The Future of Edmonton’s Chinatown: 2016 Chinatown Conference

Three years ago, I was part of a group that organized the 97 Street Night Market in Chinatown. The idea was inspired by conversations and observations made by my market co-organizer Kathryn Lennon at the first ever Chinatown Conference held that spring. In some ways, the market was our way of trying to grapple with the generation gap in the neighbourhood, and an attempt to enliven the streets and encourage Edmontonians to rediscover their Chinatown.

97 Street Night Market

97 Street Night Market

The event gathered vendors and food trucks, created a stage for cultural performances, and offered walking tours of the neighbourhood. Overall, we felt the market was a success, and although it was a lot of work to pull together, I felt inspired to continue the momentum with another event.

The following summer, I was part of a team that hosted a second 97 Street Night Market. The event built upon the foundation of the previous year, and though the turnout was comparable, we decided the challenges we faced in mounting the market weren’t worth the returns.

97 Street Night Market

97 Street Night Market, 2014 edition

It was an incredibly eye-opening experience, learning firsthand about the complexities of the neighbourhood and the numerous parties involved in the community. Chinatown has many players – the BRZ, individual businesses, community associations, McCauley Revitalization, the Quarters Revitalization – just to name a few, and they don’t all agree on how to approach the issues surrounding Chinatown:

  • How can Chinatown leverage the positive developments of the Royal Alberta Museum, Ice District, and the LRT Connector?
  • Should the old (cultural) and new (commercial) Chinatowns be linked?
  • How can Chinatown better work alongside social service agencies?
  • How can Chinatown attract more businesses and amenities?
  • Is Chinatown still relevant?

These are just some of the questions that the community is grappling with, and there are no easy answers. Consensus is unlikely, but one thing is true – Chinatown will change, but who will lead this change? Will the players be able to come together to move forward with solutions in a meaningful way, or will external forces dictate the change?

Chinatown

Edmonton’s Chinatown

As a follow-up to the first Chinatown Conference, the 2016 Chinatown Conference hopes to answer some of these questions. On June 11-12, 2016 Chinatown advocates, researchers, planners and youth from across North America, will gather in Edmonton at the University of Alberta, including 15 representatives from Chicago, Seattle, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. The intention is to exchange ideas about how to preserve, celebrate, and ensure Chinatowns remain relevant in municipalities amongst demographic shifts, changing civic priorities, and gentrification efforts.

I’m particularly excited to hear from C.W. Chan from Chicago, as they have reversed the trend of diminishing Chinatowns, and instead, have continued to expand and and garner city investment in infrastructure. The conference will also host respected Toronto Chinese historian Valerie Mah and Washington, D.C. filmmaker Yi Chen, who will screen her documentary Chinatown. The second day of the conference aims to build a plan for Edmonton’s Chinatown. The full conference schedule is here.

Registration is now open, and tickets are $50.

Eat Alberta 2012

The vision of Eat Alberta is simple: to create interactive opportunities for people to learn how to source and prepare local food directly from the experts in our community – producers, chefs and local food advocates. We were also hoping that participants would connect with one another and perhaps foster relationships that would extend beyond one isolated event. Because after all, there are only so many farmers’ markets to visit and shops and restaurants to patronize that showcase local food in Edmonton!

I had great intentions to write a post to sum up our inaugural Eat Alberta conference last year, but it fell by the wayside. I regret it now, because it would be nice to have a reference point, since our second Eat Alberta was so different in many ways.

On April 14, 2012, we welcomed over one hundred attendees and eighteen presenters at NAIT. In comparison to Eat Alberta 2011, we had nearly doubled the number of participants and sessions offered, so our classroom footprint had to grow accordingly as well. Although there were many positive attributes about our previous base venue of Enterprise Square, it did not contain kitchen facilities, and for a hands-on cooking conference such as ours, it became clear that they were a necessity. So we were thrilled when NAIT agreed to allow us to book their kitchens and adjacent classrooms as a venue, as this was the first time they have opened their doors to an external group.

