Coming up in April: Mayor’s Celebration of the Arts & Eat Alberta

I’m helping to organize a couple of events coming up in April that I wanted to tell you about. Tickets are going quickly for both events!

Eat Alberta

This is our fourth year for Eat Alberta, a one-day, workshop-style conference with a mix of hands on learning, food tastings, and demonstrations or presentations that focus on Alberta foods. The event takes place on April 26 in the kitchens at NAIT.

Here’s a video we did during last year’s event:

Tickets went on sale today for $150.00 each. Each ticket includes two plenary sessions, four workshops, breakfast, lunch, and a wine tasting. To ensure an equitable distribution of sessions (and to introduce you to something you might not have picked) we sell ten different tracks. I’m pretty excited about our lineup of sessions and presenters for this year.

Eat Alberta 2012

For more on Eat Alberta and what you can expect, check out Sharon’s post.

Mayor’s Celebration of the Arts

The 27th annual Mayor’s Celebration of the Arts is taking place on April 28 at the Winspear Centre. This year is of course the first event for Mayor Don Iveson. The event celebrates some of the best artistic talents our city has to offer with awards, and is packed full of amazing performances.

Mayor's Celebration of the Arts 2011

You can see the list of nominees for 2014 here. A total of 11 awards will be given out during the evening.

Tickets are on sale now with prices ranging from $15 to $80 depending on where you decide to sit. Each year the event supports a charitable organization in Edmonton, and this year we’re supporting the Music Enrichment Program. Stay tuned for details on the performances.

You can read my recap of last year’s event here. I joined the committee three years ago and I’m thrilled to still be playing a part in the event!

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.

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.

If you care about local food & urban agriculture, tell your Councillor

In an effort to connect City Council with constituents to discuss the Food & Agriculture Strategy, the Greater Edmonton Alliance (GEA) organized two ward meetings in advance of the public hearing on October 26. The first took place on Tuesday at the Robertson Wesley United Church, and while the councillors for wards 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8 were invited, only Councillor Henderson attended. GEA officials told us that Councillor Krushell had responded and that she was unable to attend, and that Councillor Loken had responded and wanted to meet privately with GEA (he confirmed to me he is waiting for GEA to confirm a meeting, GEA has told me they want a public meeting, not a private one).

GEA Local Food Ward Meeting

The meeting was scheduled to last one hour, and GEA officials did a good job of sticking to that schedule. Unfortunately most of the hour was spent bringing everyone up-to-speed on the issue, and on GEA’s efforts thus far. We heard from Elizabeth Smythe from GEA’s Local Food Team, Debbie Hubbard, who served as GEA’s representative on the Food & Ag Strategy Advisory Committee, and Monique Nutter, Co-Chair of GEA’s Local Food Team. Monique concluded her remarks with a call-to-action for citizens and a request that Councillor Henderson respond by October 22:

Unfortunately, pressures are mounting to push decisions on this land forward quickly in a way that denies the time to explore options and, more concerning, marginalizes the voices of citizens.

We are here tonight to ask our City Councillors to work with us to ensure the Citywide Food and Agriculture Strategy provides the necessary information to enable good decisions.

Finally, we got to hear from Councillor Henderson. “I’m not the one that needs to be convinced,” he started, gesturing to the empty chairs that had been set aside for his colleagues on Council. He received a loud ovation for his attendance from the crowd.

Asked whether he felt the strategy sufficiently answered questions about what to do with the land in the northeast, Councillor Henderson responded: “I absolutely do not have enough information yet.”

In his remarks, Councillor Henderson noted that whatever support might have existed for preserving the land in the northeast back when the MDP was passed now appears to be gone. What happened? The answer might be found in a blog post by former GEA organizer Michael Walters:

The campaign to “preserve farmland” in northeast Edmonton was never an either-or endeavor. It was never about opposing development. It was about making something amazing in Northeast Edmonton.

In short, he feels the conversation has shifted from wondering where our food will come from in the future to a debate over sprawl and farmland. A debate he feels is unwinnable.

It was a strategic decision to tie the creation of the Food & Agriculture Strategy to the development of the three Urban Growth Areas. Whether that was the right strategy or not remains to be seen, but at the moment things feel far more uncertain than they did three years ago. There are some good things in the strategy and it would be a shame to see them held up or abandoned because of the land use issue in the northeast. At the same time, what other leverage do proponents of preserving the land have? The Growth Coordination Strategy has already been made much less comprehensive, and the Integrated Infrastructure Management Plan has already been approved as a “framework”, rather than as a plan of Council as originally identified.

