“The good food movement is now a REVOLUTION!”: Thoughts from Toronto’s Urban Agriculture Summit

Rooftop garden tour – Toronto City Hall

As Will Allen says, “The revolution is here – the good food revolution!”  And no more apparent could this be than at Toronto’s first Urban Agricultural Summit.  From August 15 to 18, over 500 people gathered to explore current role and future potential of urban agriculture.

When award-winning Toronto architect Joe Lobko and Milwaukee, WI, urban farmer and compost guru Will Allen of Growing Power, Inc. gave the first keynote addresses, it became very obvious that this would be an action-oriented Summit focusing on possibilities rather than problems.  Allen promotes the belief that all people should have access to fresh, safe, affordable and nutritious foods at all times, and trains urban Milwaukee community members to become community farmers, assuring them a secure source of good food without regard to political or economic forces.

Jennifer Cockrall-King, author of Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution, took us on a tour of the world, with talk of how in Paris, buying food in the grocery stores is the alternative rather than the norm.  She also praised London, England, a city whose government is invested both financially and philosophically in localized food systems. She shared the story of an urban wine cooperative that allows urban grape growers to get their grapes processed communally in return for a proportional number of bottles!

“Cities, like people, are what they eat.” (Carolyn Steel)  Chicago’s Coordinator of Economic Development, Bradley Roback, says that with food related disease including obesity now causing 25% of US health care costs and disproportionately affecting the poor, the city of Chicago is working hard to support businesses and social enterprises that create and distribute healthy foods. The Mayor has committed to the expansion of grocery services to under-served ‘food deserts’ where healthy, affordable food is difficult to attain, and to the expansion of the use of the LINK card (cash assistance and food stamps) to healthy food retail outlets.  Nevin Cohen of Five Borough Farm insisted that urban agriculture is about more than growing food, and highlighted NYC’s promise to procure city/state grown food when possible, to encourage rainwater harvesting, and to amend building codes to exclude rooftop greenhouses in terms of height limits.

I (Lynda) ran into Paul Lightfoot of BrightFarms during the break, keynote speaker and CEO of a company that builds and operates greenhouse farms at, near, or on the rooftops of supermarkets, eliminating time, distance and cost from the food supply chain.  His passion for fresh and wholesome food was contagious!  With produce now “being built to travel rather than being build to eat”, he insisted that “parts of our food system are not just inefficient, they’re toxic” and sees changes in the highly centralized supply chain as an integral part of the solution.  Onward, The Mustard Seed!

As the Urban Ag Summit continued, ideas flowed.  From school principals to social housing advocates, from entrepreneurs to city planners, we were challenged to see the possibilities.  Ran Goel of Fresh City Farms, struggled out loud during his session about his desire to breed intimacy into the food system (“how do we get people to think about what they’re buying?”) and I left Toronto’s Urban Ag Summit pondering all the possibilities for The Mustard Seed and for Hamilton …

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