| Nov 08, 2007

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Feature Article - November 8, 2007

Local Food Summitby Jeff Green

At a local food summit held last weekend at St, Lawrence College, a group of food activists; farmers, food processors, academics, anti-poverty activists, and so-called eaters, met to take stock of where the burgeoning local food movement is, and where it is going.

The summit featured a day of workshops on such themes as urban gardening, the future of farming, and more.

The workshop day was prefaced by a keynote speech the evening before by University of Toronto Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon, the author most recently of “The Upside of Down”. He set out the context for the summit in a talk about social systems in crisis, of which the food system is seen as a good example.


In putting Homer-Dixon's talk into context at the opening of the summit itself, David Hahn, who is one of the directors of local 316 of the National Farmer's Union, picked up on a comparison Homer-Dixon drew between different systems.

“Homer-Dixon talked about two kinds of transportation networks, highways and airports. The network of roads has thousands of what he called ‘nodes’, intersections where major highways meet, whereas there are a few major airports that are much larger nodes, where flights from all over the country intersect. This kind of system he described as brittle, because if something happens at a major airport in the United Sates, the flow of air traffic is affected throughout North America,”

An example of this kind of brittleness came up recently over infected spinach in California. The concentration of spinach production is so great in one region that when there was a problem, it impacted on the availability and price of spinach throughout the US and Canada. The solution to this situation, according to Hahnm, is the development of a decentralized food system, which is less vulnerable to disparate events around the world.

Two other speakers at the opening of the summit brought an activist perspective to the local food movement

Colleen Ross, the National Farmer's Union Women's President, gave an address that focused on food sovereignty, people’s ability to have control over what they eat, independent of the whims of a global food system that follows a corporate imperative. This is something she sees as a political struggle.

“The people at this summit should realize that what you are doing here is activism. It's a struggle, and you're part of that struggle. We can only have food sovereignty if we come together as communities. You are doing this now, bringing people together,” she said.

Debbie Field brought the perspective that comes from working for years on food issues in inner city Toronto. FoodShare has undertaken school nutrition programs, and has promoted urban agriculture in government housing projects, and a host of other initiatives over the past 25 years. Canada, in her view, is behind the United States in terms of food policy.

“At social policy level in Canada we are weak, there is nobody even to talk to. Food advocates usually start locally. Kingston needs to have a food charter, which is something Toronto has,” she said.

The Local Food Summit was an important event in “Food Down the Road”, a year long project of NFU local 316 aimed at developing a local food system in Kingston and environs. Among the accomplishments for the project are a web-based food directory, at foodowntheroad.ca, which is a convenient way for people to find locally produced food.

Although the project was funded until the end of this month, it only represents a beginning. A set of objectives is being developed, and this is what the Food Summit focused on in its final day. Fifty people worked together to provide input to a community food council, which is an ongoing group that will work on a draft food declaration and charter to be presented to the public, to farm organizations, and municipal councils.

One of the insights that David Hahn alluded to during the summit, was the fact that as the market for local food grows, the lack of local food production is more and more apparent.

There is a bit of hope on this front as well, however. Among the many people at the summit were some who are interested in getting involved in farming, and they were interested in the information being presented by those who have carved out a niche for themselves producing for local markets.

A group called Heifer International, which was founded in Arkansas and has its Canadian headquarters in Saskatchewan, is interested in a partnership in this region that will be aimed at helping people get involved in farming. This project would provide support for new farmers, including some financial support, but also a significant amount of mentoring.

Other ideas include working with St. Lawrence College to provide a portion of the food for the college from local sources.

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