How to make urban food production economically sustainable

My thoughts, from the Food Talk series organized by Richard Wolack in Vancouver. Thanks for inviting me Richard.

 

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Beyond “evil” food banks: Nick Saul coming to Vancouver

Nick Saul, Toronto-based co-author of The Stop: How the fight for good food transformed a community and inspired a movement, is coming to Vancouver to explore possibilities for a community food centre in the Vancouver area. He’ll be at the Roundhouse Community Centre for World Food Day celebrations on Oct. 16, along with the Vancouver Food Policy Council.

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Here’s my review of his book, originally published in the Literary Review of Canada.

If you google “food” and “revolution” in Chapters.Indigo, eight titles will pop up—not including diet books. Include the search words “movement” and “food” and another 10 show titles up. The world is alive with eagerness to change our imperiled food systems. Joining these new books is Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis’ inspirational saga of growing The Stop, the Toronto “community food centre”, into international prominence over the last 14 years. The authors chronicle pivotal moments in the against-all-odds growth of a small anti-poverty organization into something that is rare, if not unparalleled, in all these “revolutions” and “movements”.

(Although the book is co-written by award-winning writer Andrea Curtis and her husband Nick Saul, they note that “it is written in Nick’s voice, as the story … charts his 14 years at The Stop Community Food Centre.” For simplicity, I’ll often refer to Saul as the author in this review.)

The opening pages of the book put The Stop in perspective. They describe a scene where superstar chef and good food advocate Jamie Oliver (also author of Jamie’s Food Revolution) jumps out of his black SUV and takes a tour of the Green Barn. Saul describes that building as the “pretty face” of the organization, in contrast to the “sprawling community centre in the bottom floor of Symington Place, a public housing development in one of the city’s poorest and most underserviced neighbourhoods.” The latter is “the gritty heart of The Stop’s operations” (p. xiii). At the end of the tour, Oliver rests a hand on Saul’s shoulder and says, “You know what, brother? I’ve been all around the world and I’ve never seen anything like this place.” (p. xiii)

Toronto food activist and author Wayne Roberts (The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food) has been rightfully critical of the premature celebration of a food “revolution”. The current good food zeitgeist is still more about planting seeds of change than reaping large harvests. That isn’t to say that cities around the world aren’t sprouting “good food” initiatives too numerous to count, as the benefits of more people eating more local, fresh plant-based food take root: tastier food, more prosperous local farmers, fewer hungry people, fewer fat kids, less diabetes, lower health care costs, more inner-city jobs, safer neighbourhoods, more beautiful streets, lower GHGs, more resilience to climate change, safer food, less soil erosion, happier animals, less pollution and rutabagas forever.

Where Saul and Curtis’ book—and the organization it describes– stands out is in its unequivocal focus on relieving hunger and poverty, with better food as just one means to achieve that goal. When Saul was hired by The Stop in 1998 he came from community organizing, working with homeless men and as a staffer in the Ontario premier’s office. He arrived at a struggling faith-based non-profit whose main function was running a food bank. He immediately started on a path of political change.

One theme that permeates the book is Saul’s stubborn insistence that food banks are basically evil. His tone is too considerate and accommodating to use that word, but its meaning is there. Built on the deepest, most genuine charitable impulses, they have unintentionally embedded permanent institutions of demeaning handouts in our culture.

As Saul sees it, they deny choice, skirt the UN-endorsed right to food, and build a handout dependency that bypasses the root cause of hunger and illness: poverty, exacerbated by inhuman welfare rates and inequality. While malnutrition, obesity and inequality grow hand in hand, “temporary” food banks mute the pressure on government to live up to its responsibility to face poverty head-on.

So Saul determined from his first day on the job that The Stop would stop being just a food bank. It would go upstream with cooking lessons, community kitchens, drop-in meals, counseling, community gardens, bike repairs, civic engagement initiatives and anti-poverty marches. By bonding with the distressed community it served, The Stop moved “from charity toward solidarity.” (p. 48). It takes a village to raze a food bank, a process described by The Stop storyteller-in-residence Dan Yahsinsky as “‘revillaging the city’, creating pockets of care, mutual assistance and connection, as one might see in a village, within the urban setting.” (p. 272-273)

In one chapter Saul visits a city that gets it: Belo Horizonte, Brazil. He sees that city as a model for what The Stop model could achieve in Canadian cities: “falling infant mortality and malnutrition rates, increased consumption of fruits and vegetables (while other Brazilian cities report a decrease), money in the pockets of local small farmers, and more equitable access to healthy food.” (p. 106)

Many have noted the stealth function of heightened food consciousness as a gateway to so many of the big issues of our day: inequality, hunger, pollution, corporate concentration, diet-related disease, water shortages, soaring health care costs, personal isolation and more. Add to that consciousness the fact that we all “vote with our fork” every day. Everyone alive is making food choices that change the world, bite by bite, for better or worse. Are we there yet? Saul says no. The new foodie can easily end up in the cul de sac of purring over purple carrots at a farmer’s market or proudly ordering expensive local fish on Friday nights at a restaurant. The rich get organic food, but the poor still get diabetes.

