Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Toronto Food Policy Council's 20th Anniversary: Together at the Table

Below are the inspiring, informative and educational notes I wrote furiously during the wonderful Together at the Table event, held at 157 King Street East on October 20th, 2011. Sustaining communities and sharing knowledge was the medium and the message at the event.
Welcome, 9am:
  • Joe Mihevc boasts that “ organizations have been mushrooming” 
  • Debbie Field is the Director of FoodShare
  • City counsellor Joe Mihevc is proud to have both Wychwood Barns and Not Far from the Tree in his ward and explains, “ We as city counsellors need to learn to be facilitators”. 
  • Helen St.Jacques began working with the Toronto Food Policy Council through FoodShare. She urges anyone who is interested to sign up as a “friend” to the TFPC, and attending the monthly meetings ( which alternate week to week from formal to informal). Also of note is that the meetings are audio recorded at City Hall.
  • Currently there are 4 standing committees representing the TFPC.
  • Lauren Baker is a member of the food strategy team at Toronto Public Health

How Now Brown Cow: Milky Science for the Public Good, 9:30am:
  • Rod MacRae was the 1st full time health food advocate embedded in government.
  • MacRae suggested a number of articles including: Reducing Urban Hunger in Ontario: Policy Responses to support the transition from food charity to local food security, and Efficiency, Substitutions and Redesign. 
  • MacRae illustrated how the TFPC took its first big leap in establishing itself as a sturdy force driven by a mantra of transparency, holistic thinking and community involvement. In the 1990’s, When the TFPC challenged the r.B.H.G. case, the government chose to head the advice and reject the drug ( which had at that time, already been approved in the United States), and instead work with the Health Council and Agricultural Sector. For the first time a municipal body - functioning as subcommittee to Toronto Public Health - had an impact on the larger provincial and federal government, directed through Health Canada. To this day, MacRae reminds us that it is a big challenge in food policy to intersect and interact with governing bodies at decision-making levels. 

Policy by Participation, 9:45am: 
  • Acting as moderator is Catherine Mah, who works at the Food Policy Research Initiative at the Centre for Metal Health and Addiction. She is also an assistant professor at the Dalla Lana school of Public Health at U of T. To Mah, ‘policy’ is a statement of “who eats what, when and how”.
  • Nick Ferri is the Farmer and Chair of the GTA Agricultural Action Committee, a provincially started organization which developed a strategy/ “action plan” for “horseshoe agriculture” ( from Toronto to Hamilton).
  • Tracy Phillippi began as an intern at the TFPC in 2009 and shortly after founded the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council (TYFPC). She is currently an apprentice at Black Oak, as an aspiring Brew Master. 
  • Barbara Emanual works with Toronto Food Strategy (Toronto Public Health), managing international development, social development and policy. She adds, “ public health policy is the full spectrum”: from health to the environment. 
  • Anan Lololi has been a TFPC member for 15  years. As executive director of the Afi-Can FoodBasket, Lololi supports urban agriculture and the adversity of food grown and sold in Ontario. 
  • Author of The Tyranny of Rights, Brewster Kneen begins by explaining that he was awakened to how humans are related to the world when reading The Economy of Sugar. In 1971 he farmed in Nova Scotia, where he remained until 1986, learning about how and why the metropolis benefits from reaping and rendering farms dry. In the 1980’s he acted as Food Chair, a precursor to the TFPC and appreciated how the community had to come together, forming “unforeseen alliances” during the Real Milk Campaign.
  • Asked about a spectrum of participation, and whether citizens can really make an impact, Emanuel points out that many communities don’t have the proper information that is accessible, transparent and easy to understand. Once the communities demand - as they must, she adds - transparency from the Food Policy counsellors, they will have the means to move forward and participate.
  • To the same note, Brewster adds that even if the government does issue information, it is to the tune of their agenda. For real facts, the structure should be more grassroots, including the statements and concerns of communities and farmers. 
  • With more inclusion during the decision making process, we are more likely to come to results that benefit each tier and their respective platforms. Ferri gives the example of the Greenbelt. While Toronto boasts a green nest on maps, farmers feel their voices have not been heard and worry about the implications of being told what to do with their land and fret about their retirement money being taken away. 
  • To help our farming neighbours, many Torontonians have taken to voting with their dollar: buying local produce to support local farmers who are forced to compete with companies south of the boarder who don’t have to face the same strict regulations and labour costs and can thus sell their product at a cheaper price. 
  • There are lots of ways to become involved: Phillippe suggests collaboration; entrepreneurship; simply asking organizations what they are missing; becoming an expert or by reciprocal mentorship. 
  • Lololi explains that the more people involved, the more food security attained. The government grants mobility to community ideas through the support of non-government organizations (NGOs). Emanuel discusses that in giving a small community the means to fund a community-driven food project the project was able to thrive and become highly successful, impacting council and policy making. The constant creative focus at the TFPC is fueled by events such as Together at the Table, where issues large in government scope are brought forth, discussed and solved city-wide. 

