Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012 at 10:00 am

Thoughts on Fresh: Edmonton’s Food and Urban Agriculture Strategy

On September 30, 2012, the City of Edmonton released Fresh: Edmonton’s Food and Urban Agriculture Strategy. It was a document fifteen months in the making, drafted primarily by an advisory committee made up of fifteen members, with some consideration of public input contributed through other channels.

Although a majority of the strategic directions put forward in Fresh address food purchasing, preparation, consumption, celebration and waste, much of the discussion in the media and online has only touched upon the strategies related to peri-urban agriculture, more specifically in this case referred to as the northeast farmlands.

Mack has done an exceptional job filtering through the premise behind the land debate, and I would refer you to his blog for an overview of the history and analysis of the development question. But it is important that the food-related portions of the document are not overlooked – after all, the strategy tries to address more than just agriculture.

That said, I am very disappointed in the food-related strategic recommendations. I recognize it is easier to criticize than to create, but I did participate in the online survey and one stakeholder consultation, and am a little astonished that this was the best they could come up with. They claim if the “Strategy’s Recommendations are adopted, the City of Edmonton will be well positioned to be a leading example for municipal food and urban agriculture initiatives” (23). But if that were true, I think Fresh would have taken more risks and aspirations instead of reading as the flat, mostly vague document that it is.

Of course, much of my criticisms below can be attributed to the short timeline permitted for the development of the strategy, as well as the failure to include some of the key members of the city’s food community in the consultation process. But still, given Fresh is what the Executive Committee will vote on at the non-statutory public hearing on October 26, 2012, this is what we have to go with.

What Fresh is missing

  • Recognition of work already being done: Mack and I never expected to have What the Truck?! mentioned in Fresh given it only began in 2011, so it was a surprise to find our festival acknowledged in the recommendation relating to enlivening the public realm. As a result, it is an even larger failure of the strategy to omit two other longer-standing volunteer-based groups working towards food production and food recovery. The first, the River City Chickens Collective, proposed a backyard chickens pilot to City Council back in 2010. They were rebuffed because of the forthcoming development of the food and agriculture strategy which would be considering this, among other potential urban agriculture ideas. The resulting recommendation in this strategy, developed two years later? “Examine opportunities for citizens to keep bees and raise hens” with the specific action reading, “Partner with local non-profits to assist in the evaluation of the implications of allowing urban backyard hens” (33). The Collective is not only in the same place it was in 2010, but Fresh doesn’t even go so far as to recommend backyard hens; instead, it chickens out with a loose directive of further study. The second relates to “Develop partnerships to assist in the redistribution of healthy, fresh and high-quality surplus food” (46). Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton (OFRE) has been run by dedicated volunteers since 2009, gleaning excess fruit from backyards and donating a portion of that surplus to charitable organizations. Fruits of Sherbrooke, with a similar mandate but a smaller catchment area, started in 2011. It would be natural to link them to the recommendation of expanding existing gleaning initiatives, but both OFRE and Fruits of Sherbrooke are conspicuously absent.
  • Stronger emphasis on food skill development: if one of the underlying objectives of Fresh is to help increase the demand for locally grown and raised produce and proteins, it is logical to conclude that encouraging food skill development (i.e., how to cook and prepare fresh foods) is vital to achieving that goal. We know that we are failing to provide basic food preparation education to young people, which leads to a greater reliance on processed foods. Although this is not an easy problem to tackle (and involves broader issues such as commodity subsidies, food deserts, and income disparity), Fresh barely acknowledges the importance of food skills. The sole recommendation reads, “Work with the Edmonton Food Council and various partners (such as NAIT, the University of Alberta, and Northlands, among others) to provide multiple learning opportunities on key food and urban agriculture topics and initiatives” (28). What does “work with” mean? Would these “multiple learning opportunities” be affordable and accessible? Although NAIT and the U of A have permitted rentals of their facilities for food skills sessions run by Eat Alberta in the past, they have never offered reasonably priced sessions to the public on their own accord – how would the City propose to change this (e.g. with grant incentives)? Not only is this recommendation vague, but it appears the committee did not take the time to articulate the implications.
  • Link to food justice: although the broader definition of food security is somewhat addressed in Fresh (i.e., the ability for an area to feed its citizens in the event of an interruption to the food system), none of the strategies highlight food justice and how those with low or fixed incomes can access local food. Save the recommendation relating to the gleaning and redistribution of surplus food (46), the strategy is strangely silent on this issue. I understand it is difficult to represent all possible interests and perspectives, but it is curious that not a single recommendation explicitly targets the empowerment of food insecure individuals and families.
  • Opportunities to learn from and celebrate immigrant and Aboriginal food culture: given the growing number of immigrants choosing to settle in Edmonton, and the increasing population of urban Aboriginals residing in our city, it is a glaring omission that there are no recommendations that encourage learnings from either of these minority groups. There is a nominal mention of “Engaging…immigrant group associations to participate in celebrations and events” (43), but it fails to address that many of these small organizations are struggling to operate, and without support aren’t readily able to take on new initiatives. Enhancing our knowledge of diverse food practices and acknowledging the wealth of experience in our community should be a pillar of the strategy, not a token, an idea reinforced by Kathryn Lennon of the Multi-Cultural Health Brokers.