Eat Alberta 2012

The sandwich spread from NAIT

Eat Alberta 2012

Lunch also included this wonderful stout cake

The NAIT staff did a wonderful job in taking care of many tasks –from setting up meals to dishwashing – that had fallen to the organizing committee and volunteers last year. Of course, that did mean the cost of putting on the conference increased (and as a result, heightened the attendee fee), but from an organizer’s perspective, it allowed us the time and space to manage other things, and for a few of us, even the opportunity to take in a few sessions!

Eat Alberta 2012

Mack learning how to make spring rolls from Elaine Wilson (a lot of the photos I’ve used in this post were taken by Maki, our volunteer photographer – she did a great job!)

The keynote from Danny and Shannon of Nature’s Green Acres was a great way to start the day. They shared their farm story – how labour intensive their methods are, how their children are involved in the day-to-day chores. I think it set the tone for the conference – one of humble appreciation for producers like the Ruzickas and the hard work involved in bringing consumers a quality product!

Eat Alberta 2012

Danny and Shannon Ruzicka

Afterwards, I did a quick walk-through of a few of the hands-on sessions in the kitchens, and it looked like people were having a blast.

Eat Alberta 2012

Cheesemaking with Alan Roote

Eat Alberta 2012

Knife skills with Kevin Kent

Eat Alberta 2012

Pasta making with Kathryn Joel

Much of this can be attributed to the stellar presenters that volunteered and took it upon themselves to plan practical and insightful workshops, and were able to impart both their knowledge and their passion in the limited time available. I think there was a lot more tweeting going on this year than last, so it was neat to see some of the real time comments of participants – talk about immediate feedback!

Eat Alberta 2012

Owen Petersen’s class making sourdough babies

I was also able to sit in on two sessions that day. The first was with Martin Osis of the Alberta Mycological Society who addressed the topic of Foraging for Mushrooms. I’ve heard Martin speak before, and he certainly hasn’t lost his sense of humour about fungi. There was no doubt attendees were engaged, and had Martin not warned the crowd numerous times about the exceptions to the edible mushroom rules, I’m sure people would have wanted to start foraging for mushrooms right outside the walls of NAIT.

Eat Alberta 2012

Martin Osis

In the afternoon, I joined Chef Blair Lebsack’s session on how to prepare bison. Blair was among three NAIT Culinary Arts instructors we were fortunate to have, as they are the mentors behind the next generation of the city’s culinary talent.

Eat Alberta 2012

Blair Lebsack

Blair didn’t show us just one, but three ways of cooking bison so we could taste the difference between different cuts and preparation methods. He started with a roast from First Nature’s Farms, seasoned it, then placed in a hot oven (it reminded me that I need to get myself a probe thermometer!). Blair then pointed to a brisket he had started earlier that day, having cooked it low and slow for several hours. It was fork tender, surrounded by the aromatic bath it had been prepared in.

Lastly, Blair divided up a striploin into individual steaks so participants would be able to cook it up on their own to their liking. Many chose to pan-fry their steaks, but I went with the grill, mostly because the barbecue isn’t something I get to play with all that often!

Eat Alberta 2012

Seasoning up my steak

The plenary panel was something we had great fun designing. “How to survive a zombie apocalypse” was an off-beat way of asking some really important questions about how one would be able to fend for themselves in our Prairie context. I think Allan did a great job moderating the panel, though I know we had some minor clarity issues for those seated at the back.

Eat Alberta 2012

Zombie apocalypse panel

Valerie and Allan deserve all of the credit for the tasting boards served at the wine down. They were a sight to behold, all lined up in Ernest’s, and yes, they were as lovingly prepared as they appeared to have been. My favourite taste was similar to my favourite last year – the Cheesiry’s pecorino with a drizzle of Lola Canola honey.

