Recap: #MeetInTheMiddle

Early in the new year I received an email invitation to take part in the inaugural Meet In the Middle event, scheduled to take place near Olds, Alberta on Agriculture Day in Canada (February 16). Along with the promise of a five course meal and bus transportation from Edmonton or Calgary, this was the pitch:

“We’re bringing together 150 of the up-and-comings, the established, the industry leaders, the fifth generations and the never-set-foot-on-a-farm to talk about food over a five course meal. Each course is prepared by a different local chef and features food grown in Alberta, paired with a craft beverage from a local brewery or distillery. What better way to celebrate Canada’s Agriculture Day than bringing consumers, producers and industry leaders together – all at the same table!”

The event was organized by A Seat at Our Table, an initiative launched by ATB Financial with partners the Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance, Tourism Calgary, Edmonton Tourism, and the Alberta Motor Association. I decided to accept the invite, and found myself on a bus to the Willow Lane Barn that afternoon with a dozen or so other Edmontonians.


I was relieved to know that I wasn’t the only one uncertain about how the evening would unfold. The organizers had sent an online survey in advance of the event (the results of which were to be shared with the event partners and provincial crop and livestock organizations) but few details about what to expect. It’s too bad I hadn’t discovered this article before the event! Evidently we were all to be millenials.

We were greeted with Village Brewery’s Blonde ale. Nothing like a little beer to get the conversation going! At some point an announcement was made that a coffee roasting demo was going to take place before dinner. I think Calgary Heritage Roasting Co‘s story is pretty interesting, but I was not expecting that. You get 150 Albertans together, on an Albertan farm, and you show them…coffee? Odd. I skipped the demo and snuck inside to check out the barn.


As you can see, Willow Lane Barn is a beautiful venue. Despite the fact that it is on a real farm, the barn building we were in was expressly built for events (especially weddings). Very Instagram-friendly. The organizers and kitchen staff were very busy preparing hors d’oeuvres and pouring drinks.


The namecards at each place setting were a nice touch and I was happy to see we were seated with people from all over the province. Throughout the dinner some people played musical chairs, a somewhat successful attempt to facilitate networking.


The food was delicious, though somewhat mysterious. There were no menu cards at the table, and while the emcee (Global Calgary’s Amber Schinkel) did speak to the chefs throughout the evening, it was more about their stories than the dishes. I realized part way through that each course flashed up on the screen momentarily, but I think this aspect of the dinner could certainly have been improved. I managed to convince one of the volunteers to send me a PDF of the menu.


I was happy to know only a handful of people in attendance, and I really did have some great conversations over dinner and on the bus ride down and back. I met a pulse farmer, an electrician, a brewer, a physician, a maker of skin care products, a fruit rescuer, a fashion designer, and a rancher, to name just a few. It was a really diverse mix of Albertans.

Willow Lane Barn

I couldn’t resist sneaking outside once or twice during the dinner to take in the sunset. It makes sense that you’d want to hold an event like Meet in the Middle on a farm, but it’s a shame that we didn’t get to see more of it while we were there.


The chefs for the evening included: Samath Rajapaksa from Rajapaksa Catering, Marie Willier from WinSport Canada, Jesse Woodland from Chartier, Rieley Kay from Cilanto and Chive, and Danielle Job from The Pink Chef. Great stuff from all!


Most people seemed to have a good time, but the evening was just too rushed to get much beyond introductions. As soon as the dessert course was served we were being reminded to get on the bus! We left Edmonton at 2:30pm and got back at 9:30pm, but the actual dinner was basically 5-7:30pm. Especially for the folks who travelled from even farther in the province, it’s hard to see how that was a good use of time.

I understand the intent of the event was to get a mix of young Albertans together over dinner and to encourage conversations that might not otherwise take place. The food and drinks were fantastic, the conversations were great, and overall I had a good time. It was certainly a great idea to get everyone together from across the province around a single dinner table, but I think the event could have had a much bigger impact with fewer attendees and less travel. I’d certainly be open to attending future events organized by A Seat at Our Table, but would hope for a more intimate, close-to-home affair.

