Archive for August, 2016

Who gets to decide the future of food?

Guest blog by Nick Saul, President & CEO, Community Food Centres Canada

Nick Saul_Blog Author ENThe first thing you notice in the ad campaign is the model’s index finger stuck suggestively in her mouth, fingernails painted in alternating shades of orange and taupe. The slogan: “Finger Lickin’ Good.” It’s an advertisement, I quickly learned, for KFC’s brand new edible nail polish, which comes in two chickeny flavours: original, and hot and spicy. I’m not afraid to admit that this toxic junk food ad nearly had me—an inveterate optimist—coming close to despair for the state of our food system.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. The way we currently move food from field to table often seems hell-bent on making us sick, damaging the planet and dividing us as citizens. Fast food companies worldwide spend billions of dollars a year to hook us on fat, sugar and salt (marketers behind the edible nail polish told the New York Times the product is an attempt to “remind the younger generation” of “the great taste and good times the brand stands for.”) Corporate agricultural giants grow larger and more predatory, pushing low-impact, regional, non-chemical approaches to the sidelines. And as we see every day at Community Food Centres Canada, four million Canadians struggle simply to put food on their table.

Yet, despite all of this—despite, even, the end-is-nigh portent of chicken-flavoured nail polish—I continue to believe that the future of food doesn’t have to be so dim. A different world is possible so long as we can mobilize enough people to push for it.

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Of course, a paradigm shift has been brewing for some time. Farmers, chefs, home cooks, foodies, beekeepers, health care reformers and advocates for low-income people are the canaries in the coal mine, sounding the warning about the unsustainability of this bloated, inequitable and unhealthy food system. We’ve seen an explosion of farmers markets, CSAs, and 100-mile restaurants. More and more people are gardening, eating local, and working to regain lost cooking skills,

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An Emerging Community of Practice for Canadian Social Innovation Labs

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We are living at a time where some individuals seem to have tremendous influence over political events, media narratives, and even global philanthropic agendas. However, we know that individuals acting alone – no matter how powerful or charismatic they may be – cannot address the complexity of current social and ecological problems. Our long-term challenges call for comprehensive and collaborative work across sectors, because they are deeply rooted in cultural values, encoded in our institutions, and re-enacted each day through the behaviour of countless people. In the face of their systemic nature, it can be hard to know where to engage on social problems, or how to adapt when change efforts aren’t working.

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Photo credit: Social Innovation Generation

Social Innovation labs offer one promising entry point for collaborative work aimed at the roots of wicked social problems. At their heart, labs offer a structure to use where no one institution or sector can solve a complex challenge alone, and where no single solution or intervention is likely to work. Labs provide a container for ongoing experimentation and learning – so new insights and interventions can be developed, and great ideas from elsewhere can be tested and adapted. When undertaken with the discipline and commitment to achieve implementation, labs can extend their impact to a system level.

The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation has been funding and supporting a growing community of labs in Canada for several years (since 2012). Earlier this summer, we convened a group of lab practitioners from The Natural Step’s Energy Futures Lab, l’Institut du Nouveau Monde’s Labis, MaRS Solutions Lab, and WellAhead along with staff, to harvest lessons learned from diverse lab efforts across Canada. These labs work on issues including the acceleration of Alberta’s economic transition away from fossil fuels, the shift to sustainable food systems, the need to connect health issues to social determinants such as access to housing, and proactive approaches to stem the increase of mental health challenges in children.

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Falling into the “program” trap

Mali_Blog AuthorPerhaps you’ve heard the story about the person who falls into a hole in the street. He walks along the street, falls into a hole, and climbs out to the same spot where he started. He walks back along the street and falls into the hole again. In fact, he continues falling in the hole, climbing back out, and returning back to where he started, until finally someone shows him a parallel street, a different way to get where he’s going.

We had heard this story told in the context of addictions research, or when describing habits that are seemingly permanently fixed. It illustrates how habits and ways of being are deeply entrenched in certain ways of thinking. In reflecting on WellAhead’s past year of work, we have begun to see how we may have fallen into some of these habits ourselves.

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In the research and design phase of WellAhead, one of the key challenges or ‘holes’ identified was that mental health and wellbeing was approached as a ‘program’ to be implemented in the school setting rather than as a way of being, a cultural shift. Such programs had a range of efficacy, and were costly and difficult to scale across all schools. In addition, because programs were often developed and delivered by people outside the school, they were not being integrated into school communities. There was a sense that districts and communities needed to be part of the visioning and action towards change rather than simply recipients of solutions. From this, it was hypothesized that engaging a range of stakeholders in an emergent, participatory process might be more effective than imposing a highly defined program.