Eat Alberta 2012

Valerie preparing the boards

Eat Alberta 2012

Maki’s beautiful shot of a tasting board

In all, I think it was a really successful event. We achieved what we set out to do, and hope everyone thought it was a worthwhile day as well (you can check out what others said here). That said, we know there is always room for improvement, and for the future, there will be some minor adjustments (for example, ensuring that all attendees have the opportunity to participate in at least one hands-on course). And if you have any other suggestions, please get in touch with us – we’re all ears!

In reflecting back on the day, I feel indebted to so many people. Thanks to everyone who attended, and took a chance on our event. I want to thank the tireless volunteers – the event truly could not have taken place without your energy and hard work. Thanks also to the Italian Centre, Mighty Trio Organics and Gold Forest Grains for sponsoring us – it means a lot that small local businesses believed in our vision as well. Last but not least – so much of the feeling I am left with now is an intense respect for my fellow committee members – it was such a pleasure to work with you, Allan, Mack, Ming, Nicole, Su and Valerie. Here’s to Eat Alberta 2013!

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Announcing Eat Alberta 2012: Your Real Food Survival Guide

It feels like our inaugural Eat Alberta conference was only a few months back, but it took place almost a year ago! Based on the response we received the last go around, we knew there was an appetite in the city for more opportunities to learn about local food and to connect with other like-minded individuals, so a second incarnation was definitely something the organizing committee wanted to offer.

Eat Alberta

We also took the feedback we received from the first event very seriously; the most common response was that future conferences should be held in a professional kitchen. We’re very happy to announce that this year’s conference will be held at NAIT, which features some of the best culinary facilities in Edmonton. Attendees also made suggestions about the type of sessions they would have liked to have seen on the schedule, and as a result, we have done our best to invite chefs and producers to match the requested content.

Eat Alberta 2011

Kathryn Joel is back again this year with another pasta making session

Valerie took the lead on developing the schedule, and has made sure there are a variety of both hands-on workshops and tastings for participants to choose from. I think there is something for everyone, and more than a few classes that I’d like to slip into if I had the chance! This year’s sessions include:

  • Keynote from Shannon and Danny Ruzicka from Nature’s Green Acres, who will be sharing their farming story and addressing why grass-fed meats are better;
  • Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton’s Amy Beaith will be sharing her knowledge on preserving fruits and vegetables;
  • Patty Milligan (aka Lola Canola) will be returning with her fabulous bee education and honey seminar (it was the only session I had time to partake in last year, and I can say from firsthand experience that it is not to be missed);
  • ever-energetic Prairie Mill’s Owen Petersen will be showing aspiring bakers how to farm their own yeast; and
  • Kevin Kent, owner of Knifewear, is travelling from Calgary for sessions on knife skills and sharpening.

You can take a look at all of the session descriptions here.

Eat Alberta 2011

Tasting honey with Patty Milligan

Tickets were released to the public this morning, and I know some of the sessions are filling up fast! Tickets are $135, and include the keynote and panel, four sessions, breakfast, lunch and a glass of wine.

Eat Alberta 2011

Allan Suddaby (who is also on the organizing committee) is passionate about sausage!

So to get your first choice of sessions, head over to the registration page soon – we’d love to see you at NAIT for Eat Alberta 2012: Your Real Food Survival Guide, on April 14!

Resources from Food: Today, Tomorrow, Together

One of the most valuable things I gained at the Food: Today, Tomorrow, Together Conference (previous posts are here) was information. As I mentioned in my posts on the conference, it seems that while many valuable resources exist in Edmonton, only those already connected are aware of the services or organizations that can help citizens on different aspects of food security. As such, the resource fair set up before Carol Off’s talk was a vital part of the conference.