Thanks for the opportunity to attend!

Learning about pulses for #3SkillsYEG

Over the last month, I have been learning about pulses and how to cook with them as part of the #3SkillsYEG challenge. Cooking with pulses seemed like a great topic for me given the suggested theme for February was “Personal Growth & Wellbeing” and that 2016 is the International Year of Pulses.


Learning about pulses

It just so happened that the Canadian Association of Foodservice Professionals (CAFP) and the Alberta Pulse Growers (APG) hosted a dinner early in the month called Everything is PULSEible. I was fortunate enough to attend with Sharon, who had been invited to blog about the dinner. It was a great way to both taste and learn more about pulses, though I suppose I didn’t realize just how familiar with them I already was. Here’s an excerpt from Sharon’s post:

“After reading Mark Bittman’s Food Matters more than five years ago (his mission was to encourage more conscious consumption of non-meat proteins), I was inspired to start including more beans and lentils in our diet. In 2011, Julie Van Rosendaal and Sue Duncan’s cookbook, Spilling the Beans, was released, becoming one of our go-to guides for meal inspirations. Now, pulses have just become a part of our regular rotation, both as a meat alternative but also to enhance soups, salads and mains, stretching the meal all while adding nutrients. At this point, our pantry and freezer would feel bare without having some variety of pulses on hand.”

She’s not kidding! Our meals often have beans and I guess I just didn’t think of them as pulses. So what exactly is a pulse? From

“Pulses are the edible seeds of plants in the legume family. Pulses grow in pods and come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recognizes 11 types of pulses: dry beans, dry broad beans, dry peas, chickpeas, cow peas, pigeon peas, lentils, Bambara beans, vetches, lupins and pulses nes (not elsewhere specified – minor pulses that don’t fall into one of the other categories).”

Canada is one of the leading producers of pulses in the world. In 2011, Canada produced over a third of the world’s lentils and had the largest amount of dry pea production in tonnes. Saskatchewan is the largest pulse producing area in Canada with about 80% of the market, followed by Alberta at 20%, according to Statistics Canada. There are more than 2,300 farms growing pulses here in Alberta, which accounts for about 10% of the province’s crop acres. There’s good reason that the prairies are so good at producing pulses:

“The Canadian prairie soil and climate conditions, research for developing new varieties that resist lodging and disease or have a shorter growing season, agronomic and economic benefits when planted in rotation with other field crops and the growth of processing facilities all contributed.”

Unfortunately it’s not as easy as you might think to locate pulses grown here in Alberta because the packages most often end up with a “product of Canada” label. But as Sharon noted, “Alberta grows a variety of pulses: primarily peas (green, yellow, marrowfat), but also beans (great northern, black, cranberry, pink, small red), lentils (red, green) and chickpeas.”

Cooking with pulses

Pulses are very versatile ingredients and offer some excellent nutritional benefits. Pulses are gluten-free and vegetarian, low in fat and high in protein, and they’re a great source of folate and high in fibre. They’re also relatively cheap, especially when compared with meat. But despite all of those benefits, we don’t eat very many pulses. “A small amount is used by Canadian consumers and has increased over time, but is still relatively low compared to countries where pulses are a dietary staple,” wrote Statistics Canada. Many organizations are working to change that, including the Global Pulse Confederation and of course Alberta Pulse Growers here at home. One of the ways they’re doing that is by developing recipes that show just how easy it is to prepare dishes with pulses.

CAFP Alberta Pulse Dinner

The most surprising dish to me at the Everything is PULSEible dinner was the dessert – Lentil Fudge Pie. “This fudge pie is so delicious, you’ll never guess there’s lentils in it!” They were right. It was very tasty and had I not been told, I’d have never guessed that it contained a red lentil purée. I’m not much of a baker, but I’d be willing to give this a shot.

For a variety of reasons, I ended up doing a lot of the cooking in February. I did my best to use plenty of pulses and I’m happy to report it wasn’t hard! I made dishes in which the recipe called for pulses, like Mushroom Lentil Bourguignon (from Spilling the Beans). I also made some dishes that I simply added pulses to, like Carrot, Spinach and Rice Stew which I added chickpeas to. One of the more interesting dishes I made again tonight so I could take some photos – Curried Lentil Soup.

