I am very pleased to be here on behalf of Edmonton City Council to congratulate you on this excellent conference and I am equally pleased to be here as a long time local food advocate and organizer to talk about the issues of food, food systems and food security in our city, region and world.
I want to start today’s keynote with some poetry.
There are many Wendell Berry poems I love.
This one is a short intro to a Poem called a Mad Farmer in the City.
It says… a field woman is a portion of the field; she has somehow lost her own margin…
She has somehow lost her own margin… sounds so tragic on one hand to imagine losing our margins, our independence, our defined edges, which cast us as unique and special.
But it isn’t tragic at all. It’s a place of incredible blessing when we can blend into our vocation, where it blends into us.
I am here today to talk about food, which as an eater I am still a student. I am here to talk about agriculture and farming, which I had to chance to do for a living as a younger person but chose to step away from. And I am here to talk about Urban Agriculture and Food Policy, which I have pondered, participated in and organized for more of.
Mostly I am here to tell some stories about my life and people whom I love and admire. I also want to talk about how our relationship to food can help us build relationships to new peers and how our relationships with new peers can help us build a better relationship with a future concerned firstly with our own health and the health of the ecosystems that give us life.
I read the Wendell Berry poem because it reminds me of my grandmother. Her name was Pearl Walters. She was just shy of 5 feet tall. She was stocky. She was tough. She was a field woman- who had lost her own margins. She moved to Canada from Ukraine in 1923 at the age of 9, already grown to the point of adult maturity according to her parent’s demands. This was the way of children in 1923. In families that were eternally food insecure with all hope tethered to rays of sun and drops of rain, enough of each and in the correct order, farm children by the age of 9 were field people.
She had 9 children of her own and a few more pregnancies than that and with my grandfather, she built a farm that gave me the values I hold onto today.
While her first 9 years were war torn and in flight from danger in eastern Europe during and just after world war 1, her next 75 years were peaceful and lived in constant relationship to food. I mean 16 hours a day constant. She gardened, she harvested, she cooked, she cleaned up what she cooked, she butchered, she cured, she packaged, she canned, she pickled, she cooked some more, she cleaned up some more, she baked - bread, pies, cakes and cookies. She made big breakfasts, big lunches, big dinners and only for half an hour each night she sat dipping some of that bread, or cake or cookies in a cup of coffee and listened to the Ukrainian hour on the radio- old polkas- with her eyes closed- a short period of rest- and then she stood up and she cleaned and then prepared for breakfast in the morning. After making breakfast, she cleaned it up and then went to her fields. And in her free time she would take me to the bush to pick raspberries and blueberries.
I stayed with her every summer and served as her apprentice.
I would work with her all day and then go to bed around 10 every night exhausted and happy. And as I fell asleep I would hear the sound of her worn leather slippers scuffing across the floor as she shuffled around the kitchen. I would wake up every morning to that same sound. For most of my childhood I thought she never went to bed. I thought she just worked in the kitchen all night long. She did manage to sneak a few hours of sleep in each night, but otherwise she was constantly with food. She was constantly farming. She was constantly feeding someone. She had lost her margins.
My grandmother’s life was defined by food. She probably would have a hard time recognizing me if she could see me browsing the aisles of my neighbourhood’s No Frills for cereal and canned chick peas. In many ways, convenience culture has disconnected us from that sense of immediate connection to the food we prepare and eat, the connection which defined my grandmother’s way of life. Food insecurity and hunger are remote ideas to most of us now. Even the idea of growing something can be daunting to us urbanites. But my grandmother’s care and focus on food is still the norm in many parts of the world.
In many developing African countries, women undertake all of the food production, processing, and selling. Not only do they work ceaselessly to produce enough food for their families and to sell it for a small profit, but they are often engaged in community agricultural labour, childcare, and expected to play roles in the improvement of their communities.
Their work is vital and life-giving, but all-consuming. Like my grandmother, there is no delineation between work and life when food is on the line. Work is life. Despite this, the work of women in the developing world is often not enough to overcome the immense obstacles they face. The socioeconomic limitations that they face: limited access to training and educational opportunities, barriers to financial resources like credit, and the societal perception that the production and selling of food products constitutes the lowest bracket in the social strata, mean that women are often trapped in a low income cycle, despite the immense number of hours they put into their work.
