The ten year cycle of food security in Edmonton

The more I learn about the history of the Food & Agriculture Strategy, the more I find myself wondering: are we going to be at this again in 2022? It turns out that 1992 and 2002 were both key years in the history of “food security” here in Edmonton, yet here we are in 2012 talking about it again. Here’s a look back at two previous efforts to get food security on the municipal agenda.

1992: The Edmonton Food Policy Council

The first and most concrete recommendation that the current draft strategy makes is to “establish the Edmonton Food Council by June 1, 2013.” It’s one of the recommendations that I think everyone can agree upon, and indeed the preamble notes that “it was also strongly supported by stakeholders and the community during the consultation phase as a key pillar in implementing the Strategy and in making Edmonton a leader in food and urban agriculture over the long term.”

The strategy notes that these councils generally exist as advisory bodies for city councils:

Food councils may take many forms, sometimes commissioned by government and sometimes through a strong grassroots and community effort. Food councils have been successful at educating officials and the public, shaping policy, improving coordination between existing programs and starting new initiatives.

If the draft strategy is approved and implementation moves forward, Edmonton will join the long list of more than 200 municipalities across North America that have formed food councils. But what I learned recently is that it would not be our first.

In 1988, a group of community health and social agencies came together to form what was known as the Edmonton Food Policy Council (EFPC). According to a handout produced for a conference a few years later, “the group believed that the community needed to find new solutions through joint action on hunger-related issues.” The initial member organizations included:

  • Boyle Street Community Services Co-operative
  • Edmonton Board of Health
  • Edmonton City Centre Church Corporation (E4C)
  • Edmonton Gleaners Association (Food Bank)
  • Edmonton Social Planning Council

The group was later expanded to include CANDORA, KARA Family Support Services, Edmonton Potato Growers Ltd., Christian Farmers Federation of Alberta, Edmonton Community and Family Services, and Grant MacEwan Community College.

Edmonton Food Policy Council Report

The EFPC scored a victory two years into the effort, receiving $158,000 from the federal government in 1990 to conduct a study on the problems of food availability. Led by Kathryn Olson, the project completed in May 1992 with the release of the final report entitled “Community food needs assessment – a community development approach.” A total of 460 low income Edmontonians were interviewed and the study found that “three-quarters of them were having trouble getting enough healthy food on a regular basis.”

The term “food security” appears on the cover of the report, but when Liane Faulder wrote about it in the January 21, 1991 edition of the Edmonton Journal, she used the term “food insecurity” which she defined in laymen’s terms as “going hungry.” We generally define food security differently today, but in the 1980s and 1990s, the definition was more akin to what we now call food justice.

It was a difficult time for many Edmontonians. The project’s background noted that between January 1983 and December 1984, “the amount of food being distributed by the Edmonton Food Bank increased by a factor of seven from 18,000 pounds to 135,000 pounds of food per month.” By 1987, the Edmonton Food Bank was serving nearly 60,000 families in Edmonton. In 1992, the year the report was released, 105,086 people used the Edmonton Food Bank, according to data from the Edmonton Social Planning Council (totals do not represent unique individuals, and some may access the food bank multiple times per year). Usage peaked in 1996 at 192,067 individuals, and after falling to a 14-year low in 2007 at 125,069 individuals, usage has risen again in the last few years to more than 170,000 individuals per year. But to put those numbers into context, remember that the city’s population has increased from just over 605,538 in 1990 to 817,498 today.

edmonton food bank use

The report was met with a significant amount of criticism. Some attacked the methodology, others demonstrated a lack of understanding of what hunger is – “it doesn’t mean ribs sticking out,” was how Liane Faulder put it at the time. “There are a lot of pieces to hunger,” Kathryn Olson said. A total of ten recommendations for action were made, ranging from reducing the cost of shelter to increasing the opportunity to increase nutritional knowledge and food preparation skills.

I wanted to find out what happened next, so I tracked down Lorraine Green who served as the EFPC’s chairperson from the end of 1991 on. She’s currently the coordinator of the Health For Two program at Alberta Health Services here in Edmonton. We had a great discussion about the council, the report, and other initiatives that were underway at the time. “Edmonton Food Policy Council was probably not the most apt name,” she told me, noting that the group did not actually create any policy.

The EFPC was very active, however. They engaged Planning & Development to work on community gardening, they organized a conference called Food Fight! to discuss issues of food security, they talked to Edmonton Transit about needs they heard in the community, they met with grocery store managers, they met with people from Alberta Agriculture, and they regularly reviewed information and research from other sources. That information sharing proved to be very valuable as each member organization pursued its own initiatives.

While the group mostly served as a place for members to get together to discuss strategies and ideas, a few small projects did get off the ground. Lorraine told me about the “Shopper Shuttle” that was piloted in 1992. In talking with low income families, it was discovered that transportation was a major hurdle for getting to the “mega” grocery stores that had lower prices. Safeway opened its first Food For Less store in Edmonton at 3803 Calgary Trail on July 29, 1984, and Superstore followed suit the following year. Like big box stores today, they were built far from the established residential areas where most lower income folks lived, and with limited bus service you needed a car to get there. The shuttle would drive people from their neighbourhood to the big box stores so they could do their grocery shopping. Enthusiasm for the service was high, but usage turned out to be smaller than expected. Looking back, Lorraine identified a number of practical issues that hampered the shuttle. One was scheduling – if the shuttle came on Friday but you didn’t get paid until Friday, you likely wouldn’t be able to go (you had to get your cheque and cash/deposit it first). Another was perception – the shuttle was quite large and it parked right in front of the grocery store, which meant anyone getting on or off stood out. In the end, the pilot only last about six months.