Curried Lentil Soup

The soup calls for both French green lentils (or dupuy lentils) and chickpeas (garbanzo beans). The lentils are easy to work with – simply rinse them and then add to the pot. I used stock instead of water, and they cooked nicely in about 30 minutes.

Chickpea Butter

The chickpeas take a bit more work as you need to purée them into a butter. I added a can of chickpeas to the food processor along with the garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil and before long I had a nice buttery spread. The last step is to add the chickpea butter to the simmer soup and combine, which gives it a beautiful, rich consistency.

Curried Lentil Soup

The soup is one of Sharon’s favorites, and I have to admit I’m quite fond of it myself. Easy to make, extremely tasty, and pretty healthy too!

Working as Sharon’s sous chef in the past, I don’t think I appreciated just how easy it is to add pulses to a dish. I have a better appreciation for them now, and am happy that our pantry is always stocked with beans and lentils!

Next steps with pulses

To help celebrate the International Year of Pulses, Pulse Canada has teamed up with the American Pulse Association to promote the Pulse Pledge:

“Commit to eating pulses once a week for 10 weeks and join a global food movement! Eating dry peas, lentils, beans and chickpeas helps reduce your carbon footprint – and it’s great for your health. Every 1/2 cup of cooked pulses delivers 9 grams of protein. Get rewarded for eating these miraculous superfoods.”

Pulses once a week? Piece of lentil cake!

I encourage you to give pulses a chance. And as a Learning Champion, I definitely encourage you to check out #3SkillsYEG! The theme for March is Creativity and Expression, and I have decided I will learn how to use my macro camera lens. That’s what I used to take the lentil and soup photos above! You can pick any skill you like, of course, the theme is just to get you going. Be sure to share your learning journey and enter the #3SkillsYEG contest.

I wish you tasty pulses and happy learning!

Edmonton moves forward with urban beekeeping

Urban beekeepers are buzzing in Edmonton now that City Council has given the green light to a pilot project that will allow hives in backyards within city limits. On July 7, the Community Services Committee approved the pilot with urgency, pushing for the rules against urban beekeeping to come to an end. The City will now undertake a pilot and will report back with recommended bylaw changes in early 2015.

Bee in a Peony
Bee in a Peony by Martin Male

The battle to keep bees has been going on for quite some time and given that numerous other cities allow urban beekeeping, this decision was seen by many as long overdue. Importantly, it’s another recommendation from Fresh that will see implementation, and it’s a sign from Council that they are serious about food and agriculture in Edmonton.

Here’s an audio story about the news:

You can listen on Mixcloud or you can download the episode here.

Further Reading


Edmonton’s Food Council is now real

The inaugural meeting of the Edmonton Food Council took place on Monday night at the Commonwealth Recreation Centre. I’m very excited to have the opportunity to work with fourteen passionate and dedicated Edmontonians to move this initiative forward!

Edmonton Food Council
Photo courtesy of the City of Edmonton

In November 2012, City Council approved fresh, Edmonton’s Food and Urban Agriculture Strategy. It called for an Edmonton Food Council to be established, a process which began in earnest in May of this year. By early June, 57 citizens submitted their applications to the City, a great show of interest. Interviews with 22 of them took place in mid-July, and finally on July 26 the City announced the names of the 15 citizens selected to serve on the inaugural Food Council. Here they are:

Some folks I know fairly well, others I look forward to getting to know over the months ahead. There’s a really great mix of perspectives and backgrounds, and I think we’re going to have some fascinating conversations as a result.

Edmonton Food Council
Photo courtesy of the City of Edmonton

Mayor Mandel kicked the meeting off with some introductory remarks, and made it clear that we should feel empowered as a group to decide how best to contribute to the implementation of fresh. He put a nice spin on the Food Council’s elevator pitch:

As a committee of the City’s administration, the Edmonton Food Council’s primary role is to advise on matters of food and urban agriculture and to take an active role in supporting the implementation of fresh. Other core jobs may include providing advice, undertaking research and evaluation, coordination, engagement and education.