The following are a list of organizations or pertinent events that may be of interest to you:

  • The Edmonton Food Security Network just launched their new website. It’s still a work in progress (I know they are offering workshops, for example, but they are nowhere to be found on the site), but they do have a good glossary though, for those just starting to look into food security. The EFSN had attached their new logo and information to packages of Bedrock Seeds – nice touch.
  • The Alberta Farmers’ Market Association has a great listing of approved farmers’ markets on their website, and I was told that the national body (called Farmers Market Canada) was launched on February 16.
  • I’ve mentioned City Farm here and there on my blog in the past (mostly to promote their Open Gate days), but in conversation with Susan Penstone, the Executive Director of City Farm, it seems they want to expand their operations to six total facilities across the prairies. I think they are providing a needed service – providing a tangible opportunity for urban dwellers (and particularly children) to learn about the land.
  • Susan is also connected to the Community Garden Network. The Network is set up to connect those with an interest in gardening with already existing projects, or, to set up a new garden.
  • Seedy Sundays (I heart the name) have been taking place for years. It is an event that in general promotes gardening, provides a medium for active gardeners to trade heritage seeds, and allows for those new to the field (pun intended) to purchase seeds specifically intended for our climate. Head to the Alberta Avenue Community Hall (9210 118 Avenue) on March 22 from 11am-4pm if you are interested. I’ll be there, in the hopes of acquiring the information and seeds to start a container garden this summer. For more information, e-mail Pam.
  • The Going Organic Network of Alberta is hosting a conference on March 11-12 in Camrose. They will also be launching a cookbook at the event.
  • Speaking of books, the Vegetarians of Alberta were also present, promoting their Vegan and Vegetarian Diner’s Guide. For a more general resource, I’m still wishing for a book like John Gilchrist’s My Favourite Restaurants, but of course, focusing on the capital region’s local, independent establishments.

Day 3 – Food: Today, Tomorrow, Together Conference

Day 3 definitely felt like a whirlwind, though I’m sure information overload was definitely starting to be a factor for me.

The morning started off with a keynote by Herb Barbolet, who is, among other things, an Associate with the Centre for Sustainable Community Development at Simon Fraser University. Partly due to the above disorientation, I can’t say I gained much from his keynote. He was supposed to, in part, summarize what we had learned over the last two days and provide a way for us to put our ideas into action, but I found his discussion mostly reiterated other writers and presenters without anything new. Barbolet was, in all, fiercely optimistic that change is on the horizon, and that the sign of society’s current resistance to change signals a death knell for the ways of current food production.

After the coffee break, we were treated to a lovely presentation by Animal Science 200 students from the University of Alberta, who, for the purposes of a class project are called “There’s a Heifer in Your Tank”. In small groups, they are tasked with creatively answering various agriculture and animal-related questions.  That morning, they tackled “Are French Charlolais bulls more romantic than other bulls?”

In a dating-show format, a “jersey cow” asked a series of questions to three “bulls” behind a curtain, to the audience’s comedic delight. Over lunch, the group also performed a short skit to discuss the positive attributes of horse and cow manure. Heifer in Your Tank has visited schools and community groups, using humour and an unusual approach to educate the general public.

 

There’s a Heifer in Your Tank

The last breakout session I attended, titled “Making a difference in the city”, was one of my favourites, because it was grounded with Edmonton examples. Ivor MacKay, an IT department worker with CBC, was asked by the network if he would subsist on a 100-mile diet for a week in Edmonton. He decided that a week wasn’t long enough, and after discussing it with his wife and children, extended it to a year starting in June 2007.

The 100-mile diet concept was popularized by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon from B.C., and focuses on obtaining all foods from a 100-mile (or 160.9km) radius. Ivor mentioned doing a lot of canning (so they would have, for example, tomato sauce in the winter), and missing certain foods (ginger, olive oil, vinegar). Most of all, they were prevented from participating in many social gatherings that centered around food (as restaurants, for example, used ingredients outside of their acceptable radius).

