Day 2, am – Food: Today, Tomorrow, Together Conference

I did my best to try and blog on Friday night, but it seems my threshold for processing information was 10 hours. My cold didn’t help matters either, but now I have some catching up to do.

At any rate, the theme of day 2 was “what’s happening on local, provincial and national level”, and I think the committee did a great job of organizing sessions that addressed this topic. I started off the morning with a full thermos of coffee, the cinnamon bun I received yesterday at the Taste of Alberta, and a keynote by Elbert van Donkersgoed, Executive Director of the Greater Toronto Area Agricultural Action Committee. He talked about building blocks of a sustainable food system, with emphasis on farming just outside major cities – apparently, the value of production per acre is higher for farms closer to the city. Van Donkersgoed spent the initial few minutes deconstructing the notion of a “locavore”, and using statistics from an Ipsos Reid poll and a survey, tried to prove that though the locavore craved convenience, they are not just a passing fad. For example, 42% of Canadians reported in the poll that they had purchased locally-grown food in the last six months, 70% of the Royal Winter Fair patrons surveyed said that they change their diet seasonally, and 63% of the Fair patrons claimed they buy food based on where it comes from as opposed to the price. I was sceptical of these numbers, if not only because I think people respond to such question with the answer they think is “right” as opposed to the one that best describes their habits.

Van Donkersgoed argued that the business of farming needs to change to accommodate the rise of the locavore. He said that seasonality must be emphasized (to the point where consumers cannot get enough of the sun-kissed taste of a just-picked strawberry), consumers need to be educated on how to store fresh produce properly, and the structure of the food value chain (where supermarkets are currently the gatekeeper) must change.

He talked about Occombe Farm Store in the UK, which sells the produce of 40 local farms within 50km of the store. Situated on a conservation authority, residents can visit the farm not only to fulfill their shopping needs, but to reconnect with the land. The Edmonton Regional Tourist Group has organized opportunities for people to visit Edmonton’s countryside, but I agree with his point that urban sprawl must be reduced in favour of preserving (and ideally, increasing) the farmland around metropolitan centres.

It didn’t occur to me until he reiterated his points on Saturday afternoon, but van Donkersgoed was the only speaker that I heard over the course of the conference that wasn’t beating the drum of extreme change. Most of the speakers called for extreme shifts in thinking and practice, but for the majority of the population out there, such change just won’t happen. I’m glad van Donkersgoed expressed a more realistic (and small step) approach.

Our food-filled breaks began with a locally-sourced yogurt parfait – the yogurt was from Lacombe’s Bles-Wold Dairy, granola from Highwood River’s Highwood Crossing, and rhubarb and apple from enSante Winery. The granola, I should mention, was absolutely delicious.

Following the break, we reassembled in the auditorium for the first of three “open space” discussions. Attendees who had burning ideas were asked to lead table discussions and record the key points that had been brought up on flipchart paper. This was a good idea in theory, but with over 200 people in the room and only 6 volunteer leaders, needless to say, the groups were a little larger than they should have been.  Also, I could just see Mack shaking his head at the flipchart pages, and scolding that a wiki should be used instead. Apparently, the ideas will be collected and sent to all participants eventually, so hopefully some good will come out of them.

Wall of ideas

My first breakout session of the conference was called “Tensions in Food Security: promoting local food versus poverty”. Some points of interest:

  • 9.2% of Canadian households in 2004 were described as being food insecure, 2.9% of those being severe cases;
  • food banks, running on a supply versus nutritional need basis, fail to provide dietary adequacy, and their charitable model of program delivery makes it difficult for people to express unmet needs; and
  • the importance of food sovereignty and the need to “decommodify food” (Cathleen Kneen, of Food Secure Canada).


Valerie Tarasuk, Cathleen Kneen and Sherri Chisan wait for their turn to speak

Lunch consisted of a great mix of dishes – roasted bison au jus from Stettler’s Carmen Creek Bison, coleslaw, roasted potatoes and glazed parsnips and carrots from Edmonton’s Sunfresh Farms, a hearty bean casserole from Grainworks, barley fruit salad with barley from Progressive Seeds, bread from Bon Ton Bakery, and pastured butter from Bonnyville’s Johnson Family Farm. I felt bad for the chef at the bison carving station, who had to serve all hungry attendees, but he did a great job being patient with the demand. My favourite dish ended up being the glazed parsnips and carrots – simple but delicious.


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