For the rest of the evening, facilitator Beth Sanders led us through a helpful process to tease out desires and perspectives. It was great to hear from everyone and to realize by the end of the night that we had already come to some consensus on how we’ll interact as a team. I can’t say it any better than the newsletter that went out today:

What became clear is that there is no shortage of energy with this group. When discussing when monthly meetings should be held, the group quickly came to consensus that monthly meetings would not be enough to maintain momentum. They wanted to meet sooner than later. No doubt that the commitment and enthusiasm of this group will have a lasting effect on Edmonton’s food and urban agriculture landscape.

Energy is a great word – there was lots of it on Monday night! We’re all eager to get to work, and we want to actually get things done. Being nomination day, I couldn’t help but think of the phrase that so many candidates had remarked to me after filing their paperwork – “now it’s real!”

Edmonton Food Council
Photo courtesy of the City of Edmonton

Edmonton Food Council meetings will be open to the public, and there will very likely be opportunities to get involved. You can get all the information on the City’s website, and I’d also encourage you to subscribe to the Food In The City newsletter.

Horse Hill ASP: More proof that Edmonton is addicted to sprawl

The proposed Horse Hill Area Structure Plan (ASP) will be debated at a special public hearing on Monday and Tuesday. Known as bylaw 16353, the Horse Hill ASP outlines a development framework for the area east of the Edmonton Energy & Technology Park (EETP). It encompasses roughly 2,806 hectares of land and barely meets the density target of the Capital Region Growth Plan with a proposed density of 31 units per net residential hectare based on a proposed population of about 71,000 people. Proponents would like to see the area developed over the next 30-40 years.

Horse Hill ASP, click for a larger version

There are many people opposed to the plan, including over 2100 who have signed an online petition asking Council to “get full information about the true costs and benefits of this current plan and alternative development scenarios”. Some are concerned with the loss of agricultural land, and others are concerned with the unsustainable sprawl of our city. I expect we’ll hear a lot from those perspectives during the public hearing. I wrote about this battle last July and I would encourage you to read or re-read that post for background.

After the public hearing has completed, the bylaw will be ready for first and second reading. Third reading will take place after the Capital Region Board has given its approval of the plan. It’s important to remember where we are in the larger process:

An ASP is a relatively high-level document. It contains more detail than the Municipal Development Plan, but less than the Neighbourhood Structure Plans (NSP). The Horse Hill ASP proposes five neighbourhoods, each of which would require an NSP.

The Horse Hill ASP falls into the Northeast Urban Growth Area, one of three identified in the Municipal Development Plan. Preparation of ASPs for these areas was authorized along with the MDP, but approval was dependent on Council accepting the Growth Coordination Strategy (GCS), the Integrated Infrastructure Management Plan (IIMP), and the City-Wide Food and Agriculture Strategy. Technically all three documents were approved in 2012, but they were not received without criticism. I wrote about some of my concerns with the documents here, here, and here. Furthermore, it’s hard to swallow that the Horse Hill ASP has been developed in adherence with those plans, considering that the Growth Coordination Committee and the Annual Growth Monitoring Report do not yet exist. Both were identified as key methods by which the GCS would be implemented.

At 135 pages, the bylaw, application, and supporting documentation for the Horse Hill ASP contains lots of information (PDF, 15.8 MB). I have slowly been digesting it, and I was particularly interested in the IIMP document that was included as attachment 2c (on pages 113-135). This is the first time such a document has been prepared for Council’s consideration.

From the background section of the IIMP:

The challenges facing the City are to balance development costs with the strategic benefits of sustainable growth, to achieve an appropriate balance of residential to commercial/industrial development. Although the City of Edmonton has achieved some success in diversifying its revenue base, property tax remains the largest component of City revenue.

The IIMP estimates that roughly $2.5 billion worth of infrastructure will need to be built, with developers contributing 66% and the City contributing 34%. The GCS reminds us however that “the City assumes ownership of developer funded infrastructure, generally two years after construction, and is responsible for ongoing maintenance, periodic rehabilitation, and eventual replacement.”