What Fresh is lacking

  • Action-oriented, clear language: what most struck me in my first reading of Fresh was its lack of a backbone. The committee was charged with making recommendations, which City Council can, in theory, accept, reject or modify. So I wasn’t sure why, in countless instances, where recommendations could have started with direct, action-oriented words such as “create” or “partner” or “initiate”, we instead are left with non-committal recommendations such as “Explore the creation of an Edmonton Food Charter” (25) or “Identify urban agriculture opportunities in existing and developing neighbourhoods” (32). To me, the weak language is a greater indication that the strategy as a whole needs to be reworked.
  • Big, thought-provoking ideas: was it too much to hope for that the food and agriculture strategy could excite people? Get Edmontonians thinking about the possibilities, or at least generating a healthy debate among citizens? I recognize that many of the recommendations were inspired by other cities, and while I am not arguing for a reinvention of the wheel, Fresh could have included at least a few more creative, off the wall suggestions. Instead of the non-binding “Encourage developers to provide land and infrastructure for urban agriculture” (32), how about recommending that the City force developers to earmark green space for community gardens, or pledge to double the current inventory of community gardens? Or, while it might be a start to “Increase local food purchasing within City of Edmonton operations” (40), wouldn’t it be great if Councillors led by example and committed to “go local” one week every year by ensuring at least one meal per day was primarily made up of locally-sourced ingredients (similar to the Transit Riders Union of Edmonton’s week-long transit challenge). Even more revolutionary, offer some sort of economic incentive through a tax break for restaurants that source at least 20% of their ingredients from local farmers (thereby encouraging demand for local product, perhaps even allowing restaurants to lower menu prices because of the incentive). Sure, such ideas may not ever pass through Council, but they would at least spur discussion, necessary to engage citizens on these issues.
  • Addressing the ambivalence towards supporting local: Fresh seems to take for granted that at present, the vast majority of Edmontonians do not support local businesses and producers, or at least do not deliberately do so. Yes, we have made great strides in the past five years, especially in the local restaurant scene, but for every new small independent that opens, several more chains pop up in the city. Or, as Jennifer Cockrall-King pointed out in a recent panel discussion, spending at farmers’ markets is estimated to be a measly 1% of food household expenditures. Arguably, there are other means to access farm direct products (e.g., CSAs, produce box deliveries), but as a whole, I think it is safe to say a majority of Edmontonians source groceries from a large grocery retailer. Oft-cited deterrents for not supporting local farmers include cost (something Kevin Kossowan has debunked), convenience, and selection, but there is another reason at play that isn’t often discussed. While Mack and I were in Portland last month, we were blown away by the level of pride demonstrated by the locals about their food community at Feast, a festival highlighting the bounty of Oregon. From farmers and winemakers to salt miners and chefs, it was incredible to witness such an embrace and ownership over local proprietors. Edmontonians by nature are a self-depreciating bunch, quick to play down our assets and draw attention to our flaws. Worse, a majority remain strikingly indifferent towards supporting the home grown producers and independent businesses that are unique to our city. We truly do need to heed strategy 5.5 of growing local food supply and demand (39), but how? None of the recommendations address the fundamental question of how to cultivate the pride that ultimately translates into solid financial support for the local food economy.

While the food strategies are less contentious than those surrounding land use, they are no less important. New York-based chef Gabrielle Hamilton remarked at an event recently about “poor little food” – how food is being asked to cure all societal ills, from environmental concerns to health and family morale. But the truth is, food is a unifying factor that can ignite positive change.

If Fresh is passed, I remain optimistic that moving forward, a body like the Edmonton Food Council could help further articulate the actions that need to be taken by the City, particularly with regards to food skill development and partnerships with existing organizations. Food can be that spark for change – we just need to set the right parameters for it to help us enrich our community.

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  • citizenpanel

    While I agree with many of the points you have brought forward, I’m a little surprised that you failed to really highlight any positives from this project. I participated on the Citizen panel this spring, dedicating my Saturday mornings to discussing, questioning and critically looking at where our city succeeds and where we fall short with food and urban agriculture policies and practices. I by no means profess to have all the answers to the problems addressed nor do I feel there is not room for improvement in the document , however, I think it needs to be recognized that there was an incredible amount of work put into it and the passion and dedication shown by every person I met during my time on the panel was amazing. In my group alone there was representative citizens from different ethnicities, age categories, socioeconomic statuses and levels of education- what tied us all together was a passion for food and a desire to see our city flourish. While you may feel the final report was weak and not what you were hoping for, I do think the dedication, commitment and passion put into the project needs to be applauded

  • http://www.onlyhereforthefood.ca/ Sharon

    Thank you for the comment. I will admit that I was remiss in not acknowledging the work surrounding the drafting of the document (something Fresh itself does throughout) – thank you for your contribution to this important topic. I do not doubt that the ideas discussed and brought forward by the volunteer Citizen Panel were fruitful and inspired, but I really was hoping more of those ideas would be captured and articulated in Fresh. It is also great to hear that the panel was made up of people from different ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses, but that is perhaps even more disheartening because to me, their voices don’t seem to be represented in the published document.

  • Jasmine

    Perhaps you should volunteer your time and perspective to the panel when it comes time to revise the document; you seem to have given it a great deal of thought, and you’ve never been shy about making your voice heard.

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  • http://sustainableslow.blogspot.com/ Deborah Merriam

    Great post, Sharon. I’ve provided a link through from The Local Good’s blog so hopefully more people will read it in advance of tomorrow’s council meeting. My sense is that the writers of the document deliberately kept it vague because listing local resources is part of the next phase of the plan. There is another teeny nod to food justice in the mention of food deserts in recommendation 5.6.2.3.ii. – but I agree that it’s not strong enough, and I hope the proposed Food Council will take a leadership role on food justice, skill development, and support for small-scale local food production by residents.

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