But there is push back against these limitations. Women like Leticia Asafo-Addo, founder of Samba Foods in Ghana, who uses her company to train women in the skills needed for larger scale food processing, are relishing in their roles as providers of food and community. In an interview with the Woodrow Wilson Center, Asafo-Addo rejects the idea that women’s roles in food production must remain at the micro-level, rather than making a real living from the production of food. Combatting both systemic barriers and food insecurity, Asafo-Addo and women like her are changing the nature of food culture in their communities and countries.
So my grandmother’s life, a good life, but a hard one, is not so dissimilar from what many women experience around the world today. The next question for me is how do we help to tear down the obstacles faced by female providers of food around the world? Is it through a focus on food security and hunger? Or do we concentrate on breaking down the socioeconomic barriers that hold people in cycles of poverty and malnutrition? Is it about providing charity or is it about encouraging entrepreneurship?
Maybe the answers to these questions lie in reconnecting with food producers, both locally and globally, as the providers of the goods that we all consume. Perhaps it starts with reassessing the value that food adds to our lives, and how that value is intrinsically tied to the worthwhile labour of farmers and ranchers and bakers and butchers and people too numerous to count. The abundance of food that many of us enjoy is not the norm, and should be held as a precious entity, one that we seek to share with others.
I was fortunate last year to participate in an initiative that reminded me of the value that abundance of food adds to my life. The Living Below the Line project asked members of City Council to experience what it is like to struggle to meet basic food needs on a daily basis. This meant having only $1.75 to spend on food per day.
While I survived on pre-cut carrots and oatmeal and occasionally an apple, I was nowhere near thriving. After only a week, I felt the sluggishness and exhaustion that comes with poor nutrition. Whether in Ghana or here in Edmonton, I know there are many people who struggle every day to thrive in the face of the burden of hunger.
The experience of living below the poverty line reaffirmed my appreciation for the work and sacrifice of the women who raised me. When I wasn’t with my grandmother I was with my mother and my three younger siblings. We grew up poor financially but I was never hungry. My step -father had become ill when I was a child so we went from a full time decent paying job to short term then long term disability to AISH. This stuff happens to families. This is why we have social safety nets right?
Our social safety net was that we happened to rent a 10-acre piece of land where my mother planted a very large garden and built a chicken barn. She grew enough vegetables and raised 150 chickens a year, some of which she traded around for some beef and pork to mix things up a bit, plus also preserved- canned, pickled, froze- enough food to keep our family well fed year round- mostly.
There were a couple of hard trips into town for helping hampers at our local food bank in the winter months, but not many considering the fact we really didn’t have any money.
The remarkable thing is that I knew we were poor when I was a kid, but I can’t remember feeling hungry. Not once.
And all of the food I ate then was the food that we pay extra for now and it all comes from a food system that we are trying to imagine once again. Everything my grandmother and mother grew and raised was organic, free of chemicals of any kind. They never called it organic but it was. It was certainly local and it was definitely healthy and it was largely abundant.
I am very grateful for the work of these two women, who dedicated their lives to food and feeding people- for losing their own margins.
And now I live in a world of abundance. I am not a farmer like my grandmother or poor like my mother was. I am a middle class urban politician and organizer trying to remember the stories of these two women and all they gave me so I can give the same things- only differently- to my kids.
When I say differently- what they were trying to do was simply keep the people they loved fed. Period! For them it was a clean and clear criteria. What I and many us who you will hear from today are trying to do is feed people better. My family was poor, but we were fed well and ate healthy. But that wasn’t true for every family that was poor at the same time we were. There was a difference for some.
So the question I have is what has changed and what is that difference? Today in Edmonton if you are poor you are less food secure. You certainly don’t buy organic food or probably don’t care much about where the food was produced. You take what you get. This is a fundamental human question. How do we feed our ourselves and our families?
And what has become a secondary question - is how do we feed ourselves and our families well?
The most recent data from 2012 found that 1 in every 8 Edmontonians experience poverty as a daily reality. As you might expect, Food Bank use in the City follows broader economic trends, rising during times of higher unemployment and economic instability. This means that right now in Edmonton, as oil prices fall, food security might begin becoming more and more daunting for the most vulnerable in our City.