To estimate revenue and expenditures, the IIMP considers two scenarios. The first uses demographic projections from 2008 and assumes that only 52% of the population is achieved within 50 years. The second uses demographic projections from 2012 and assumes that the full population is achieved within 35 years.

Here’s the revenue vs. expenditures for the first scenario:

Here’s the revenue vs. expenditures for the second scenario:

The first takeaway is that new neighbourhoods do not pay for themselves, even (and especially) in the long-run. The IIMP notes that in comparison those charts “seem to contradict the general theory that a faster build-out time would result in a better cost recovery ratio.” It goes on to attribute this paradox to “the timing of certain large capital assets.”

What follows those two charts is a discussion about the balance of residential and non-residential land throughout the city. The IIMP notes that non-residential assessment makes up approximately 25% of the total tax base of the City.

How does the proposed development affect this balance? Generally, residential neighbourhoods have less than 25% of their assessment base as non-residential, and the proposed Horse Hill Area Structure Plan is projected to have 4.3% of its assessment as non-residential. So as the City grows this and other residential areas, it must also grow its non-residential areas to maintain balanced growth.

Incredibly, the IIMP then provides updated versions of the two charts above that “illustrate the importance of balanced growth and the benefit of maintaining the current non-residential assessment ratio.” The estimated revenue is combined with “off-site commercial assessment” to paint a much rosier picture of how we can afford to build out the plan as proposed.

Here’s the updated chart for the first scenario:

And here’s the updated chart for the second scenario:

The IIMP states:

The premise in these figures is that if the City maintains its current balance of 25% non-residential assessment, by developing commercial areas throughout the City, this additional revenue helps to offset the fiscal imbalance indicated by looking at the Horse Hill ASP by itself.

So we need to continue building commercial areas like the EETP to prevent residential taxes from going up dramatically. But to support those commercial areas we need to build new residential areas like the one proposed by the Horse Hill ASP. But to pay for those new residential neighbourhoods, we need to construct still more commercial areas. It’s a vicious cycle.

In other words, we’re addicted to sprawl.

The worst part is that we know this and yet we continually fail to do anything about it. From the MDP:

The Municipal Development Plan proposes a new direction for growth and it will take time to effect change. The Plan is a long term strategy and will require incremental decisions that support our commitment to saying “yes” to the things we want and need and “no” to the things that do not advance our City Vision and goals.

So far we’ve said “yes” to eight NSPs that were supposed to wait for the GCS and other documents, “yes” to a dramatically scaled back Growth Coordination Strategy, “yes” to a Food & Agriculture Strategy that lacks teeth, and we’ll likely say “yes” to the Horse Hill ASP.

We’re addicted to sprawl and we just can’t seem to say “no”.

My comments at the Food & Agriculture Strategy public hearing

Good morning Mr. Mayor, members of Council,

My name is Mack Male and I’m here today on behalf of myself, in the capacity of a citizen who loves both food and Edmonton.

There are very few things in this world that impact us on a daily basis as much as food. I firmly believe that food should be an important part of our city’s long-term planning, so I am very pleased that we’re discussing a Food & Agriculture Strategy in Edmonton. Unfortunately, I cannot endorse the document as it currently exists.

After reading the strategy, it was abundantly clear to me that it was not created with a goal of transforming Edmonton into a leading food city. Should we aim that high? Absolutely yes. We have an extremely vibrant and growing food community in Edmonton, and a long history of urban food production. Unfortunately the strategy is not only for the most part vague and non-committal, its almost unfathomably uninformed, or at best, incomplete. There is no mention of Operation Fruit Rescue, the River City Chickens Collective, Eat Alberta, or perhaps most shocking of all, Edmonton’s Food Bank, the first in Canada and a key supporter of food security in Edmonton for more than three decades. These and other omissions reflect the highly compressed timeframe in which the strategy was created, and the failure to include key stakeholders from the food community.

