and a way to teach or emphasize values important to those times, including self-reliance and patriotism.

Such gardens continue to be important urban spaces. Grow Regina, for instance, has been guided by the joint goals of food security and community building since its creation in 1994, when it emerged as a community response to local food security needs. As acting chair John Fagan points out, “we want to be more than a landlord/tenant relationship; we want to think and plan around food security.” Concerned about the growing trend of hunger identified in the 1988 Mayor’s Report on Hunger, community organizations banded together with the Regina & District Food Bank to create a community garden on College Avenue and Broad Street, a location close to the downtown area. This location was chosen for its accessibility to inner-city neighbourhoods struggling with poverty and food security. Its gardening plots filled quickly and the garden grew from its initial 127 plots to 275 in four years; interest was consistently high. Its successes over the years attested to both the need for urban gardening space and its benefits for gardeners.

Just as Grow Regina’s successes mirrored those of community gardens in other North American cities, so did its challenges. When the land temporarily leased by the garden was sold to developers in 2005, Grow Regina was forced to relocate. This sparked a three-year long search for new land tenure – a struggle for community gardeners up against development pressures, unsympathetic municipal governments, chronic under-funding and unstable land tenure.

Today, Grow Regina is re-establishing itself in McLeod Park. Local gardeners are quickly filling the plots, attracted by bountiful harvests, social interaction and a satisfying sense of community. An added draw of the new space is that the garden is a place of beauty. The park has been enhanced with fruit trees, plentiful pathways to encourage wandering, and future plans for amenities like a gazebo. It has become a destination for local residents – proof of the lure of green spaces.

As more people are turning to community gardens, their success will depend on public and municipal support. Will we encourage these gardens as a permanent and valued urban space rather than a temporary placeholder for future parking lots and condo developments?

#3: Community- Supported Agriculture

By Jon Steinman

Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiatives are an ideal first step in the creation of viable local food systems. The co-operative model that CSA initiatives embody has already proven itself to be a versatile and resilient structure.

CSA projects can take many forms, but the most common model is a group of eaters investing in a farm at the beginning of the season through the purchase of shares. This upfront investment puts money in the pockets of farmers when they need it most and assures the farmers a market for their product. The farmers can thus avoid putting themselves at the mercy of a complicated distribution chain, which often leaves them with just pennies on the dollar. Likewise, the eater benefits by being assured a supply of locally grown food and the comfort of knowing that local farmers are being compensated fairly.

Committing to such a model requires the eater to take on some of the risks of farming. Should the season’s harvest produce low yields, the eater shares the repercussions with the farmers, who would otherwise bear the brunt of any shortfall. Likewise, if yields are high, the shareholder benefits from the abundance.

A fleet of four sailboats transported 5,000 pounds of Lowe’s grain from the Creston Valley to Nelson along Kootenay Lake — a 56-hour, fossil-fuel-free round trip.

Profiles of two CSAs

Creston Grain CSA (Nelson/Creston, B.C.)

What: Canada’s first grain CSA. In its first year, the CSA successfully grew 18,000 pounds (8,100 kilograms) of organic Red Fife, Khorasan and hard spring wheats, spelt and oats on 15 acres (6 hectares). Each share yielded 40.5 kilograms of grain at a cost of $1.11 per pound (about $0.50 per kilogram) to the shareholder. Farmers grossed $1,000 per acre – an exceptionally high return.

Who: One-hundred-and-eighty members in Nelson and Creston, one bakery (20 shares), three farmers, two millers and a handful of local food advocates.

Why: In August 2007, CSA co-founder Matt Lowe embarked on an “Eat Local Challenge” and recognized an absence of locally grown grain in his diet.

How: Members invested $100 each in the spring of 2008 and were told they would receive approximately 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of grain. Yields were somewhat lower than expected at 80 pounds per share. Adding to the excitement of participating in the production of local grains, a fleet of four sailboats transported 5,000 pounds (2,250 kilograms) of the grain from the Creston Valley to Nelson along Kootenay Lake (a 56-hour, fossil-fuel-free round trip). Since the grains are whole, arrangements are made for members who don’t own a mill or roller to bring their grain to millers in Creston or Nelson.

More info:

Soil Matters CSA (Tarrys, B.C.)

What: Supplies a weekly box of organic vegetables for seven months of the year.