Only 48% of women,as compared to 68% of men, hold full time jobs in Edmonton, which is the largest gap within the top 20 cities in Canada. Women also earn on average $21,000 less per year than their male counterparts. If this isn’t frightening enough, we know that around 40% of those served by local Food Banks are children and youth under the age of 18. Unsurprisingly, women and young people are much more likely to live in poverty and to struggle with food security. How can we expect anyone to thrive- with the question of whether they will eat today hovering above them?
Organizations like Lady Flower Gardens, Prairie Urban Farm, and dozens of others use urban agriculture to combat these problems by providing organic, locally produced food to organizations like the Bissell Centre, Mustard Seed, and Campus Food Bank. Lady Flower Gardens also offers plots of land to families and groups where they can reconnect with the process of producing food.
Food collectives like Collective Kitchens at the Edmonton Food Bank are important to decreasing urban food insecurity - allowing people to bring together their resources to create food collectively, in a manner that is both nutritious and cost effective.
Programs that offer the opportunity to develop relationships around food are enormously effective at creating social cohesion and building confidence. Removing the shadow of food insecurity from a person’s day can have a massive impact on improving their quality of life, and give them a chance to really thrive. So perhaps the first step in the process of removing barriers for the disenfranchised is ensuring that everyone can answer that all-important question: How do we feed ourselves and our families? And how do we do it well together?
I now live in a world of abundance. There is food everywhere for most of us. But what actually drives the decisions around what we eat and where we buy it?
I know that as a society we are far more conscientious about the way we eat than ever before. Some of us are worried about health, about weight, about energy. Some of us are worried about the environment, about supporting local farmers who add so much to the culture and energy of our city through farmers markets. But most of us still get our food from grocery stores, which are obviously a huge part of our food system and the way we eat.
From its beginnings as simple trading posts purveying dry goods like spices and coffee and sugar gathered up by our first global traders, to today’s supermarkets where we can buy Edmonton grown potatoes, organic apples from Wanachi and an aerosol can filled with some sort of cheese stuff, or 30,000 different kinds of cookies, the grocery store is at the heart of the food system. It is the largest public gathering place of our food system today.
So in my own life I have traveled from what I call scarce abundance as a kid to absurd abundance as an adult. I also have the luxury of a criteria for food consumption beyond merely just alleviating hunger.
I shop at farmers markets, when I am not giving really long speeches on Saturday mornings, because I want to support local farmers who are connected to their food and who have also, like my grandmother, lost their margins. I want to support local farmers at farmers markets because farmers markets help my city be the kind of city I want to live in. They add culture, vibrancy and memory to our place.
I try to buy organic as much as I can, but some of my favorite farmers don’t sell organic so I don’t always buy it. When in a grocery store I would rather buy local from Western Canada than organic from New Zealand- how organic is an apple that travels here all the way from New Zealand? And someone brought organic marshmallows to a party once. Really?
I shop as much as humanly possible at the Italian Centre- because it’s a great local business with affordable groceries, a warm and comfortable coffee shop where I take my kids and eat those delicious sandwiches and load up on olives and pepperchini’s and cheeses and spicy meats. It gives me great joy to be there.
I also shop as much as possible at the Petrolia Mall No Frills. Our most hoity toity organic foodies might suggest this is the bottom rung of the food ladder. The business model is NO FRILLS. It says it all. It is an affordable place for people without a lot of money to shop and in our case it is an community oasis in what was previously a food desert for many southside neighbourhoods. It is also the anchor to our hopes for a revitalized Petrolia Mall and renewed commercial vibrancy for many communities in my Ward. No Frills is beloved in our community and will hopefully catalyze other food businesses like restaurants and cafes and bakeries.
Most importantly however is we do grow some of our own food. A little known fact about me is that I am a pending member of the Edmonton Potato growers association- where to be a full member you need to produce 300,000 lbs of potatoes each year. Last year I produced 20 lbs in a patch in my front yard. I also have prolific vegetable gardens and fruit trees being managed by Kara whom I am the husband of and our sons. For Isaac and Samson, who are 8 and 10 years old- these small urban plots are their lessons about land and food and losing their own margins. These plots of land contribute the smallest percentage to our food use, but they are the most important source. These small plots circling my house remind me both of the lessons learned at my grandmother and mother’s sides and they remind me that those lessons remain the most important ones for my children.