Awakening to the realities of our food systems is all good. The beauty of today’s food movement is that you can’t go wrong. But you can stop short. For Saul and Curtis, relieving the suffering of the thousands of their neighbours who wake up hungry every morning is what it’s all about. They are firmly focused on the anti-poverty and right-to-food side of the community food security equation, happily working with others more dedicated to environmentally-sustainable agriculture and all the other “good food” initiatives. They refuse to accept that individual action, without political action, will bring about any real change for low-income people. Political pressure to ensure everyone has food access, food skills and food literacy is always on their front burner

Yet for all his advocacy and policy recommendations, Saul never lets up on personal story-telling. There’s his own story of turning a hand-to-mouth parish hall food bank into a $4.5-million-a-year anti-poverty hybrid gathering place with 300 volunteers and 40 staff serving 16,000 people a year. Characters include political villains, angel benefactors, and Toronto’s leading food movement pioneers.

The book is also laced with personal turnaround dramas, a steady stream of heart-warming stories putting faces, smiles and names on the people whose lives have been changed at The Stop. To cite just one example: “Gordon Bowes grew up near The Stop but left home for good at 15, fleeing a father who beat him up when he was drinking, something he did every day. Gord lived on the street for nearly 15 years.. When he first turned up at The Stop’s food bank in one of our old locations, Gord was embarrassed… he hated to ask for a handout. [Eventually]… The Stop became Gord’s second home… [Now] I think of him as one of our community elders.”) (p. 168-169).

By the end of the book, Saul has left The Stop (in Dec. 2011) with an infusion of foundation startup money to set up 17 similar organizations around the country, as CEO of Community Food Centres Canada. It’s another noble, improbable challenge, with $20 million still to be raised and uncertain quirks in every location. The sequel is already in the making.

The Stop is part community development primer, part policy guide, part cry for justice, but mostly it’s an endearing story of people who came together to build something this country hasn’t seen before—and, if the story continues on its current trajectory, will soon be changing cities across Canada, one neighbourhood at a time.

 

 

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Making sustainability add up economically– new SFU course

Please join me at this Sustainable Economics workshop at Simon Fraser University:

Alterrus rooftop nov 2012

Sustainable Economics for the Real World
Nov 1-2, 2013
9am-5:30pm
$650
Instructor/speakers: Alexis Morgan, Global Water Roundtable, WWF; Peter Ladner, author (The Urban Food Revolution); Mark Pezarro, Earth Voice Strategies; Basil Stumborg, BC Hydro; Coro Strandberg, Strandberg Consulting; Bruce Irvine, Dillon Consulting Ltd.

Sustainability requires us to integrate economic considerations with environmental and social factors in the short and long term. Unfortunately, traditional financial and economic techniques are often poorly equipped to do this.

This course provides an overview of key concepts in sustainable economics and finance. You’ll discuss practical tools and techniques that will aid planning and decision making in your sustainability projects. You’ll also learn new financial and economic concepts and techniques that will help you build a business case for programs with sustainability goals.

More registration/info here.

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$1 million prize promotes insect farming

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The rich get organics and the poor get diabetes– now insects! That’s the dark way to look at this amazing win by McGill business students over 10,000 competing teams from around the world. Bill Clinton awarded the prize.

To meet the challenge of world food security, the students promoted the potential of insect farming to help feed the world in the face of ongoing hunger tormenting a quarter of the world’s children.

Yes, it’s a good question whether eating insects is intended for those of us meat-eaters who are consuming far more of our fair share of the planet’s food resources, or just for people who have no other choice. It turns out that 2.5 billion people already eat insects seasonally.

The students’ video shows just how popular insects already are in places like Mexico and Thailand. A UN report says insects are nutritious, environmentally-friendly, and a far more efficient source of protein than meat.

A lot of what we love to eat today (think shrimps and lobsters) was once considered a last choice for great eating. We’re going to have to get used to eating a lot of “strange” foods in the future if we’re all going to have enough to eat. Insects are us– all of us.

 

 

 

 

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Half of all wasted food happens at home

Half of all wasted food happens at home. Here’s how to change that: Choices Food Market and Farmfolk Cityfolk have posted a pledge, a challenge and a contest.

Can you commit to this?!

