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.


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.