Wendell Berry said once “Most people are now fed, clothed and sheltered from sources toward which they feel no gratitude and exercise no responsibility. There is no significant urban constituency, no formidable consumer lobby, no noticeable political leadership, for good land‐use practices, for good farming and good forestry, for restoration of abused land, or for halting the destruction of land by so‐called “development”.
He went on to say that “We are involved now in a profound failure of imagination. Most of us cannot imagine the wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer beyond the wheat, or the farm beyond the farmer, or the history beyond the farm. Most people cannot imagine the forest and the forest economy that produced their houses and furniture and paper; or the landscapes, the streams and the weather that fill their pitchers and bathtubs and swimming pools with water. Most people appear to assume that when they have paid their money for these things they have entirely met their obligations.”
This is why our small urban gardens might be as important as large farms filling our grocery stores or smaller horiticultural operations sustaining our farmers markets.
Our own gardens teach us to be grateful and connected.
They teach us to lose our own margins. Once we understand the food source closest to us which we have essentially created ourselves, we begin to ask questions about all of our other food sources that sustain us and/or damage us. It is about land- no matter how big or small the plot.
Fundamentally, food production and access to land go hand in hand. However, whenever dealing with the issue of access to land for agricultural purposes, especially when speaking in the context of cities, the growth of those cities, and the growth of city regions as a whole, there always seems to be this tension, or a balancing act as to how can we continue to grow, but still maintain access to a local agricultural products for our own use or to be sold as a commodity on the open market.
Take both Edmonton and the Capital Region for example. Currently, even with the price of oil being in its predictable five year free fall, our City, and our region, are experiencing unprecedented growth. In fact, since 2012, the City of Edmonton has grown by roughly 60,000 people, which is the equivalent of adding the City of Leduc to our population every year. By 2044, our City is expected to reach 1.5 million people and the Capital Region is expected to hit 2.3 million people.
When you think about it, that is A LOT of people moving into our City and region, or so I thought until my recent trip to Harbin, China where I was shocked to learn that Harbin adds 700,000 people to its population each year, but hey, it’s all relative right?
Getting back to our growth. To paraphrase Voltaire, and not Uncle Ben from Spider Man, “with this opportunity of growth comes great challenges and tensions;” my role as Councillor for Ward 10, which is largely comprised of mature neighbourhoods, and the boards and Committees that I am apart of, places me in the middle of these opportunities, challenges and tensions on a day-to-day basis.
Municipally, as I just mentioned, the communities in which I represent on Council are largely mature neighbourhoods. As a City, outlined in our Municipal Development Plan is the policy to have 75% of new housing starts constructed in developing neighbourhoods, and 25% of new housing starts constructed in already established neighbourhoods neighbourhoods; currently, we are falling below this target as we are currently sitting at a 86/14 split. To push us towards this 72/25 split, the City is currently considering proposals to our zoning bylaw to allow for incremental densification within our already established neighbourhoods.
The opportunities with these changes includes helping ensure our mature neighbourhoods are sustainable and vibrant, the schools in those neighbourhoods have a better chance at staying open as younger families would have the opportunity of moving in, and reducing the amount, even if it is only slightly, of land that we continue to absorb within our own boundaries to accommodate this influx in population, thereby reducing the amount of good farmland that is needed for housing all this growth.
That is just one example of the land challenges that we face within our own borders, but regionally, the challenges are much greater as coordination and cooperation between 24 municipalities can sometimes be hard to achieve at the best of times.
Regionally, the distance between municipalities within the Metro Edmonton area is shrinking, reducing the amount of agricultural land within the Region. The tension that remains on the Capital Region Board is balancing this unprecedented growth regionally within our identified priority growth areas, while still securing the possibility for agricultural production within our region.
So what does the way our City and region grow and respond to these challenges and tensions have to do with the way we eat and our relationships and interactions with the food we eat?
As mentioned earlier, my grandmother had a lot of private productive land, and my mother had access to someone else’s small plot of productive land; obtaining food was never a challenge for us growing up.
