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