“What happens if we delay the entire strategy?” Councillor Henderson wondered aloud at the meeting. “I’m uncertain about what happens next.”

GEA Local Food Ward Meeting

Councillor Henderson also reminded everyone in attendance that this is a regional land issue. “The essence of this is the fixation in this province with the primacy of property rights,” he said. Michael Walters notes the responsibility to deal with the issue has been floating back and forth for years:

The Capital Region Board has shown little courage in facing this question and in fact handed back the responsibility for addressing protection of farmland to the province in 2010. So for the City of Edmonton to pass this decision to the regional board cements an existing culture of timidity in dealing with this issue.

This is despite clear input to the Capital Region Board on the issue of preserving agricultural land:

In the quantitative survey, a significant majority (60 percent) of residents said agricultural lands should be preserved and protected. This support was consistent across the region.

How can we address the ongoing lack of action? How can we get City Council to pay attention? Liane Faulder says a “noisy, loud, foot-stomping and engaged” food movement is needed:

City council may well get away with doing precisely nothing of any substance to deal with the issue of urban agriculture because nobody is going to make them. There’s not a single council member who has shown any real interest in the urban food debate.

In other words, if you care about this issue, you need to get involved now!

GEA Local Food Ward Meeting

The next meeting takes place on Thursday evening at 7pm at St. Theresa’s Parish (7508 29 Avenue). Councillors Sloan and Diotte have apparently confirmed their attendance, and the councillors for wards 5, 9, 10, and 12 have been invited.

Don’t forget the non-statutory public hearing on the Food & Agriculture Strategy takes place on Friday, October 26. If you want to speak at the hearing, fill out this form.

Despite clear public input, Edmonton’s draft Food & Agriculture Strategy lacks recommendation to preserve agricultural land

The City of Edmonton released the draft of its Food and Urban Agriculture Strategy yesterday. The 94 page document is called “fresh” and is labeled “version 3”. I’ll be digesting it (and the other 8 associated documents) over the next week or so, but I wanted to share something that I noticed right away. Despite clear public input that Edmonton should preserve agricultural land, the strategy makes no such recommendation. Instead, a “framework” is provided to aid City Council in its decision.

As I wrote back in July, the contentious part of the strategy relates to land use and the preservation of agricultural land within city limits, particularly in the northeast. Deciding what to do with municipal land should never be easy – we should be forced to seriously consider options to make the best decision for the city. Ultimately the decision rests with Council, but I’m disappointed that given the clear feedback on this issue from the public, the Advisory Committee responsible for the strategy chose not to make a clear recommendation.

Section 5.9, under the heading “The Complexity of Issues”, reads:

The Direction to Integrate Land for Agriculture was the most difficult the Advisory Committee tackled. The Committee agreed that some prime agricultural land must be protected for future use and generations, identifying that a need exists for food production within Edmonton. At the same time, Committee members agreed that given the diverse interests represented across the Committee, it could not, and should not be the body to determine how much land should be protected versus developed in specific locations in the Urban Growth Areas. These decisions should be made through existing regulated processes by City Council.

A recommendation is very different than a Council vote. There’s no way the Advisory Committee could have been “the body to determine how much land should be protected versus developed.” Its recommendation to “treat food waste as a resource”, for example, does not detail the specific amounts of food waste that should be dealt with, so why would the Advisory Committee be expected to detail the amount of land to be preserved? The rationale for avoiding a clear recommendation on this issue leaves me unsatisfied.

The Advisory Committee was made up of “fourteen citizens from different parts of Edmonton and with different interests in the food and agriculture sector.” I suppose it should be no surprise that farmers and land developers would differ over what to do with a piece of land. Stakeholders and other citizens were much less divided on the issue, however. Let’s take a look at some of the other documents that were released alongside the draft strategy.

First, we have the Public Opinion Survey Report. It outlines the results of the survey the City ran from June 4 to June 23 (a total of 2,269 people participated). In the open comment box in the section on growing and producing food, the feedback was clear:

“…a number of clear themes emerged, the most emphatically expressed being to preserve arable land, particularly in the Northeast corner of the city.”

Of the 1388 people that left additional comments, 349 or 25% mentioned the importance of preserving municipal agricultural land, the largest of any theme.

Next we have Stakeholder Group Summary for Round 1 and Round 2. In the first round, there were “differing opinions about land use when it comes to agriculture in the City” with passionate arguments on both sides. The second round was much less ambiguous. “The vast majority of respondents agreed that providing land for growing food was a sound direction for Edmonton.”