This should be a strategy about food, not about land in the northeast, but citizens have no other opportunity to comment on that development. I’ve heard the argument that at this point, the land is too valuable to be used for agricultural purposes. If that is true, it’s a direct result of the actions of City Council. You approved the Edmonton Energy & Technology Park directly across from the land in question in June 2010, thereby setting the stage for a large centre of employment that will require nearby residential areas. At no point in recent memory has there been any indication from Council that development in the northeast was anything but a foregone conclusion. I regularly and publicly praise your efforts and leadership on our city’s vision and strategic plan, but I think this issue illustrates that you need to do more when it comes to the issue of growing strategically and sustainably.

On Tuesday, the Community Services Committee recommended that Council approve the WinterCity Strategy and that Administration report back with a status update. Today it has been suggested that you endorse the Food & Agriculture Strategy in principle and that Administration first come back with options and costs before starting any implementation. I think that recommendation is another indication that this strategy has been rushed and is not ready to be endorsed by Council.

If we’re going to endorse a Food & Agriculture Strategy, let’s make sure it is one that we’re proud of and one that provides a solid foundation on which we can build.

I will leave you with three requests:

  1. First, reject the draft Food & Agriculture Strategy
  2. Second, schedule a public hearing on the Growth Coordination Strategy so that citizens can provide input into that very important document and the discussion about land use can move to a more appropriate place
  3. Third, establish the Edmonton Food Council as an official Council Committee and task it with the creation of a new Food & Agriculture Strategy that reflects the vibrancy and creativity found in Edmonton’s food community

Thank you very much.

The non-statutory public hearing continues this afternoon. For background, read these links. To follow along, use the #yegfoodag hashtag on Twitter.

We all have skin in the game

I’m registered to speak during tomorrow’s non-statutory public hearing on the Food & Agriculture Strategy. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to share my thoughts with Executive Committee (though I expect we’ll see more than just the five standing members in attendance). I’m yet to hear anyone on Council say they are looking forward to it, however.

“If you own the land and you want to grow berries, go ahead. If you don’t own the land, I would say the same thing, get the heck out of the way. You have no interest. We’re going to have everybody with no interest, financially or otherwise, coming forward supporting something that they really have no skin in the game about, and those that do, are going to suffer the consequences.”

That was what Councillor Caterina said at the September 5 meeting of Executive Committee, voicing his opposition to the public hearing (ultimately he did vote for it along with the rest of the Committee).

No interest? No skin in the game? Councillor Caterina could not be more wrong, and let me tell you why.

First of all, we’re talking about the Food & Agriculture Strategy, not the “What To Do With Land In The Northeast Strategy.” Food is something that touches all of us, and if we’re going to take a position as a City on the importance of food to our community, I want a say in that.

I think we screwed up by attaching the Food & Agriculture Strategy to the specific land issue in the northeast. I want a WinterCity Strategy-like approach to food. There is so much that was left unexplored, and so many people that were not involved that have important, valuable contributions to make, and that’s largely because the discussion was dominated by the northeast.

Secondly, Council is largely responsible for turning this into the “What To Do With Land In The Northeast Strategy.”

I have not seen any concrete evidence to suggest that we can sustain our outward growth, nor have I seen any concrete evidence to suggest we can’t. There’s lots of anecdotal information, and certainly there are dozens of other places we can point to that clearly demonstrate the unsustainability of sprawl, but we need facts and figures for Edmonton. We need to know, for every unit of housing we add into new areas, what that costs the city. We need to know, for every unit of housing we add into existing areas, what that costs the city. Then we can start to determine whether or not we can afford to move ahead with more sprawl. My educated guess is that we can’t.

We should have had those numbers from the Integrated Infrastructure Management Plan (IIMP) and the Growth Coordination Strategy (GCS), but that’s not going to happen. In September, Administration asked for the IIMP to be treated as a “framework” rather than a plan, then provided a meaningless two-page document to serve as the framework. Council let them get away with it.