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Future Food: rebuilding the middle of the food system

Jessie Radies_Blog Author_ENGuest blog by Jessie Radies, Local Food Associate, Northlands

The future of our food system depends on us and the choices we make every day. In North America, what we eat, where we buy it and what we grow, all help determine the make-up of our global food system.

There is growing collective recognition that our global food system, as it operates today, is not feeding our planet efficiently and comes at a great cost.  Regions are not encouraged to be self-reliant, farming is not financially viable with an ongoing effort to drive down the cost of production, starvation is still a reality and much of the food grown and raised is wasted before it ever gets eaten.

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Globally, science and agriculture are focused on providing enough calories to feed a global population of 9 billion people by 2050.  Today we imagine this by making agriculture production efficient and low cost; having infrastructure that can transport, store and process food products and ingredients efficiently around the globe.  It also requires chemicals and GMO’s to increase annual production and protect against disease and minimize the risk of crop failure. It means varieties of fruits and vegetables are grown based on their ability to be shipped, so oranges, bananas and fresh tomatoes can be a staple in our North American diet year round and can be shipped thousands of miles before they end up on our plate.

In my lifetime our food system has changed from one that was basically local to one that is primarily global, but the emergent edge of food is hyper-local and small, made up of urban agriculture, heritage varieties and artisan products.

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Fostering Consistent Stakeholder Engagement for a Maximum Impact

Guest blog by Anna Godefroy, Director, Binners Project

Although a relatively new initiative, the Binners’ Project is often praised for its true grassroots nature and strong engagement with the community. Yet maintaining member involvement is a sustained effort for the project staff. This is a very common challenge for many community initiatives.

At its core, the Binners’ Project aims to decrease stigma surrounding binning (also called dumpster diving). Binners and staff work collaboratively to build new income-generating opportunities. We do so by fostering face-to-face interactions between binners, residents, and the community at large, in Vancouver and Montreal.

Initially a One Earth / Cities for People initiative, the Binners’ Project secured a grant in 2015/16 from the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation allowing it to test several pilot programs. In only one year, those burgeoned and we saw an influx of interest from binners and from the public. The Binners’ Project is now a project on Tides Canada’s shared platform, which supports on-the-ground efforts.

Despite the success amongst participating binners, one of the biggest challenges we face this year is relying on their steady engagement. Consistent participation and reliability is the greatest source of anxiety for our staff, as the demand from the community and clients increases.

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Our community evaluation, conducted in the Spring 2016, demonstrated that members regularly involved with the Binners’ Project felt a remarkable impact on their overall wellbeing. However, most of our members lack stability in their lives, which prevents them from fully benefiting from our programs. Barriers include, but are not limited to, housing insecurity, addictions, mental health issues, physical disabilities, abuse, gender-related tensions and/or homelessness. These of course are drawbacks to consistent engagement.

Based on our two years of experience organising regular meetings and workshops, we now believe that the emphasis must be on fostering a web of interconnected individuals. Building tight network around and amongst group members is the best strategy to overcome involvement inconsistency.

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Northern Manitoba Community Food Security and Cultural Food Heritage

Guest post by Carl McCorrister, retired teacher and member of the Peguis Community Garden

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Seven years ago, I retired after a teaching career spanning 25 years in northern Manitoba. Feeling the urge to start something new, I began to complete a Master’s degree, and then contemplated how I had always wanted to return to the land to  promote food security within my community, Peguis First Nation.

Located 190 kilometers north of Winnipeg in the Interlake Region of Manitoba, Peguis is home to about 10,000 people, making it the largest First Nations community in the province.  In a region where disputes around Treaty Land Entitlement have persisted for years, I unexpectedly found myself with the opportunity to participate in the development of a community garden that would also function as a means of reconnecting Peguis First Nation with its land and agricultural heritage…and so began working with the Peguis Community Garden.

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In 2011-2012, fundraising began for a community garden in Peguis that would also serve as an education hub to share resources around healthy eating and well-being. Following a successful series of bingo nights, the Community Garden project had rapidly generated interest and support and project participants were able to break ground on a three-acre garden site on common Band land. The year was a success: the soil was perfect, so much so that a small portion of the plot went into production that year. The community was thrilled about the garden and viewed it as an opportunity to reclaim the agricultural heritage of the land.  (more…)