On the bright side, they built very close relationships with local producers, and using an analogy of a rainforest, where rain that falls is used up not only by the tallest trees, but trickles down to the plants on the ground, referenced building abundance in our local economy as one of the most important reasons to support area producers. Now, Ivor and his family are on the “bullseye diet”, which means they try to grow as much food themselves as possible, but buy whatever they cannot grow from local producers, then regional farmers, and so on. He is also working on a 100-mile diet cookbook.

 

Ivor MacKay shows us the 100-mile radius around Edmonton

Ron Berezan, also known as the Urban Farmer, presented about his passion for gardening. He emphasized the need to change the relationship people had with food (and increasing the ecological and agricultural literacy of the public), and  also drew our attention to statistics from Michael Pilarski that states that 1/10 to 1 acre of well-tended land can feed one person (as opposed to 9 acres per person through the industrial food system). He then proceeded to show us a “veritable pantheon” (TM Iron Chef) of urban garden examples: everything from community gardens, edible schoolyards and balcony gardens to urban livestock. Apparently, three backyard hens can produce up to two eggs per day, and Ron and the rest of The River City Chicken Collective, are trying to change the city’s animal control laws to allow chicken keeping. He also told us about an upcoming project in Strathcona County called the Emerald Hills Urban Village, which will strive to be sustainable and integrate an “edible landscape” into their plans. For those interested in urban farming, CityFarmer is the resource that Ron recommends.

The last session of the day was a final open space. Carol Off mentioned being a cynic, and I think I am as well, but I hope to be proven wrong. The last open space were meant to be action-oriented, and though I would love to see the groups continue on and flourish, to the point where they can report on having accomplished something by next year’s conference, the natural ebb and flow of a conference generally ends in all talk and no results. That said, I am excited about the idea discussed in the open space I joined – Andreas Grueneberg proposed a “local only” store in Edmonton that would sell nothing but locally produced goods year-round. He emphasized that this would have to be a citizen versus farmer-driven initiative, and some names and contact information were collected to initiate future meetings. It is an exciting idea that I definitely think there is a demand for, but with most endeavors, cautious optimism is the way for me.

After a few door prize draws, the 2009 Food: Today, Tomorrow, Together Conference was over. Two things really stood out for me by the end – the first was the wrought tension between the drive behind food security and money. Not one of the speakers I listened to referenced the declining economy, let alone mentioned the ‘r’ word, so I think the “elephant in the room” metaphor is appropriate in this case. As a majority of the speakers were calling for a radical purchasing shift by citizens, it really surprised me that no one acknowledged exactly how expensive and unrealistic that would be in the current climate.

Second, I had no idea Edmonton had such an underground of citizens passionate and committed to achieving food security (evident as a conference of this size would have never come to fruition otherwise), but they need to do a better idea of spreading awareness of their expertise to the greater public. Also, within this group, there is much work to be done to strike lasting and effective links between organizations – at the moment, it is very much a hodgepodge of parallel institutions.

Thanks to the volunteer committee for putting together a great first-time conference – the food was amazing, speakers insightful, and the opportunity to meet others interested in this idea priceless. One of the conference organizers told me that the capacity was 225, but that many more would have registered had there been room. I can only imagine the growth in interest citizens will have in this topic in 2010. Onward to next year’s conference!

 

2009 Food: Today, Tomorrow, Together committee

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

After lunch, I was finally able to move from the auditorium into the more small-group friendly rooms for the day’s second breakout session. Titled “The Capacity of the Alberta Food System”, I was disappointed that the content didn’t actually provide more information about the capacity of the Alberta food system.

Candace Vanin, an agrologist with the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation, Administration, Agriculture and Agri-food Canada provided some interesting facts:

  • 8% of land in Canada is suitable for food production, with over 80% of that farmland positioned on the prairies;
  • Edmonton has a fairly good agro-climactic zone (rated 2H on a scale of 1-7, with 1 being excellent for agricultural activity), and has 143 frost-free days due to the geographic “bowl” the city is situated in; and
  • there are 170 census farms in Edmonton, and that 80-90% of all broccoli, cauliflower and beets in Alberta are grown in the Edmonton area.