The GCS is slated to go to Council on November 19. A draft was released in May, but it has been rewritten and was distributed to select stakeholders at the end of the day on Tuesday. The deadline for comments? Tomorrow. And beyond that select group, there has been zero public consultation, and there’s no indication that a public hearing will be held for the GCS. The purpose of the GCS is to “manage future public obligations and growth opportunities” so can you guess what was removed from the latest draft? Anything related to mature areas, transit oriented development, and infill. So much for the “coordination” part of our growth strategy.

As our elected representatives, Council should be the ones asking why. Why do we still lack the information we need to make smart decisions? Why have we rushed these documents? Why haven’t we included the public in their creation?

In short, Council has not provided citizens with confidence that we can grow sustainably, nor have they provided opportunities for citizens to have a say on the plans that will affect where and how we grow. The only opportunity we have is the Food & Agriculture Strategy.

Thirdly, and most importantly, I pay taxes like everyone else. It costs money to provide services to an ever-expanding list of neighbourhoods, and that means there is upward pressure on my taxes. Police stations, libraries, and parks do not build themselves. There are no magic fairies that remove snow in the winter or fix potholes in the summer. Taxes pay for those civic services.

I have an interest in ensuring Edmonton’s food security because food is central to my everyday life. I have an interest in what happens in the northeast because I have an interest in living in a sustainable city. I have “skin in the game” because I pay taxes like everyone else. And above all, I as a citizen of Edmonton, have a right to be involved in decisions that affect me.

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.

Maybe we should have just had a food strategy

When it comes to the Food & Agriculture Strategy, there’s perhaps no organization more deserving of credit for getting us to where we are today than the Greater Edmonton Alliance (GEA). They worked hard during the development of the MDP to ensure that the importance of local food and agricultural land was recognized, and those efforts ultimately led to the creation of the strategy that is now in draft form. But GEA is also largely responsible for tying the development of that strategy to the land in the northeast, which has resulted in a document that fails to adequately address the importance of food to our city.

City Market 2012

Instead of a strategy to transform Edmonton into a world leading food city, the Food & Agriculture Strategy is viewed by most as simply one of the final remaining hurdles to the continuation of urban sprawl that has plagued our city for decades. Whereas the WinterCity Strategy was created to “highlight Edmonton as a leading winter city,” the Food & Agriculture Strategy was created to allow the development of ASPs to move forward.

The Advisory Committee, created to “offer guidance and experience in exploring the development” of the strategy, was doomed to fail from the beginning. Because the land issue was not resolved, it was made up of fifteen members representing very diverse interests, rather than fifteen members all focused on food. It’s no surprise that farmers and developers could not see eye-to-eye on what should happen with the land in the northeast and that the issue dominated discussions.

Think about all of the other advisory committees and task forces that have been created over the last few years. We’ve had groups come together to talk about community safety, homelessness, winter, and dozens of other topics. The makeup of the Food & Agriculture Advisory Committee is like putting people that hate winter on the WinterCity Strategy committee, or people who love crime on the REACH committee, or people who think we should have more homelessness on the Homeless Commission.

So, how did we get here? There are lots of reasons of course, but here are a couple thoughts.

MDP Second Reading

One issue is that GEA’s leaders don’t care about food as much as they care about power. This was made abundantly clear at the ward meeting GEA held on October 9. A significant amount of time was spent discussing the power struggles that take place behind-the-scenes inside and outside City Hall. “One of the tools GEA uses in organizing is the power analysis,” GEA’s Monique Nutter told us. She said that in organizing there are two forms of power: organized money and organized people. The latter is the approach that GEA has taken, and for a while it seemed to work well. They filled City Hall with citizens, and they got the attention of their opponents as well as City Council.

But somewhere along the line, GEA lost the room. Any support they may have had from Council during the MDP deliberations has largely evaporated. Were they too aggressive in their demands, or disrespectful in their communications? Does organized money speak louder than organized people? It doesn’t matter. The fact is, Council is unhappy with GEA right now. That’s a problem for those of us who care about the same issues as GEA but are not associated with them, because I think at least some Councillors now treat GEA and others who feel strongly about food and/or agricultural land as one and the same. Which means that if GEA is being viewed negatively, so are the rest of us.