Charting the Future of Food, 11:30am:
  • Wayne Roberts was the second coordinator at the TFPC. He notes that the TFPC is part of Toronto but not of Toronto, citing that the Public Health office is not even located with the other government buildings, but rather quite a few blocks away, at Bloor and Dundas. There, you will find the next speaker, and manager at Public Health, Susan Shepherd. She reminds us that not only is it the TFPC’s 20th anniversary, but also the 10th anniversary of the Toronto Food Charter. The charter works to reinforce the right to nutritious, culturally appropriate food. It is a document put together by a web of community and city agencies, which promotes community supported agriculture (CSA) and partnerships, amongst other sustaining solutions. It is a tool for institutional refinement, Roberts adds, as well as a reference for the TFPC: “All departments of every business will view food as part of their responsibility”. 

Reports from the Field: Designing a 21st Century Food System, 11:45am:
  • Executive Director of Local Food Plus (LFP) Lori Stahlbrand acts as the moderator. 
  • Brian Cook of Public Health Toronto begins by stating that “Food has become invisible”. Private sector zoning inhibits the ability for local food shops to grow and there are still many laws which restrict the areas one is able to sell local food. We need subsidies on healthy food! If we intentionally combine and connect all of our efforts and strategies, we will go far, Cook assures the room. 
  • Next, farmer of 20 years and now project manager at FarmStart, Sri Sethuratnam warns that the Canadian farm populations are aging and now only 2% of the population is involved with food production. Canada has some of the most fertile land in the world, and yet it is still under constant threat of being suffocated by cement infrastructure and roadways. Many immigrants come to Canada with vast knowledge and organic farming practices more than 100 years old, and yet the end up working at assembly line jobs because there are few other options. That is why Sethuratnam started incubator farms in 2008, and why he enjoys working at FarmStart, where new farmers get access to to land and equipment. 
  • Kelly Gordon is a community dietician who works with the urban aboriginal population. 
  • Leading The Stop’s food program is Nick Saul, who wants to change that “the rich get organic, the poor get diabetes”. By creating food hubs - community spaces to share food - we create access to local, organic food for people of all income levels: “Food banks are dead” because they marginalize the poor and divide us as citizens. Food banks, unlike food hubs, are also infamous for their shelves of corn-packed, sugar saturated “foods”. We need to look at food as the route to health, not as a social divider. We can’t all vote for local food by purchasing it. We are more than just consumers: we care about our health, and the health of everyone! Saul hopes to create a myriad of centres and robust organizations which find a way to provide often expensive organic foods, cooking classes, and other often elitist activities to everyone, of all income levels. Saul hopes for 25 community food centres in Toronto by 2025. 
  • The lively Chef Joshna takes the microphone next and enthralls the crowd with her success story: The Scarborough Hospital has hired her as a full time consultant to help develop and implement a new menu of homemade food using local ingredients for the patients. The cost to stay a day in a hospital bed will add up to approximately $1200. Just $10 of that goes towards food. What’s more, is that food waste had risen to 43%. By adjusting portion sizes and creating sumptuous, salubrious meals, Joshna will be able to lower food waste, which saves the money she will use to fund her local menu.
  • Jennifer Welsh was the first Citizen Co-Chair of the Toronto Food Policy Council (1990-1992) and coined the term “food security”. In the 1970’s she interviewed Tim Lang in the United Kingdom, who helped to format how the TPC would function. 