Paul Cabaj of the Canadian Centre for Community Renewal talked about the results of a survey he conducted, but didn’t have anything particularly of interest to contribute except a mention of a social enterprise project. Apparently a group in Edmonton would like to start a greenhouse on the lands around the Alberta Hospital site to sell half of the produce to local restaurants, and use the profits to be able to provide the rest of the produce to low-income families.

Someone at the end of the session asked the obvious question – “What is the capacity of Alberta’s food system?”, and while neither presenter had an answer (partly because the answer would change yearly and be completely hypothetical), local economist Mark Anielski, who had participated in a panel discussion earlier in the day has estimated that Alberta would be able to support less than 10% of its population on its current agricultural production.

The last breakout session of the day was my favourite of the entire conference – the “Realities of Farming” offered two producers the opportunity to talk about their firsthand experience. Gene Brown, a small rancher with 170 cattle, was so honest and so well-intentioned that I wished that more people could hear him speak.

He talked about some of the changes they had implemented on their ranch over the last few years to make their farm more environmentally sound, including rotational grazing and water pumping. They also adapted some methods to reduce the stress on animals, like utilizing plastic nose paddles for seven days prior to separating the calf from its mother (meaning that they cannot receive milk from their mothers, but they have the security of being by their side for a week longer), and planting shelter trees along the side of their farm that borders the highway. Gene was very positive in his assessment of their farming business, saying that it was a lifestyle he would not give up, as it allowed him to be close to nature, and have flexible days. He closed his presentation with this: “Of all the crops we’ve produced, the ones we are most proud of are our children.” Aw.

Gwen Simpson, of Inspired Market Gardens was up next. She heavily emphasized how difficult it is for farmers to make a living in the current climate. She provided an example of her counterparts at Sunshine Organic Farm, who only make $2 per organic, pasture-raised chicken, and that doesn’t include the wages they have to pay to employees, insurance, certification, or transportation to farmers’ markets. Other notable facts:

  • Alberta lost 7.1% of their farmers (since which year, I didn’t note down). The average age of a farmer in Alberta is 52, and in the last 5 years, the province has lost 25% of farmers under the age of 35.
  • Canadians surveyed by the OECD ranked communication and health the #1 and #2 things they would be willing to pay top dollar for. Food ranked #11.
  • In 1988, 1.44kg of pork cost $6.88. In 2002, 1.46kg of pork cost $9.54, with the difference collected by the retailer and the processor, and not the farmer.

Gwen introduced the idea that perhaps farmers should be seen more as our doctors, as what we eat has a direct impact on our health. She noted that people should be willing to pay more for good food, especially if one considers proper nutrition as a means of disease prevention.

 

Gwen Simpson

We had another open space discussion prior to dinner, but for the life of me, I can’t remember which group I huddled around – being reliant on the notes in my Moleskine is a detriment to some extent.

I returned from dinner refreshed and ready for the final portion of the evening – a lecture from Carol Off, journalist, host of a CBC radio show, and author of Bitter Chocolate, a book that exposed the human rights violations of the cocoa industry. Immediately after her presentation, I was a bit disappointed with what I thought was a lack of content, but now, a few days later, I think it was a well-rounded case study of a commodity, peppered with people that she met throughout her visit to the Ivory Coast to investigate the situation.

“Food is the biggest story of our time,” Off opened. She gave a brief history of cocoa, and how it eventually became a prized commodity in the Western world. Her lecture then centered around the three factors that in her opinion led to the destruction of modern Africa and cocoa production: the greed and corruption of Africa’s leaders, the Structural Adjustment Programs heralded by the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, and corporate amorality by the multinationals that now “own” cocoa, and are able to drive down the price with their monopoly. On this last point, she explained, as farmers cannot afford to pay their employees because of the low rate they receive, they turn to the cheapest labour available – slave labour of children. Sadly, she even saw mothers purposely sending children into the Ivory Coast from neighbouring Mali – mothers that were hoping that being employed in cocoa plantations would guarantee them food they would not otherwise have. She herself does not eat anything but fair trade chocolate, or chocolate that contains cocoa sourced from anywhere but Africa, and reminded the audience, “When you take a bite of chocolate, just remember who’s life you’re eating.”