Who: One farm family, 26 members (including two shares purchased by a food bank), a flock of chickens and a dog named Jojo.

Why: After three years of farming, farmers Laura Sacks and Craig Smith desired a greater connection with the people eating their food.

How: In its first two years of operation, members invested between $200 and $250 at the beginning of spring/summer/fall (approximately $24 per week). Members were encouraged to work on the farm in exchange for a reduced share price; however, next year the share price will be a lump sum at the beginning of the growing season and members will be required to work a set number of hours.

More info:

#4: Gleaning

By Aruna Handa

Volunteers from a Toronto gleaning initiative called Not Far From the Tree (not featured in this story) pause for a photo after an evening’s apple harvest.

Emmy Hendrickx of Aurora, Ontario, has been gleaning for three years. “It’s free food. You can pick what you want and have free food all winter.” Hendrickx is not alone. Gleaning, a centuries-old practice of gathering the remains of a crop after the harvest, is currently enjoying a renaissance in cities and on farms across the country. In centuries past, gleaning bells were rung at harvest time to invite landless people to collect produce the farmer’s harvest missed. Today, the Internet, pamphlets and telephone lines sound the call as community and/or governmental organizations connect farmers with urban gleaners. When beckoned, buses collect gleaners in the city, drop them off at fields or orchards and then collect them several hours later to return to the city with sacks of fresh food: beets, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, carrots, lettuce, peas, beans, cabbage, Swiss chard, potatoes, onions, apples, pumpkins, and strawberries.

Established in 2000, York Region’s Fresh Food Partners Gleaning Program grew out of a community forum on food security, which sought to improve access to fresh food for families on limited incomes. York Region Community Health Services pays the salary of project administrator Fae Chen while funding for transportation comes from a local NGO. Chen also runs food preservation workshops. In 2008, the program sent 10 buses, each with 40 gleaners, to five different farms with gleaned produce estimated at nearly $14,000. “It’s a low-cost program. It’s great when we get a note saying how the broccoli lasted all winter,” Chen says.

A few hours drive away, Sioux Lily has been the volunteer chair of Peterborough Gleans, the inspiration of the York Region project, since 2002 when she inherited the YWCA’s gleaning program. “We wanted the program to be open to the working poor, to anyone who felt they wanted to participate,” Lily explains. She distributes pamphlets in city neighbourhoods, inviting potential gleaners to add their names to a contact list, which gets activated whenever a farmer indicates the fields are ready for gleaners. Local faith groups in Peterborough sponsor bus journeys for $150 each, a price subsidized by the participating bus company. Lily typically sends about 20 buses a season; she is currently soliciting farmers for next season. “For every gleaner on our buses, three households benefit: the gleaner’s household, his or her neighbours’ and usually at least one household of the extended family.” Lily’s calculations are supported by a study published in 2001 in the Journal of Nutrition Education in which gleaned produce was tracked in Pierce County, Washington. The study found that nine per cent was eaten fresh, 48 per cent was preserved for later use and 43 per cent was shared with others.

“About 50 per cent of food produced worldwide is wasted,” said Wayne Roberts, author of The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food and coordinator of the Toronto Food Policy Council. “Hunger is not about scarcity. The present food system isn’t handling two problems that gleaning addresses: the problem of waste and that of need. There’s a gleaning bonanza waiting to happen.”

Farmer Sue Feddema of Round the Bend Farm in Kettleby, north of Toronto, says she and husband Brian regularly plant more than they need as insurance against bad conditions. Before they began working with the York Region gleaners, they donated their excess produce to a Toronto soup kitchen. But when the soup kitchen closed some years ago, they could not give their produce away – local food banks, they found, are not equipped to handle fresh food. Between the soup kitchen closing and the arrival of the gleaners in 2002, the Feddemas had no choice but to plough the excess produce back into the ground. “We’ll be inviting gleaners as long as we’re farming because it’s the right thing to do,” Sue Feddema says.

Roberts cites an additional reason to prefer gleaning to ploughing under excess vegetable produce: “Burying surplus vegetables forms methane, which is 21 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. The government should pay farmers to allow gleaners on the land.” Roberts is somewhat ambivalent about gleaning, believing that without government support, gleaning programs are tantamount to “asking the very poor to help the very poor.” In his recent book, he advocates revamping the way food is organized and paid for.