Lunch, 12:30pm:
  • Before lining up for the complimentary vegan lunch of curried vegetables, brown rice and salad, Cathleen Kneen, Chair at Food Secure Canada, lead the group in a round of grace. We sung the grace together three times, thanking the farmers and the soil for our meal. Lunch was delicious, and all leftovers went across the street to feed a group of protestors supporting Occupy Toronto. 

A Farmer & Food Activist Walk into a Bar: The Birth of the Good Food Box and Student Nutrition Programs, 1:30pm: 
  • Expertise development is critical to successful campaigning, which leads to successful programs, then to policy development with the hopes that the policy will act to support and maintain that program. This is how student nutrition programs began.
  • Debbie Field sites that the most important book to read on this topic is by Jeremy Rifkin called Empathetic Civilization. It tells of how we must create a new supply chain based on empathic actions and relationships.

How Can We Grow? Food Hubs from Concept to Practice, 1:45: 
  • Janine de la Salle now works in Vancouver as a Planner and recently co-authored Agricultural Urbanism: Handbook for building food systems in 21st centuries cities. Before “food hubs”, Vancouver had the City Market in the 1990’s, which eventually became (and still is) the New City Market. 
  • Randy Whitteker of the Ontario Natural Food Coop is proud to share with the audience that his “hub” has more than 50% Canadian vendors, with 93% of sales in Ontario. He has worked out an operational business model to guide his 200,000ft hub. It will be comprised of local ingredients, and a place where they can be cooked and prepared ( there will even be a mill for grinding flour!) and distributed from one centre. 
  • Whitteker mentions Russ Christianson who created a sustainability scorecard 
  • Utcha Sawyer, FoodShare’s Community Animator brings ideas to life. She has overseen 720 student nutrition programs and supplies subsidized food boxes that also food information. 
  • Ayal Dinner is the Operational Coordinator at the West End Food Coop. His focus on Parkdale’s producers, eaters, community partners and workers will ensure that the coop, set to open in a few months, will flourish. In 2009, he and his team conducted surveys, and involved - and encouraged the involvement of - the community. The results helped to shape what the hub will become. 
  • Gavin Dandy teaches at Flemming College and works at the Everdale Environmental Learning Centre, where they have had an active local food hub for almost 10 years. Everdale is known as a teaching farm, which builds and engages local communities. Their produce is sold at Everdale and Brickworks markets.
  • So what is a “hub” anyways? To de la Salle, a hub is a centre whose whole is greater than its parts; it has multiple functions that results in local profit ( educational or monetary) for multiple stakeholders. Because it is a fairly new term, “hubs” are a nightmare for zoning bylaws. 
  • So how do we measure the effectiveness of food hubs? Allison Palmer ( Food Counts) deems that measuring qualitative and quantitative data in order to track the progress of the sustainable food system may have too many results to understand as a whole. She suggests we map it graphically, such as an areal of the food system. 

Serving Up a Tray of Ideas, 3:45:
  • Lauren Baker speaks about the ‘community kitchen’ and its origins in Peru. Brazil, too, has a large infrastructure of food at the citizen level: there are seed banks and even a school program which helped to develop  biological pesticides. 
  • “Ya Basta” (“Enough!”) was shouted by Mexican farmers who protested against free trade with the United States for a number of reasons found here
  • Wayne Roberts advices those discouraged by set-backs and failures: “ don’t worry, be happy”. He describes conflict like friction, ever wearing away our energy but chirps up that we should be enjoying the ride, making the right choices for the moment, and not worrying about a peak-oil future. He suggests we work together on all levels, to develop platforms so that the public interest of ‘good’ food is ultimately protected by the government.