One of her suggested “solutions” to the problem was empowerment – of the cocoa farmers (to be able to organize, and to be aware of the true value of their product), and of us. She introduced the idea that would be rampant on day 3 of the conference that people need to stop viewing themselves as “consumers” – “The power to change lies with citizens and not consumers,” she said. Citizens can force the government to legislate the needed change – for example, introducing a bill that bans companies from importing cocoa farmed by children (in 2001, Senators Hawkin and Engel in the U.S. tried to pass what is known as the “Cocoa Protocol” to have done just this, but cocoa lobby forced their request to become voluntary only).

 

Carol Off

I was pretty beat by this time, but stopped in the cafeteria area to sample some included wine (from enSante, who, I am happy to announce, were granted an extension of their farmgate license and will be allowed to sell their wine at farmers’ markets this summer!) and cheese (from Sylvan Star Cheese, among others).

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.

Lunch

Day 1 – Food: Today, Tomorrow, Together Conference

The Food: Today, Tomorrow, Together Conference kicked off this evening at the Barnett House. The roads were sleek, and the icewalks (I mean, sidewalks) even more so, and though regretting my decision to walk to Barnett from Westmount Centre, I made it there soaked but in one piece.

Two things of note with this conference – they are striving to be a “paperless” conference, so attendees were not given any paper agendas (with organizers opting to project it onto a screen for everyone to see), and were expected to bring their own notepads for notes. Also, the majority of the keynotes and sessions will be filmed, so those who weren’t able to make it to the conference can see what they missed on the website.

Thomas Pawlick, author of nine books, including his most recent The End of Food, was the Conference’s opening keynote speaker. I have to say, one’s reception of his address has as much to do with the perspective of the listener as much as his words.

Thomas Pawlick

Having been introduced to the world of food security through Michael Pollan, I have to say that I probably wasn’t as receptive to Pawlick’s anecdotal-based speech. He talked a lot about small farmers he knew personally facing hardships due to competition with corporate industrial farms, and not being able to comply with provincial health regulations geared at shutting them down. He called it the “collectivization of Canadian agriculture”, and compared the current situation with what happened in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s reign.

He did bring some statistics into his lecture, including a brief overview over the “food tables” he had looked into – lab results analyzing the nutrients in everyday food items over the last 50 years. 100g of a whole tomato now, for example, has 22.7% less protein, 30.7% less vitamin A, 16.9% less Vitamin C and 61% less calcium than compared with the same quantity in 1963 – due largely to industrial farming methods that, among other things, do not breed for nutrients, do not allow time for optimum growth, and use only very basic fertilizer missing several essential nutrients (this really summarizes his point; Pollan elaborates much more in The Omnivore’s Dilemma on this latter subject).

Pawlick ended his talk with a call for action in the form of membership in two specific organizations – the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and the fairly new Landowner’s Association. Non-farmers can join the NFU as an associate member to show support for their farming counterparts, and start city-wide chapters. The Landowner’s Association is meant to be more inclusive, but the scenario he described (which involved almost one hundred shotgun-wielding farmers surrounding police that had threatened to shut down a neighbouring farm) sounded too activist-oriented for my tastes.

As a whole, I was looking for something more concrete than stories. The Canadian context was great, but having Pollan and his statistics-based rhetoric in my head didn’t help matters either.