The EFPC was never an officially registered organization, so there was nothing to really shut down when the time came. “By the end of 1992,” Lorraine remembered, “it had become more of an information sharing group.” Once the funding for the study came to an end, the group was faced with determining next steps. “Coalescing the group around a longer-term mandate was difficult,” she said. The issue was not that there was a lack of interest, but rather that the members were busy with other projects. Their energies were being put into initiatives that are still around today, such as the school lunch program and WECAN.

2002: Edmonton’s Food Charter

The second recommendation that the current draft strategy makes is to “explore the creation of an Edmonton Food Charter.” While the recommendation is a good example of the passive, non-committal language found throughout the document, it does recognize the value in having a food charter. Toronto adopted its food charter in 2001, and I discovered recently that Edmonton nearly followed suit just a year later in 2002.

It was the action in Toronto that prompted Marjorie Bencz of Edmonton’s Food Bank to start exploring the adoption of a food charter in earnest. She had attended a national food security conference there, and discussed Toronto’s new charter with her board members. Despite some reservations about the content of Toronto’s Food Charter, the Food Bank did send a letter to Mayor Bill Smith expressing interest in working on a similar initiative here in Edmonton.

He referred the letter to the Family and Community Services Department, and thus began a series of discussions between the City and the group of stakeholders that Marjorie had helped to bring together (many of the same folks were involved in the Edmonton Food Policy Council actually). Throughout 2002, the group met on a number of times to discuss what a food charter should include and how it might be adopted. While the drafts created were certainly broader than the work the EFPC had done ten years earlier, they still dealt primarily with food justice.

Community Services drafted a report for Council in September 2002, but it never actually got onto an agenda. I wanted to know what happened, so I got in touch with Joyce Tustian, who was the general manager of Community Services at the time. “There was concern that perhaps we were moving beyond the City’s mandate,” she recalled. Her department was trying to plan for the future, but there was lots of uncertainty about what should be considered municipal work and what was out of scope. “The boundaries weren’t as clear as they are today,” she told me.

The lack of clarity around what role the City would play and the lack of support outside the initial stakeholder group may have been factors that caused the effort to stall. One of the biggest differences between then and now is that the City now has an established policy framework to work with. The Way Ahead and associated plans have been very effective at providing a context within which Administration can operate. In the absence of that sort of framework, initiatives such as the food charter “had to be held up individually,” Joyce said.

There was some early work taking place on establishing a policy framework, but it hadn’t progressed very far. Council had a vision for dealing with economic development, but not much else. In 1999, Councillor Michael Phair pushed for a broader vision, an effort that ultimately led to the adoption of City Council’s Vision for Social Well-Being and Quality of Life in September 2000. The draft report in September 2002 recommended that Edmonton’s Food Charter be incorporated into that vision.

Here’s an early draft of the charter (undated, but I think it was from early-mid 2002):

It seems the final draft of the food charter was lost, but here’s what was circulating in early 2003:

In concert with City Council’s Vision for Social Well Being and Quality of Life and Canada’s national commitment to food security by signing the United Nations Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights that includes the right to be free of hunger, the City of Edmonton supports the following beliefs:

Every Edmonton citizen has the right to adequate, safe, nutritious, affordable and culturally appropriate food.

Food security contributes to the health and well-being of citizens while reducing the need for medical care and improving their quality of life.

Sustainability of our food supply means ensuring that citizens have a safe and high quality food supply for now and the future.

Food security can only be achieved when it is approached within the context of increased self-sufficiency through supportive community environments and enhanced economic opportunity.

It’s fascinating to think that Edmonton could have been one of the first cities in Canada to adopt a food charter.

Final Thoughts

When I first came across the previous Edmonton Food Policy Council and draft Edmonton Food Charter, a thousand questions popped into my head. I wondered why I had never heard of them before, and why the current initiative made no mention of previous efforts. I wondered why both the Food Policy Council and the Food Charter seemed to fail, and if there were lessons there that could be applied to today.

What stands out for me is that in both instances there was a groundswell of community support and that is what really got things moving. Neither effort was initiated by the City, though it supported both. Maybe the Food Policy Council and Food Charter were just ahead of their time for Edmonton (certainly finding information now was difficult because it’s not archived online somewhere, it’s in folders and boxes in people’s offices).

I asked Hani Quan, principal planner on the Food & Agriculture Strategy, what he thought and he agreed that we simply may not have been ready for a Food Council or Food Charter in the past. “Today people recognize food is one of the levers that has potential to help address complex issues,” he said.

The context in which today’s Food & Agriculture Strategy is being considered is certainly much different than that of 1992 or 2002. Everything has changed, demographically, economically, and politically. We have a City Council now that has shown great leadership in establishing a forward-looking vision for the City of Edmonton, and I think that’s the key that will make a future Food Council and Food Charter successful.

One thought on “The ten year cycle of food security in Edmonton

  1. Hello Mack

    Great piece.

    Mack, in my life I have been so hungry and not known when the next meal will come from and I have watched farmers take the ultimate step of ending their lives because their land is so devoid of nutrients and fertility that they cannot feed their families. Mack the issue of land and food is inexorably linked!

    Mack, what about doing something visionary such as retaining the fertile farm land in our city, growing the food as a social enterprise business and supplying it directly to vulnerable and socio-economically constrained populations.

    Do we have the visionaries and the will? Or we can write food charters and make announcements in the press about how much poverty costs…..

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