However, as more and more people continue to move into cities, and these cities subsequently become larger and larger, access to private agricultural land is being reduced at an alarming rate, impacting the ability of those in less fortunate circumstance to produce for themselves and their families; those who once could grow their own food, as in my family’s case, are now most likely living in a city with little to no access to land in which they can grow their own food.
The loss of agricultural land is not just a regional issue for Edmonton, but it is also a global one as the trend of moving to cities can be seen worldwide. In fact, the worldwide urban population in 2014 accounted for 54% of the total global population, up from 34% in 1960, and continues to grow. The urban population growth, in absolute numbers, is concentrated in the less developed regions of the world. It is estimated that by 2017, even in less developed countries, a majority of people will be living in urban areas
These trends of shrinking land supply and subsequent migration to cities, thereby losing the connection that we once had with the land and our food production, not only affect our local non-commodity based food production, but also affect where we get our food from, how it’s produced and how far it needs to travel to get to our plate.
This brings me to the City of Edmonton Food and Agricultural Strategy. All the way back in 2006 when I worked for an organization called the Greater Edmonton Alliance we took on the issue of Edmonton’s food future, food security and land use. We were a group of organizers, faith leaders, small business owners, - citizens- who started to examine the role a strong local food economy could play in Edmonton’s future. We organized around a simple question.
Where will our food come from in 25 years?
We started by organizing Local Food dinners in various churches around the city using only locally grown products and inviting people to talk about the environmental, economic and cultural benefits of eating local food. 100’s of people would come. They were great.
We hosted a few of these dinners. It was through these events where I met one of the greatest people I’ve ever met. His name is Gord Visser. He is a Potato Farmer in Northeast Edmonton in HorseHill and AN ACTUAL member of the Edmonton potato growers Association. I’ll tell you more about Gord in a minute. But it was through Gord and other members of his family where we began to contextualize our struggle around this food question. It was about land. It was specifically about land in Northeast Edmonton where Gord farmed- his land was under some degree of threat. It still may be actually.
The city was about to refresh it Municipal Development Plan, which we do every ten years or so and in this plan the direction would be set to develop all remaining land within Edmonton’s borders, including Horsehill in Northeast Edmonton.
The first draft shown to the public of the MDP as its called had a couple short paragraphs in it about Urban Agriculture and Food Policy, but nothing to put the coffee on for. It was pretty token. Until we changed that. We decided to make Urban Agriculture and the future of agricultural land the fundamental and loudest piece of the debate.
After the local food dinners we hosted a series of Local Food 101 training sessions. They were half focused on what a local food system was comprised of and the value of it and half focused on community organizing- how to talk to your neighbours and friends about their value and then to get them to come to city hall to stand up for those values.
The first public hearing on Nov. 12, 2009 for the current version of the MDP saw GEA deliver over 800 people to city hall. It was magical. It was amazing. Long story short- we did that twice more on second and third readings of the MDP and by the end of it we had convinced the council of the day to include a requirement for a full Food and Urban Agricultural Strategy to be embedded in the MDP. It was a huge win. It had engaged 1000’s of Edmontonians to think about that question- where is our food going to come from in the next 25 years.
To go back the the Great Gord Visser- the coolest thing that happened in this whole campaign was when he called me one day and said, Michael- I want to donate 100,000 pounds of potatoes to the people of Edmonton. Now that’s the first and likely the last time anyone ever says that to me. He said I want people to come and be on this land. I want people to come and see how beautiful this soil is. I want you to help me. So we organized the Great Potato Give Away. How many remember?
We put the word out that you could come and get a sack to take away 50 pounds of free potatoes and all you had to do was pick them out the soil with your own hands. 20,000 people came- 7500 cars with two or three people in each car lined up on Manning drive. We got in trouble from the police- we didn’t know. It was crazy.
There was a lot won for the local food economy in that fight. AND there was also a lot lost. Long before we started land had long been sold by retiring farmers, with kids- like me- who would not keep farming. The land was sold to speculators and developers to meet the growth. This is our struggle and the struggle of cities across the globe. It is and will be a multi generational struggle that we must face.
