How can individuals, organizations, and businesses collaborate for a healthier and more sustainable food system? The three-day “Bring Food Home” conference – held last month in Windsor, ON – aimed to answer exactly this question.
As urban developers, TAS embraces the opportunity we have to strengthen community food security in the neighbourhoods where we build. We believe that healthy cities begin where people live, and that access to good food should be an important consideration in the overall design of residential buildings and neighbourhoods. Participating in the conference was an excellent way to expand our understanding of the successes and challenges of small scale food producers, regional food distributers, food-based social agencies, and public-sector departments focused on food-system issues. Gaining this perspective not only helps us to understand the particular role that we can fill in our own work, but how to engage in effective cross-sector partnerships that lead to measureable outcomes.
There were several themes that permeated throughout the conference, but the need for our food system to be socially just resonated strongly with me. Social justice refers to equality within a society. In the context of the food system, this means working to eliminate disparities and inequalities with respect to the “benefits and risks of how food is grown and processed, transported, distributed, and consumed“. It was energizing to see how many of the conference presenters were either directly or indirectly addressing this issue in their work, in ways that seek to reduce stigma as much as possible. Perhaps the best example of this was the presentation of Fertile Ground Community Shared Agriculture (CSA). Fertile Ground provides all their clients with the option of paying a little bit extra for their CSA share in order to (anonymously) subsidize the price of a share for someone else in need.
Another important take home message for me came from the conference session titled “Microgrants as Catalysts“. In this session, we heard multiple examples of how micro grants – small sums of money donated with the intent to help someone start an income-generating project – can truly be catalysts for larger and longer-lasting benefits. Both the Greenbelt Farmers Market Network and Lanark Local Flavor reported very positive results from their micro grant programs that were designed to support the development of new food products, and increase the supply and sale of local food, respectively.
On the whole, the atmosphere at the conference was one of positivity and optimism with many speakers referencing two very recent food policy decisions predicted to help strengthen Ontario’s food system. In Toronto, City Council had just adopted a number of motions to formally advance the “Toronto Agriculture Program“, and the Ontario Legislature had unanimously agreed to pass the Local Food Act (Bill 36), including a $30 million Local Food Fund. Yet, amidst the optimism was the troubling reality of the recently announced Heinz plant closure in Leamington, ON for June of 2014. The closure of this food processing facility is part of an unfortunate trend in Southern Ontario, resulting not only in massive job loss for plant workers, but a significant loss of revenue for local farmers who sell their produce to the processing facilities. Thankfully, solutions are already being proposed for those impacted by the Heinz plant announcement, including the development of a co-op of local tomato famers.
Thinking about my own work at TAS, the Bring Food Home conference provided valuable perspective on the role that we can play to support and advance a sustainable and just food system. In addition to support for urban agriculture through TAS’s site activations, and provision of gardening opportunities for residents in our building projects, we are also allies and admirers of the organizations working in a diversity of ways to improve the food system. We look forward to engaging in continued cross-sector partnerships across our buildings and properties.