I don’t mean to suggest that GEA deserves all the blame for the turnaround in support. Certainly Councillor Loken has not done the strategy any favors by “trying to add some reality to the discussions.” He claims his efforts have made him a target on the Advisory Committee. Rather than diffusing an already tense situation, it seems Councillor Loken has actually made things worse.

Food in the City

The second issue is that as far as I can tell, GEA didn’t have any other choice. Tying the development of the land to the creation of the strategy was really the best they could accomplish at the time. There was no support from Council for a stronger stance on urban sprawl, as evidenced by policy in the MDP which establishes that just 25% of city-wide housing unit growth be located in the downtown and mature neighbourhoods.

In an ideal world, a Food & Agriculture Strategy would have been initiated without the need to incorporate a contentious debate over land use (of course, any strategy on food would have included something about the importance of agricultural land, but in broad strokes rather than specifics). Then again in an ideal world, the true cost of sprawl would be known and factor prominently in decisions about how our city should grow. We don’t live in an ideal world.


On Friday, City Hall will fill up with citizens eager to have their say on the Food & Agriculture Strategy. We know that Executive Committee is not looking forward to the public hearing, they’ve made that clear. They’re expecting to hear the same thing over and over, and I admit that’s not an enticing prospect. But I think that’s because they’re viewing this strategy through the lens of land, rather than the lens of food. I hope there’s a large turnout on Friday, that at least a few people talk about the importance of food to Edmonton’s future, and that Executive Committee chooses to listen to them.

Translating the City’s report on the Food & Agriculture Strategy

The agenda for next week’s non-statutory public hearing on the Food & Agriculture Strategy is now available online, as is the final draft of fresh: Edmonton’s Food and Urban Agriculture Strategy. In addition to some tidying up and a “fresh” new look, the final draft includes an executive summary. Here’s an excerpt:

fresh is not an endpoint, but a starting point. With that in mind, the Strategy does not provide a detailed implementation plan, but rather sets directions for moving forward. Implementation will occur over time as the Edmonton Food Council is established, partnerships are formed, research is continued, resources are allocated and progress builds towards results.


Also included in the agenda is a nine-page report prepared by Administration with an overview of the strategy, commentary on the recommendations, and a recommendation to Executive Committee on how to proceed. Here is the recommendation:

That Executive Committee recommend to City Council:

  1. That fresh: Edmonton’s Food and Urban Agriculture Strategy, as outlined in Attachment 1 of the Sustainable Development report 2012SPE029, be endorsed in principle.
  2. That implementation of fresh (Edmonton’s Food and Urban Agriculture Strategy) be postponed pending Administration reporting to Executive Committee in the first quarter of 2013 on the options and costs.

Endorsed in principle, but with implementation delayed pending an update on options and costs. I wasn’t entirely sure why they’d structure the recommendation that way. I mean, since when does Administration implement anything without first gathering options and costs? Why couldn’t Council approve the strategy, if they think it is ready to be approved, and then direct Administration to start implementation immediately, the first step of which might be to gather more information on costs?

So I kept reading. Here are the final remarks in the report:

While Administration views the recommendations of fresh as being generally reasonable and worthy of follow up, it also sees it being prudent to postpone implementation of fresh pending the development of a better shared understanding between Council and Administration on the options and costs to implement the Strategy.

Notwithstanding advice to postpone its implementation, endorsement of fresh in principle will satisfy the requirements of Municipal Development Plan Policy relative to enabling consideration of future Area Structure Plans and will provide City Council with the means to evaluate future Area Structure Plans for the Urban Growth Areas by way of the tool kit contained in strategic direction 9 (see Attachment 3).

Right, so allow me to translate. Administration is basically saying: “Look, we have the development industry breathing down our neck and we need to get this taken care of ASAP so that the Area Structure Plans in the Urban Growth Areas can move forward. We know the recommendation that deals with land use raises a bunch of questions, but we don’t think it is important to answer those right now. Also, we don’t want your endorsement to necessarily commit us to implementing anything, even something as straightforward as establishing a food council, so we’re just going to come back with a report on costs and go from there. Cool?”

No, not cool.

I’d encourage you to read through the documents here in more detail.