BUT Edmonton is making progress in the area of urban agriculture and food connectivity. FRESH, Edmonton’s Food and Agriculture Strategy was drafted in 2012. 3000 Edmontonians were involved in consultations and stakeholder meetings to craft the strategy. The goal is to create an environment in which urban agriculture can thrive and give Edmontonians the opportunity to connect to local food and its production. It also aims to bring more food production capabilities to Edmonton, to enhance our economy and the availability of local food.
Many of the initiatives proposed in FRESH are already underway. The Edmonton Food Council has been established to monitor the progress of the food and agriculture strategy, and to hold the City accountable to its commitments on urban food policy. The City will also be reviewing new bylaws around integrated urban agriculture in the next few months, so that there will be more opportunities for growing, raising, and harvesting our own food within the City limits.
FRESH also asks us to initiate conversations about food and its role in our lives, strengthen demand for fresh and healthy local food, and make space to come together to produce food and participate in other food activities that enrich our lives and communities.
The creation of FRESH inspires us to think bigger about our Urban Agricultural future:
Taken together, what these recommendations suggest is a desire to grow Edmonton’s burgeoning food culture into an established force within the City. This strategy is designed for the City as a whole, from downtown to the suburbs. As a City united in the goal of making time and space for food, we can lift up those who live struggle under the cloud of hunger and food insecurity.
We do not need to lose all of our margins in order to become more engaged with food and land. What the strategy really asks of us is that we be intentional and thoughtful in how we engage with these resources. Food, done right, is universal - it brings us together in the experience of enjoying the bounty that our land and work provides. We need to create these kinds of experiences for as many people as we can.
And thankfully it isn’t just up to City Council to generate the changes that will improve our local food economy. Edmontonians have already begun stepping up, creating new and exciting companies and initiatives that enhance our food production capabilities and reconnect us with the processes involved in making our food. Companies like Localize, which works with food retailers to provide consumers with more information about the origins and sustainability of the food they purchase. Or like the Eat Alberta conference, a yearly event that focuses on teaching the skills needed to work with local food, and the opportunity to connect with those who produce it. You’re going to hear later today from Danny Turner owner of the Organic Box. This guy knocks my socks off. Make sure you hear his story today.
We can look outside our own boundaries to see the work that is being done across the country to reconnect with food. Companies like FoodStory in Toronto, which allows farmers market customers to learn the stories of the families who produce their food before ordering online. As we see more and more of these start-ups and initiatives popping up locally, nationally, and globally, it builds my confidence that we can restore an appreciation for food and food producers.
Someone said once you can’t organize what you can’t imagine.
Well I imagine a world class sustainable food system in Edmonton, where we celebrate local farmers, where we preserve land and fight for a farmers right to own it and farm it and make money doing so as long as they’d like to and as long as they can.
I imagine building local food processing factories in Northeast and Southwest Edmonton that are connected together by food growing hubs, from the remaining and productive farms in Horsehill connected to a Northlands recommitted to its agricultural roots connected to a booming population density of healthy young and old urban eaters in our downtown core connected to the continued agricultural research and food culture at South Campus connected to our airport and the great farmland just south of it. These pieces of our region can all be tied together by our growing LRT network supporting a much higher housing density and why not an LRT car or two dedicated to moving this locally grown food across our region from one hub to another.
But no matter what I imagine or you imagine we can’t ever do anything alone. Our relationships with each other and with nature must always be tended to.
Wendell Berry said “Money does not bring forth food. Neither does the technology of the food system. Food comes from nature and from the work of people. If the supply of food is to be continuous for a long time, then people must work in harmony with nature.”
So the last question for today and perhaps the most important question is how can we put people in harmony with nature and with each other? How do we put people back in the fields, even if that small field in your park with a community garden or in the smaller field in the plot in your front or back yard.
The people in this room today are leading that charge - you are all here to discuss our interactions with the environment and the food that it gives us. As leaders in sustainability and food policy, I ask each of you to take what you hear today out into the community with you. Make those intentional decisions at your dinner table, and bring your family and friends on that journey with you.
Relationships with new friends are your secret weapon to building the power to create the change you want. Delicious food is your secret weapon to get them to the table. Good luck to all of you and thank you for the opportunity to be here this morning.