Vida Stevens, Healthy Families Manager of Peer Nutrition, a Toronto Public Health program, introduced gleaning excursions as a food security intervention for her clients. “There was little point teaching about nutrition when people didn’t have food to eat,” she says. When initial trips attracted few participants, she sought feedback and learned that a lack of child care, a lack of freezers, and the amount of time required to leave the city to glean proved problematic for many. But the roadblocks were not just logistical: some Muslim participants were reluctant to participate in what they saw as a Christian practice, while others expressed an aversion to collecting what were regarded as “leftovers.” According to Stevens, “there is more interest in pick-your-own excursions – particularly when the produce is their own cultural foods.” Pick-your-own farms charge participants for the food harvested but generally the price is significantly lower and the produce significantly fresher than that found in supermarkets. Currently, Peer Nutrition is not running gleaning programs; instead, the organization is overseeing city-based community gardens, where clients grow their favourite vegetables.

The Richmond Fruit Tree Project oversees two “sharing” farms, a “Greenhouse Social Club” (complete with tea-making facilities), an apple orchard that will yield fruit in three years’ time, gleaning trips to nearby farms, and the eponymous fruit tree project.

Within city limits, gleaning takes another form, with gleaners picking fruit from private and public trees. In Victoria, Vancouver, Toronto and Richmond, B.C., among other cities, non-profit organizations connect fruit tree owners with volunteer pickers and community agencies to harvest the urban bounty.

The Victoria project began in 1998. Renate Nahser-Ringer runs the project with her son Erich in conjunction with the non-profit group LifeCycles. She says she has a “win-win-win” formula for fruit allocation: one third is shared among the pickers and tree owners, one third is donated to food redistribution agencies and one third is allocated to the project itself. The group processes its share with the help of local businesses and sells products (including quince paste, hard apple cider, plum chutney and apple pie spiced gelato) to raise funds. The group also solicits grants from foundations and government, but Nahser-Ringer admits “it is difficult to get funding.” In 2008, the group picked 43,000 pounds of fruit in what she called an “unusual bumper crop.”

In Richmond, B.C., meanwhile, seven women, six of whom are grandmothers, started the Richmond Fruit Tree Sharing Project in 2001 with two grants totalling $1,100 which they used to buy ladders and other equipment. The following year, the group began to grow its own food on six small city allotments and in 2003 they planted half an acre of vegetables within city limits on land donated by a farmer. Today the Richmond Fruit Tree Project oversees two “sharing” farms, a “Greenhouse Social Club” (complete with tea-making facilities), an apple orchard that will yield fruit in three years’ time, gleaning trips to nearby farms and the original fruit tree project. Most of the group’s bountiful harvest is donated to the Richmond Food Bank, which distributes food every few days. This distribution frequency together with a recently purchased cooler have made it possible for the Richmond Food Bank, unlike many similar organizations, to receive fresh food deliveries. But, according to food bank director Margaret Hewlett, the main reason their relationship with the urban gleaners and farmers works is the quality of the communication between the two organizations. “They schedule their harvest to coincide with our distribution times. We constantly share comments and they respond to our feedback.” Hewlett estimates that each week 380 families visit the food bank, which also offers recipe demonstrations on food distribution days.

“You get three or four amazing, crazy, energetic people in a room and go out and find land,” advises Mary Gazetas, founding director of the Richmond Fruit Tree Sharing Project. When asked to describe the group’s many volunteers, Gazetas explains, “It’s a bit of a mix. Some are living with poverty but the majority aren’t. They do it for social responsibility and because it’s a fun thing to do together.” Today, the group that started as a tree gleaning project produces food year-round, is staffed by four part-time employees and has hundreds of volunteers. The group’s success now attracts funders who seek out Gazetas and the project.

Back in Peterborough, Lily’s funders want to increase their bus sponsorships: “They realize gleaning offers great returns. It’s better than food banks where a person passively receives. We have active, vital gleaners, often with large families, who feel strongly about doing as much as they can to help themselves,” Lily says.