Next, we were invited downstairs to the cafeteria area for what they called a “Taste of Alberta”. It turned out to be an assembly of Alberta-based producers and food companies, all offering samples of products. The organizers had warned attendees that it wasn’t a full dinner, and to ensure that a meal was had elsewhere, but I am certain I could have filled up on the samples alone.

enSante Winery was there, offering five different samples of their wine. I tried one of their raspberry varieties, and it wasn’t as sweet as I was expecting – perhaps I will stick with their Adam’s Apple for a sweet glass. Le Cafe Entres Amis was offering a chocolate-orange crepe – one slice was definitely rich enough for me. 2 Greek Gals from Calgary offered an entire plate of food – Greek salad, spanakopita and chicken souvlaki. I’m not usually a fan of feta cheese, but I didn’t mind it at all in their salad. D’Lish and Sandy’s Country Kitchen were also offering samples, with the latter offering to pack up her homemade cinnamon buns for attendees to take home! My favourite dish of the night went to Rose Ridge Land & Cattle for the Beef on a Bun – so tender, I should have returned for seconds. My only quibble with the tasting event was that reusable cutlery, instead of plastic cutlery, should have been used to continue with the conference’s environmentally-friendly mission.

We ended the night with one of three simultaneous film screenings. I chose The Real Dirt on Farmer John (based on the title and nothing else). It turned out to be a documentary about John Peterson, the founder of Angelic Organics, an Illinois-based Community Supported Agriculture farm. It tells of his life growing up on the farm, his family’s history tending to the land, and his own struggles with supporting a farm in the current market. Being an eccentric person with an interesting life history definitely added some spice to the film, but what I enjoyed most was seeing how John related to the land, his community, and most of all, his mother.

Based on the first day, I am optimistic for how much more I can learn at the rest of the conference!

Food: Today, Tomorrow, Together Conference

It seems the extremes of Edmonton’s winter weather has caught up to me, so I will make this short and sweet. Tomorrow evening, farmers, food activists, concerned citizens, and everyone in between will be gathering at the Barnett House for the Food: Today, Tomorrow, Together Conference, running January 29-31.

I jumped at the chance to immerse myself in the topic and have an opportunity to be surrounded by those knowledgeable about the field of food security – something I’m only starting to learn about.

The sessions I am most looking forward to are the ones titled “The Capacity of the Alberta Food System” and the “Realities of Farming” – two topics that I would appreciate a local context to draw from. Of course, the Taste of Alberta on Thursday will also be a welcome palate pleaser, I’m sure.

I will do my best to blog each day after the conference, but it will depend entirely on the state of my cold.

ETS Community Conference 2008

I’ve decided to just make a quick point-form post about my impressions of the ETS Community Conference, if not only to remember what I thought in my first year of attending. If you’re looking for a little more detail, feel free to read Mack’s post about the half-day event here.

  • I read in the Edmonton Journal a few weeks before the conference that Bob Boutilier, the new GM of the City’s Transportation Department, actually takes the bus to work every day from his home in Twin Brooks. He definitely earned some respect from me with that admission. And after hearing him speak on stage, I have even more admiration for his obvious passion for public transit and his deft appreciation of the politics behind a sprawling city devoted to its vehicles. He didn’t once patronize the audience and knew that we all had first-hand experience of the ills of the current system. While realistic in his assessment of the time it will take to extend the LRT, he left the audience with the assertion that he believes the current city council is pro-transit, meaning that it may be possible to lay the groundwork for a better, more efficient transit system in the next three years.
  • Charles Stolte, Manager of ETS, presented himself as much more of a statistics fan when compared with Boutilier, though I guess it was good to know that ridership had increased by 7.75% in the last year, and that they had reached their “saturation point”, as they now have more buses than garage storage space at this time.
  • I wasn’t too impressed with the ETS Info-On-the-Go “demonstration” (or rather, slides of screen shots), though it was amusing to notice that the virtual customer care representative was seemingly modeled after Posh Spice (she was even named “Vicki”). While there is potential for such technology, I agreed with those in the session that questioned the usefulness of the kiosk for those already familiar with the system.

I would consider attending next year’s conference, if not only to meet others who are like-minded in their belief that the system can and must be improved.