I enthusiastically pledge that I will reduce my Foodprint by eating what I buy and not throwing food away. I will do my best to,
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In Jamaica, food security is becoming serious business

Local food and food security in North America are often described as elitist concerns for people who can afford to shop around and pay for local, fresh, quality food. As this New York Times story shows, in Jamaica, the soaring costs and unreliable supplies of imported food are prompting government programs that match idle hands and arable land in the cause of food security. Local foods are prominently labelled to support local farmers. As in North America, there is still huge dependence on imported food, but the advantages of local food are being understood and promoted.

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The high hidden costs of our “cheap” food

“50 yrs ago we spent 18% of income on food, 5% on healthcare; now we spend 10% on food, 16% on healthcare.”
Great stat from a great book by Eleanor Boyle: High Steaks, How and Why to Eat Less Meat.

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Nature’s Path CEO Arran Stephens’ impassioned talk on GMOs

Arran Stephens is one of the great persuaders on organic agriculture. He runs North America’s largest organic cereal manufacturer. Here are his comments from a recent rally against Monsanto in Vancouver– including how to shop for non-GMO foods.

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Arran’s speech at the March Against Monsanto, 25 May 2013:

My Mum and Dad farmed sustainably on Vancouver Island in the 1940’s and ’50’s. While helping my dad spread seaweed from the beaches on our fields and planting corn, he told me, “Always leave the Soil better than you found it”.
My wife and I, our several children and team have, over the decades, built a legacy organic food company that employs hundreds of valued team members in several communities on the principle of the triple bottom line: socially responsible, environmentally sustainable and financially viable.

We are not anti-business so long as the enterprise is guided by principles and ethics, but we are against business if it hurts people, our farmland, our choices and our planet.

In 1994, I first learned about the gene-splicing technology and the first genetically engineered commercial product from Calgene, called the FlavrSavr tomato, which had genes from a flounder inserted into the DNA of a tomato to give it a longer shelf life. Now, being a staunch vegetarian for ethical reason since 1964, I was aghast. I did not want to eat this frankenfood tomato with a fish gene. What are the ethical dimensions of this corruption of Nature? Thankfully, consumers rejected these franken-tomatoes and they are no longer on the market.
From then until now, and especially since independent study after independent study has shown serious health and
environment consequences of GMOs, I have been an implacable foe of the unwilling genetic engineering of our food supply.

GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms. This technology creates new species of plants and animals not found in nature, created in laboratories. Like crossing a dog and a cat, for example. Inserting BT toxic bacterium into the dna of say corn, or soy, or alfalfa so it will kill insects, has a cumulative and negative effect on humans, and creates super pests. Once released into nature it is very difficult to recall them. It’s like opening Pandora’s Box. In 1994 I said very loudly, “There’s no wall high enough to keep out GMOs”.

There are three main types of GMOs. One has insecticide toxin spliced into the seed’s genetic code. The second has genes spliced with glyphosate herbicide resistance, and the third has both. So when you plant it in a field and saturate that field with pesticides and herbicides, everything in that field dies (in theory). Everything, except for the Genetically modified soy, or corn, or canola, or whatever.

Animal studies show that GMOs cause : cancers, ulcers, acute signs of early aging, reproductive and growth problems. GMO toxins and herbicide residues are already in our bodies, and increase as we continue consuming foods which have been genetically engineered, and doused with herbicides. In a 2011 study from the Scientific Journal Reproductive Toxicology, 93% of fetal blood tested contained GMO toxins. This is dangerous and if you are a mother, you should be concerned, if not downright angry..
More than eighty percent of all food sold in Canadian supermarkets contain these GMOs. Eighty percent! And nobody knows about it because they are not labeled! 64 countries require GMO labeling or have an outright ban. 64 countries including such “Progressive” Nations such as China and Russia – require GMOs to be labeled. Why not Canada?

My family has been at the forefront to label GMOs in North America. We are Canadians, living here in Vancouver and Victoria, but so far, the fight to label has been in the US. This is a problem affecting everybody, everywhere. Your coming out today is a sign that Canada too is waking up.

Let me tell you about a grandmother called Pamm Larry in California. Pamm presented a proposition to label GMOs called Proposition 37. My family heard about this and contributed significantly to help Pamm spread the word and have all foods containing GMOs labeled. We figured that if California got this passed, it would spread like a fire across North America. Other companies and individuals joined us and we raised 3-4 million dollars for prop 37, for the right to know.

Advance polls indicated that Californians wanted it and Prop 37 was going to pass with a landslide. But guess what happened in the last 6 weeks of that grass roots
campaign? Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta, Post, DuPont, Bayer, Pespico, Cascadian Farms, Kelloggs, Kashi and others donated almost 50 million dollars to defeat labeling. Those big companies and big companies posing as little companies do not want consumers to know what we are eating. They outspent the grassroots pro-labeling initiative by 10 to 1 after waging a very dirty, fearful and deceitful media campaign. But guess what? They didn’t win the vote by tenfold. The final vote came down to 48.5% for labeling GMOs and 51.5% against.