“Better than food banks, which distribute highly processed food, gleaning could provide higher nutritional values, education and community economic development, address isolation issues, and bring people closer to the source of their food while reducing methane production,” adds Roberts. He resists the picture of gleaning as a poor person’s program as depicted, for example, in Jean François Millet’s 19th-century painting “The Gleaners,” which shows women stooped over, collecting grains in their gleaning skirts. “I view gleaning as an educational opportunity. Anything that gets people connected with the food they eat is a good start.”

Hendrickx and her two kids are currently enjoying this season’s kale and she’s looking forward to her fourth gleaning season: “I like being outdoors, meeting people, helping out the farmers and helping ourselves.”

#5: FairDeal certification

By Shayna Stock

Organic has gone mainstream. That organic products are now as readily available at mass market grocery stores as they are in independent health food stores is an encouraging sign of a broad rise in food awareness in North American households. But as the organic food industry becomes increasingly dominated by transnational corporations, organic standards are being watered down and farm workers, one of the most exploited segments of the North American workforce, are often no better off than in conventional farming operations. In response to the mainstreaming of organics, Farmer Direct, a co-operative of 70 certified organic family farms that market organic crops from the Canadian prairies, is raising the bar by initiating the development of a certification standard called fairDeal, which seeks to bring the ethic and resources of the fair trade movement to organic family farms across the Canadian prairies.

Founded in 2001 by two food activists and three organic farmers, Farmer Direct Co-operative is an innovative model of what can happen when activism and entrepreneurialism are merged in an effort to challenge the unfair and hugely variant pricing in the current food trade system. Through his work as an organic inspector, co-founder Duane Phillippi had noticed that crop prices were often more dependent on the farmer’s marketing ability than on crop quality. In response, the co-operative was established with a mandate to manage, transparently and fairly, the sales, marketing and logistics of members’ crops from the farm gate to the food manufacturer.

The fairDeal takes it one step further. For the past five years, Farmer Direct and a handful of partners have been working to develop a single seal for certified organic fairly traded food originating from North American family farms. When it is implemented, the fairDeal seal will indicate to consumers that their purchase was grown organically on a family farm where the labourers are paid a living wage and have access to collective bargaining, and where the produce is traded in a transparent system in which all parties receive a fair price. With the goal of creating a single seal that indicates adherence to multiple ethical and environmental standards, the fairDeal will eventually integrate additional standards, such as animal welfare, emissions standards, and sustainable packaging.

A key component of the fairDeal is transparency. According to Farmer Direct co-founder Jason Freeman, the goal is to create “an alternative trading model to the conventional food system, based on transparency and trust rather than secrecy and greed.” Through its transparent pricing plan, farmers and food manufacturers alike can request a statement showing what the other paid or was paid and what expenses and commissions were paid out along the way. Eaters will be able to visit an online database to trace their food to the farm where it was grown and view pictures and profiles of the people who grew it.

Marla Carlson, fairDeal program manager, stresses the importance of connecting consumers with “the people who plant, nurture and harvest our food.” In her words, if these people aren’t treated fairly, “then our food is imbued with their unhappiness and malcontent which we in turn ingest.”

So when can you expect to be able to buy your first fairDeal products? At the moment, fairDeal partners are in the process of performing audits in order to certify a small number of products, including grains, fruits and vegetables, maple syrup, and snack bars. If all goes as planned, the fairDeal logo should make its first appearance on grocery store shelves this coming fall.

For more information about Farmer Direct Co-operative and the fairDeal, visit and

#6: The UBC Farm

By Kaitlin Kazmierowski

In the carefully tended rows of the UBC Farm, controversy and field crops grow side by side. The 24-hectare farm on the campus of the University of British Columbia boasts cultivated organic fields, outdoor classrooms, children’s and Aboriginal gardens, research fields and free-run poultry. Its 12-hectare woodlot serves as important habitat for mammals, amphibians and migratory birds, while providing the biological diversity needed to fuel organic farming systems. In the past year, the UBC Farm has received over 20,000 visitors and over 100 volunteers. As the last working farm in the city of Vancouver, and the only student-run, on-campus organic farm in the country, one would think it only natural for UBC to celebrate and foster the growth of such a unique space. Yet despite the global food crisis, the growth of the “eat local” movement, and the fact that increasing urbanization ensures that future farmers will by necessity come from the city, the UBC Farm’s future is in serious jeopardy.

