“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 …

Our first community event!

On Saturday night, 50 Hamiltonians gathered in the Hill St. Community Garden for The Mustard Seed’s first official community event.  With gorgeous weather in our favour and July 7 being the International Day of Cooperatives, it was the perfect evening to get to know each other and to celebrate!

The Mustard Seed’s progress to date!

After some great conversation, we gave a brief presentation about the cooperative movement and The Mustard Seed’s vision and progress to date.  By that time, it was getting just dark enough to watch To Make a Farm, an inspiring yet realistic documentary following the lives of 5 young Canadians who embark on making their farming dreams a reality.  For the farmers in the crowd, the stories of joy and struggle rang very true!

A beautiful evening under the stars – thanks to all who came out to celebrate and give us feedback on The Mustard Seed’s future!

We asked people to map out where they live and where they work, and can use this feedback in future decisions about where the store will be. We plan to bring this map to future events.

A Summer Read: The Town That Food Saved

Hot days announcing summer’s arrival in Hamilton have given me just the excuse I’ve needed to read under a fan or in the park.  I (Lynda) just gobbled up The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food by Ben Hewitt. It is a fabulous look at how the small town of Hardwick, Vermont created a comprehensive, functional and vibrant local food system, proving “what advocates of a decentralized food system have been saying for years: that a healthy agriculture system can be the basis of communal strength, economic vitality, food security, and general resilience in uncertain times.”

Hardwick is a blue-collar community with a median income 25 percent below the state average and an unemployment rate 40 percent higher.  It’s a town that boomed on the granite industry but by the 1920s was in severe decline due to new concrete technologies, dealing the town a tremendous blow.  Yet despite this historic and the more recent world economic crises, Hardwick has breathed vitality into its economy through an enviable number of food-based businesses built by a group of entrepreneurs who support each other by sharing advice, equipment, and capital.  Hewitt questions the popular (and his own) perception that local food is a luxury for those with time and money “to ponder the carbon footprint of their milk and meatballs.”  He digs into the stories behind Vermont Soy, Jasper Hill Farm’s cheese caves, Pete’s Greens, and Claire’s Restaurant and Bar among others.

The book is not about cooperatives per say – it’s about food as a means not only to sustain life but also community, about the joys and challenges of working for social change, and about rethinking our entire food-supply chain.  Yet at the centre of Hardwick village lies the Buffalo Mountain Food Co-op.  Existing since 1975, it serves “the critical purpose of providing Hardwick’s new generation of farmers with a market” for their produce and goods.  Hewitt also notes that it provides people with a ‘third place’:  a place to come together that’s neither work nor home but is still connected to them, a cornerstone of community life where people gather and ideas are born and debated as people check items off their grocery lists and head to the cash register.  “In this sense, the co-op is really just a microcosm of the larger Hardwick ag movement … it is rooted in food and provides an outlet for communal engagement and citizen democracy (all co-op members have input and voting rights).”

The Hamilton Public Library has multiple copies of this thoughtful look at the future of our food system  – so sit under a fan or in a park, and read!  And imagine and participate with us in building our community, our economy, and a thriving local food system here in the hot and humid Hammer!