Finally, there’s the Citizen Panel Report. The sixty-six panelists settled on ten “best of the best” strategies and in their cover letter encouraged City Council and the Advisory Committee to begin implementing them as recommendations. Their top two both deal with preserving agricultural land:

Strategy 1: Create and/or amend zoning, bylaws, fees, and taxes to prohibit developments on good fertile agricultural land, particularly the northeast farmland.

Strategy 2: Maximize spaces and places within the City of Edmonton for urban growing and food production. Develop systems for permanent and ongoing identification, inventory, and assessment of urban spaces for urban growing. The inventory includes identifying the water and soil suitability for a variety of local crops. Create accountable and objective monitoring.

There was a quite a range of participants on the panel, both in terms of age but also background. As you might expect, there were differing opinions on many issues, but the importance of preserving agricultural land was much less controversial:

Panellists were not always in agreement and throughout the Citizen panel there was in depth discussion, dialogue and areas of disagreement. However, the panellists did agree to put forward the overall strategies as outlined in this document. They also clearly articulated a critical need for political will and leadership on issues related to food and agriculture, and the importance of using municipal policy tools to protect existing agricultural land within Edmonton’s city boundaries. Participants also repeatedly expressed, in the strongest possible terms, their desire to see these recommendations treated as high-priority action items.

From the online survey to the stakeholder groups to the citizen panel, the feedback is clear: preserving agricultural land within the City’s boundaries is important. It’s too bad that a clear recommendation to reflect that is not found in the draft strategy.

The draft strategy will be discussed at a non-statutory public hearing on October 26, and you’re encouraged to provide input before that date. There are two open houses taking place this week, downtown on Wednesday and in Old Strathcona on Thursday, and so far they are the only two opportunities to learn more about the draft strategy. You can provide input at those events, by filling out the online survey, and of course by contacting your Councillor at any time.

Here is some other reaction to the draft strategy that you should read:

Farming in the City: Guided Bus Tours of Edmonton’s Northeast

About a month ago I shared with you some thoughts on the ongoing battle over food, agriculture, and Edmonton’s future growth. I noted that changes seem most imminent for the northeast part of the city, where land has been changing hands and individuals and organizations have been lining up on all sides of the issue. Talking about the agricultural land there is one thing, but seeing it firsthand as I did on my tour of Riverbend Gardens back in 2010 and at The Great Potato Giveaway is quite another. Now you have the opportunity to visit the area for yourself with the Farming in the City Guided Bus Tours:

Live Local and the Greater Edmonton Alliance (GEA) are proud to present the Farming in the City guided bus tour Sunday August 26, 2012. This will be your chance to tour some of Edmonton’s treasured agricultural lands and meet the farmers who nurture the soils and supply us with their amazing bounty!

Each informative and entertaining 3 hour tour will be led by a guide who will share the history of the northeast food lands. You will have the opportunity to visit a number of producers who will tour you through their farms, allowing you to see, smell, touch and taste the fruits (and veggies) of their labour!

The event is being organized by a small group of volunteers, some with ties to the Greater Edmonton Alliance. I had the opportunity to chat with three of them, Rachael Borley, Christiane Moquin, and Anna Vesala, to learn more about the event. The organizers are hoping to engage the general population with this event, not just “foodies” or people who are already familiar with the area. “It’s important to have a connection with the farmers and to see how they make their living,” Christiane told me. “People can then make their own decisions.” Rachael is hoping that families will “come and see what’s out there” and noted that the event is definitely family-friendly.

Riverbend Gardens
Riverbend Gardens

With the Food in the City report due back to City Council in the fall, there’s no question that this event is more than just a family outing however. There will be tour guides on each bus who will offer some history and explain things as the tour progresses, though the organizers stressed that they will be “sticking to the facts.” A couple of stops along the way will provide visitors with the opportunity to see the farms, fruit, and vegetables up close. At Horse Hill Berry Farm, visitors will get the chance to forage and taste some berries!

The event takes place on Sunday, August 26. Live Local and Northlands are partners, with Live Local providing the online ticketing and Northlands offering up its vast parking lot as the pickup and dropoff spot for the tours. Buses depart and return every 45 minutes, and each tour is roughly 3 hours long (the first bus departs at 8:30am). Tickets are $10 per person, or $25 for a family. You can pick your timeslot and get your tickets here.

The Great Potato Giveaway
The Great Potato Giveaway at Norbest Farms

If you’ve been curious about the northeast and want to learn more, this is the perfect opportunity to do just that. Don’t miss it!