The conflict that has been brewing over the past few years is simply another incarnation of the age-old conflict between agriculture and urbanization, playing out in an academic setting. The UBC Farm evolved on land that until recently was more or less ignored. During the last decade, however, the development of on-campus market housing has become a lucrative source of income for the school, leading UBC decision-makers to question whether the farm needs to occupy all that valuable land, or even exist at all. Over the past three years, as UBC’s Main Campus Plan has come under review, decision-makers tried to ignore the farm issue entirely by refusing to acknowledge its existence in any official documents or preliminary plans. When this approach met resistance, UBC then decided that the size of the farm should be based solely on what it deemed necessary for direct academic functions: namely, cultivated fields and not much else. This evaluation ignored all the community and ecological components of the farm (which are linked to various academic curricula), and in UBC’s eyes reduced it to a five-hectare site, thus literally paving the way for future condo developments.

In their most recent public consultations, UBC proposed an “expansion” of the farm to eight hectares, and its partial or full relocation to marginal lands on the southern edge of the campus. This attempt to spin a 16-hectare reduction in the size of the farm as an “expansion” has not gone unchallenged. The student group “Friends of the UBC Farm” recently presented UBC president Stephen Toope with over 15,000 signatures in support of the continued existence of a 24-hectare on-campus farm in its current location and form. Vigorous letter writing, public awareness and publicity campaigns have elicited support from top officials in a range of disciplines from Vancouver Coastal Health to the 100-Mile Diet Society and The David Suzuki Foundation. Most recently, the Metro Vancouver board voted unanimously to support the maintenance of a 24-hectare farm at UBC campus. This diverse show of support by on- and off-campus groups implies an understanding and appreciation of the importance of local sustainable agriculture by everyone except those who ultimately hold decision-making power.

In addition to Friends of the UBC Farm actions, a separate group of professional planners, architects and landscape architects calling themselves the “South Campus Professional Working Group” recently held a public design and visioning workshop that focused on exploring the innovative ways in which the 24-hectare farm could be woven into an ever-changing campus and urban centre – a topic which to date has been overlooked by the UBC administration. The results from this process will be presented to UBC decision-makers in early 2009 with the hopes that they will help guide future plans.

What all of these diverse groups share is a conviction that the agriculture-versus-urban-development debate must be reformulated in an increasingly urban and ecologically precarious world. At UBC, this reformulation is being spearheaded by students and young professionals who not only recognize the value of such a unique space, but fully appreciate the sad irony that its existence is being threatened at an institution that prides itself on a strong commitment to sustainability education.

The final decision about the future of the UBC Farm will be made by the UBC Board of Governors in the early spring of 2009.

#7: The Youth Green Squad

By Adam Perry

As one of Toronto’s most densely populated and diverse inner-city neighbourhoods, Parkdale has limited green space, let alone space for food production. Nevertheless, the eight high school students that made up Greenest City’s Youth Green Squad last summer had no trouble keeping busy as full-time urban gardeners. They planted and harvested an organic garden and in the process reclaimed a local parkette normally associated with drug-related crimes and violence.

Greenest City is a community-based non-profit environmental organization based in the downtown Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale. In operation since 1996, Greenest City is committed to engaging people in creating new, innovative and locally appropriate solutions to environmental problems. Each summer, Greenest City’s From the Ground Up project employs a number of local youth – the Youth Green Squad – to work on projects that promote a strengthened community, food security and local food production.

All eight members of the 2008 Youth Green Squad are residents of Parkdale. None have had previous gardening experience and the majority live in low-income high-rises. The youth don’t only cultivate vegetables as part of the project. They also develop a valuable set of leadership skills, taking part in workshops on vermicomposting, global food politics, sprouting, green roofs, safe bike riding, rural organic farming and more. Last summer, the project donated its entire summer yield to local Parkdale food banks where the youth also worked as cooks, providing local and organic food for some of the most marginalized members of their community.

“This isn’t like your regular summer job,” says Madura, 15, who attends Parkdale Collegiate. “It’s a lot more educational and way less boring than working at the mall. It’s pretty sweet, actually.” Asked what difference this job is making to her, Brindini, another Green Squad member, says: “I didn’t used to think about what I ate or where it came from. Now I see that I can make a real difference just by knowing how to grow healthy food and sharing it with other people in Parkdale. It makes me feel happy and proud.” For all the group members I talked to, working with food in their community has been an eye-opening experience. By tilling the soil and just getting to know their neighbours, they gain a sense of community, rooted in daily interactions with the people in their neighbourhood.