Closing Keynote: Ralph Martin, 4pm:
  • Ralph Martin reminds us, to have an attitude of gratitude. He mentions that he believes “ to ‘grab’  a bite to eat sounds disrespectful to food”. 
  • Taking the ideology used by Roberts, Ralph Martin begins his keynote presentation by sharing his email and phone number, and encouraging the audience to contact him should we even have any concerns about anything environmental. 
  • He discusses Thomas Berry’s  idea of the Technozoic vs Ecozoic eras. He explains that Berry has used “-zoic”, to describe the length of an era because our technological timeline, although quite short in comparison, has had an impact on the Earth worth one whole era. We have numbers of pollution/destruction “resistance” strategies and feedback loops, but it is arrogant to think that we can fix the world, as humans are just a blink of the Earth’s existence. Berry belives that the 21st century is a transitional phase from the Cenozoic to the Ecozoic era. 
  • Anthropence is the attitude that humans are superior to, and separate from other species. This results in treating other living beings as dispensable objects, and the exploitation of the Earth as a mere ‘resource’. The opposite is Ecocentric.
  • The fallacy that there is not enough land to grow food for everyone is based on the over-eating and wasteful habits of North Americans. If portion sizes were reduced to what they should be, and we stopped wasting so much ( more than 40% of food is wasted in Canada), and if we followed Michael Pollens suggestion to “Eat food. Not much. Mostly Plants”, then we would be closer to sustaining our Earth. 
  • In Canada, we have plenty of land. There are 78 Canadians per square kilometer of farmland ( a vast difference to the Netherlands 2205 people per square kilometer of farmland). Yet, farmland is used for things besides food: fuel, fiber, and feed. Much of the time, the methods used to reap the four aforementioned “F’s” leave the soil wallowing in pesticides and contaminates. Unfortunately, half of the grade A land in Toronto is already buried under concrete and will never be fertile again. 
  • Martin asks us to use “Sustain” as a verb, rather than “Sustainable”, the noun. He suggests that the action word will motivate thought processes focused on the present, while maintaining the knowledge that the landscape of what is and is not sustainable is  constantly morphing. He uses the example of the use of nitrogen and potassium fertilizers. At first seen as a blessing, nitrogen-rich fertilizers acted to reduce hearty crops for the suffering post-war citizens. Instead, we eventually learned that the soil had become nitrogen-dependent and that excesses of potassium were running into our streams, polluting them. The sustaining thing to do, Martin suggests, is to use legumes, specifically the Kolberg legume, which protects soil and provides feed for livestock. We can effectively recycle municipal solid waste (MSW), manures and sewage and it is imperative we do so that we are recycling phosphorous, rather than dumping it into the ocean.
  • Ralph Martin recommends reading Peter Senge’s The Necessary Revolution.
  • “One ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”
  • We must reduce the degrees of separation to our food. It is when we see the animals, the farmers and the land that we can truly have an “attitude of gratitude”. If you appreciate what you have, Ralph says wisely, then you know when you have enough. Globalization has enhanced our separation from our food source, and has stripped many of the feeling of responsibility. In a small town, everyone is nosey, and Martin suggests we begin butting into other people’s business, because in the end, the Earth is important to us all, and it is our business. 
  • One way to get involved, is to become a “Yeeppie”: a Young Ecological Entrepreneur Professional/Practitioner, rather than the consumerist Yuppies. 


  1. I like an idea of the hub, it seems smart and not so difficult to sustain. As far as the demand for bio items in Toronto is steadily increasing, I would also welcome ideas in this area of food production.

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