It wasn’t technically a win for Consumer Rights this time BUT it was a victory in that 6,000,000 people voted FOR labeling. That represents a ten-fold increase in awareness of this dangerous and unsustainable technology.

We are awakening and we are the droplets of water in the tides that are turning. Just this past week in Connecticut, the House approved a pro-labeling bill that went to the Senate which voted to approve it 35 to 1: Democrats and Republicans together. Concerned Citizens in Washington State and Vermont have bills on the table as we speak.

My good friend Dr. John Fagan, an independent geneticist and one who is against genetically engineering our food, says, “I spoke with people involved in the Washington State initiative just yesterday and they are confident that they will win as well. And Vermont’s lower house has passed their bill. It will be early next year when the Vermont Senate and the Connecticut House will vote. It is believed that, if these three states succeed, the FDA will take action on the Federal level.”

Isn’t the Canadian government supposed to protect us citizens? Don’t we have the right to know what we are eating? Must we teach ourselves where to shop, how to shop, and what to buy? Apparently so. Make your voice heard, ask your local politicians for help, speak out to our schools. In a world where voting with your hard-earned money can be an act of protest, buy from local farms and markets whom you trust. Be defiant, plant seeds, grow your own.

Here are some shopping tips:
Avoid “Natural” food if that’s the only claim. By itself, “Natural” means nothing nowadays. “Natural” now means grown with pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, chemical fertilizers. There are no rules or laws governing the term.

Foods bearing the Canada Organic Seal can be trusted. Organic is a legal definition and a traceable system, with the force of law behind it.

Now there’s a new food label called Non-GMO project verified. Non GMO Verified products have been third-party tested to contain zero to a maximum GMO threshold of 9/10 of a percent. If you see this verification Seal on your food packaging, you can be assured that the food has been tested and has not exceeded the .9% threshold, compared with a GMO product that could be anywhere from 60% to 100% contaminated. It’s a step in the right direction. However, it is not all that great. Harmful and unsustainable toxic agricultural chemicals are still allowed with this label, just not GMOs. The trouble with this label is that some companies are using it to greenwash their products. It is no where near as good as organic.

Organic has always been non GMO, and will always be non-gmo! If in doubt, buy certified organic. Organic automatically means GMO FREE — PLUS grown sustainably and organically. Organic is quantum leaps ahead of all other label claims. The organic method of agriculture and production is your best bet to keep our waters, lands and soil pure—what to speak of our bodies.

Think of the GMO crop field – barren of bees, beneficial insects and microorganisms, silent except for farmers in biohazard suits spraying toxic chemicals on crops. Now see an organic one. See a world where the bees are buzzing and the soil is naturally replenished. See the world where food is democratic, where the seeds are free and unpatented (if farmers are allowed to save them) and grow again and again and again. When you buy Organic, you support this virtuous circle.

Now think about this: if a Canadian commits suicide, it will make the news. In india, more than 250,000 cotton farmers have committed suicide after their GMO cotton crops failed and the cost of GMO seeds, pesticides and herbicides exceeded their revenues, and its almost totally unknown in the West. One Indian cotton farmer commits suicide every thirty minutes. The usual method of suicide there is by drinking glyphosate herbicide. Don’t let them fool you, herbicide is a poison. Don’t use it on your weeds. Dig them out, mulch them out, but don’t spray that poison for others to breathe and touch.

If consumers (you and me) can get our government to label gmos, people will likely stop buying them. This is what happened in Europe, and why GMO food failed totally there.
We need to do the same. This is what all the giant agrichemical companies are terrified of. Demand GMOs to be labeled. If China and Russia and 62 other countries have done it, we can too. Nestle just recently caved into consumers in South Africa who demanded that their baby food be GMO free. Why did Nestle do this? Because a concerned group of citizens demanded it.

Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” Like in S. Africa, we can do the same here in Canada. We must! We are the voice! We have the right to know what’s in our food! What do we want: Labeling. When do we want it: Now.

Vandana Shiva says, “The growing of our food should be an act of love”.

And as Grandpa says “Always leave the soil better than you found it”

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Dig, eat and be healthy tells all about

Dig, eat and be healthy tells all about converting public lands to food-growing #localfood http://ow.ly/mo0tz

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McDonald’s closing all restaurants in Bolivia

McDonald’s is closing all restaurants in Bolivia as the nation rejects fast food. It seems Bolivians were concerned about how the food was prepared, and what was in it.

I still think many people in many countries are stuck on fast food, in spite of the importance of slow eating. One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to not eat standing up.

I have, however, invested in a healthy gluten-free fast food restaurant in Vancouver (Smak, 1139 W. Pender) because I believe if people insist on fast food, they should at least be able to get food that’s healthy and locally-sourced.

 

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