Looking ahead to next summer, Greenest City is planning to gain access to a bigger piece of land. They intend to create work experiences for more youth and grow more food for the community.

Adam Perry is co-artistic director of Toronto’s In Forma Theatre and a very occasional urban gardener. His favourite meal is dim sum on a Sunday morning with friends.

#8: Urban exodus

By Charles Z. Levkoe and Angie Koch

There is a crisis occurring in Canada’s rural communities, with small- to medium-scale farms continuing to face mounting pressures. One of the consequences of these pressures has been rural depopulation as young people leave for urban centres, raising questions around who will inherit the responsibility of maintaining the country’s farms. There is a dire need to reverse this trend and invest in a new generation of farmers in order to be able to meet the demand to feed local populations.

From these challenges, new opportunities have arisen. A new generation of farmers is beginning to emerge, witnessed by a reverse migration of urban-born, university-educated young people making the decision to take up farming as a profession, way of life, and political statement. Attempting to find a sustainable balance amidst growing social, ecological and economic pressures, most of these new farmers are starting up or joining existing small- to mid-sized operations. Many often embrace a “˜food-shed’ approach (focusing on a localized food system – from farm to table), using their familiarity with urban culture and tastes to cultivate viable direct marketing models of distribution that respond to the growing demand for sustainable agricultural practices and locally produced food.

Operating on the basis of personal relationships and trust, these models take alternative forms such as Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA), barter networks, farmers’ markets and sales to local restaurants. Through a focus on direct sales and personal relationships, these new farmers are able to capture more of their products’ retail value, thus increasing the economic viability of their businesses. Although small in scale and sometimes only a few growing seasons old, these operations are beginning to reinvigorate the social, environmental and economic viability of farming. Their farming models, which promote both urban/rural as well as grower/eater relationships, have the potential to radically change the way food is produced, marketed, distributed and consumed.

To support these new farmers, many of whom do not have the necessary skills and resources, there has been a call for increased support structures and broad policy reform. In southern Ontario, a number of new networks and training programs have emerged in order to meet these growing needs. The Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT), FarmStart’s New Farms Incubator Program, Farmers Growing Farmers, and the New Farmers of Ontario are four examples of initiatives that are helping to build skills, providing opportunities for land use and, most importantly, fostering connections with the established farming community and with other new farmers. To ensure sustainability and bring about wider change, these and other networks are working to ensure that farming is not seen as mere “economic activity” but supported as part of a broader food system and a growing movement. Meaningful connections and partnerships are also being forged with similar food sovereignty and social justice networks around the globe.

Although this new generation of farmers alone cannot solve the vast array of challenges in the current food system, they are offering an option to meet the demands of feeding local populations. Through their work, these young farmers are providing inspiration and a viable model for an alternative direction.

Geeta Sehgal is an environmental and social justice activist working in Edmonton.

Yolanda Hansen lives and works in Regina, where she conducted part of her MA research on community gardens. Her favourite food is tomatoes straight from the garden.

Jon Steinman is the producer/host of Deconstructing Dinner, a weekly radio show and podcast heard on 32 radio stations across the country.

Aruna Handa is a philosopher who writes about food. She also lectures about food both formally, in university halls, and informally, in talks and in cookery demonstration classes. In addition to writing and teaching about the philosophy of food, she is collaborating with food producers on developing quality standards protocols. Check out her blogs Food Theory Applied and Cooking For Noah.

Shayna Stock mainly writes poems and policies these days. She was editor/publisher of Briarpatch Magazine from 2007-2012.

Kaitlin Kazmierowski works as a food policy planner and programmer in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. Food occupies roughly 87 per cent of her daily thoughts.

Adam Perry is co-artistic director of Toronto’s In Forma Theatre and a very occasional urban gardener. His favourite meal is dim sum on a Sunday morning with friends.

Charles Z. Levkoe has worked in both urban and rural food initiatives. His experiences in the area of food politics and community food security span the last decade in partnership with numerous non-profit organizations and local networks. Currently, he is pursuing his PhD in geography working with community food initiatives across Canada.

Angie Koch is a new farmer and owner of Fertile Ground CSA in Waterloo.

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