Food Security, Food Sustainability, Local Food availability, Supporting small farmers

Sometimes, you can’t see the pumpkins for the trees


I’m still looking. But, as with any wicked problem, you need to refine and rephrase the problem as you go. I’m now working with the City of Richmond and Richmond Food Security Society, funded by VanCity Envirofund to look at the feasibility of a food hub in Richmond. But it presents some interesting problems.

Food hubs in Western Canada haven’t often worked well, at least the few that have been tried. There are a number of hoops to go through and failure is the best teacher. With the help of experienced food distribution expert, Darren Stott, I’m talking to farmers again. But the questions are different. We’re avoiding saying “food hub”. The question isn’t, “can we make a food hub work”. The question is, “how can we make distribution and sales easier for smaller mixed-crop farmers so that they can make a decent living”. I’ve talked to some keen folks, and I’ve talked to some who are dog-tired from trying to push the same rock up the same slippery slope.

What we hope to get is the answer from the farmers themselves. And whatever answer it is, the farmers need to embrace it and own it and make it work. We’re aiming for next steps come November.

If you see my pumpkin, can you let me know where it is?

Food Sustainability, Local Food availability

Image from RKS

This is a very interesting article by RKS Design CEO Ravi Sawhney. The influence of greater awareness around what we eat is certainly having an effect on the way fast food chains model their menus, but it is surface at best. The business model simply would not sustain itself if food needed to be sourced locally —or even more difficult, using non-GMO or organic produce. Read my comments on the article as well. And thank you to Ravi for these fresh ideas!

FastCoDesign: 4 Ways to Fix the Fast Food Industry

Food Security, Food Sustainability, Local Food availability

Farmers: The Fading Heroes of Our Age


I have been focussing on farmers for the last couple of months. Farmers are the lynchpin of our local food system. Their numbers are dwindling. Fifty percent of farmers in British Columbia are over the age of 59 years. Their average age is 55. They are under threat from shrinking revenues and almost non-existant profit margins. Local farming is simply not sustainable under the current framework.

Our food issues are massive. The players are myriad, from the farmers themselves to the geopolitical juggernaut that mandates that agribusiness and international trade trump small-scale, mixed-crop farming. This is, as I’ve said previously, a “wicked problem”. No one player or solution will be able to address food security or institutional food insecurity. That’s a term I heard tonight at Good Food For All, an open discussion hosted by Vancouver Food Policy Council at Vancouver’s Roundhouse.

There is no magic bullet for food security.

There is no magic bullet for food security. On a global level, it requires agricultural science, food science, social science, political science, and many others I haven’t yet considered. In order to feed our world, we need everyone to come to the table. To feed Vancouver, we need all of that, but with a special focus on maximizing the potential of one of the most fertile growing regions in North America, so that it serves the people who live in and around it. In a world hugely dependant on agribusiness to produce the food we eat (everything from GMO wheat to the organic mega-acres like Earthbound Farm in California) a global food crisis, where monocultures grown in great swaths of land could have the potential to be wiped out in weeks, we need to strengthen our local capacity to produce food. It won’t sustain us forever, but it will help mitigate the wallop such a collapse could wield.

If we consider the focus on ensuring that farms keep growing produce in the Metro Vancouver region, we know we have to focus on small farms that grow mixed crops. In defining “small”, I’ll stick with 2 acres to 300 acres. There are smaller, urban farms. There are larger rural farms, but to narrow my focus, this is where I have landed.

Local food production, and making sure it continues to thrive, is a battle of “relentless incrementalism”…

Local food production, and making sure it continues to thrive, is a battle of “relentless incrementalism” as adeptly coined by speaker Nick Saul from Community Food Centres tonight at Good Food for All. There will be no “great battle”, no pivotal moment. It will be committed people, pushing steadily and constantly, to ensure that farmers can live decently from their labour and feel like valued and significant members of our society.

With this in mind, I have decided on the perhaps lofty goal of making farming a more reasonable living for farmers. At this point in time, my concept is a hub. This is not a new idea, but it is a good one. If farmers own their hub; if they find profitability in it; and if that hub gives Metro Vancouver greater access to locally grown produce, my goal can be achieved.

Next step: a business model. Stay tuned.

Food Security, Food Sustainability, Local Food availability

Trying to Find a Reason for Farming

It seems like trying to find a reason for the sun to come up. Farmers just do it. There is no logical or fiscal wisdom to deciding that it’s a really good idea to start getting up at 5:oo am, do back-breaking work until the sun goes down, have terrible cash flow and have to have a second job so you can pay your help and buy seed.

I have spoken to several farmers — some younger, some older. Some still have a fire burning in their belly, some not so much. But all truly care about farming and doing things right. They care about food and food security. They care about the planet.

It shouldn’t be this unrewarding (financially, at least) to grow the food that we all need. We shouldn’t have to bring in those tomatoes from Chile (please, don’t buy them!). As consumers, we need to be more focussed on supporting the local grower. And I’m looking for ways to make it marginally better for small-scale, mixed-crop farmers to stay in the business and feel the love.

Food Security, Food Sustainability, Local Food availability


I spent all of this past weekend in my office mapping (NOT napping), thinking and reading. I am finding much more focus now. The fact is that small-scale farmers can’t afford to live on the income they make from farming alone. With that kind of carrot on the stick, there aren’t going to be a lot of people motivated to farm. Fewer local farms = less local produce = higher prices = more imported food.  And there I am, back where I started, eyes tearing with frustration at having to buy Mexican tomatoes.

Fewer local farms = less local produce = higher prices = more imported food.

So my target is distribution, with my “customers” being small-scale local farmers as primary and “retailers” as secondary (retailers in quotes as these can be anyone from the farmers themselves to smaller grocery stores). The distribution element has come up over and over again as one of the three biggest barriers to accessibility of local food, the others being education (farmers and the public for different reasons) and business acumen.

I will facilitate a workshop with some of the wonderful people I have interviewed over the course of the last few months. They are experts. They know the problem space. I will also include design students whose wide-open thinking can help pull people who are too deep in the problem out of their comfort zone. I will invite a couple of people with food logistics expertise to help inform things from a larger scale…and well see what we can come up with! I plan to work with the many research and facilitation skills I have acquired through the Leading by Design Program and the goal will be to generate as many possible business models as possible.

I’m looking forward to this. I want to see small-scale mixed farming grow the thrive in and around Metro Vancouver. I’m hoping I can be part of the solution.

Food Security, Food Sustainability, Local Food availability

Backing Up the Truck

There are so many issues around making local produce production and supply work.

I’ve been frustrating myself looking at how to get local produce to consumers. Maybe I need to rethink this? My issue at the very start of this project was distribution and I think I’m coming full circle. First of all, what is local? That is a thesis question on its own, but I think working with a 100-mile circle around Vancouver is good start, and Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon already broke that ground. As a reminder, I’m not advocating going without oranges and pineapples if you want them,  but simply not buying food that has been grown thousands of miles away when we can grow it here. It hurts our economy and it hurts the small farmers who grow local food at significant personal cost. It puts that food in trucks which dump carbon into the atmosphere and the time it takes to get it here leeches nutritional value from the food.  ‘Nuff said about that.100 Mile RadiusI want to make local food more accessible and more affordable. So what does accessible mean? Is it convenient? Is it available close to home? And what about affordable? Compared to what? Imported tomatoes from Chile? Subsidized produce dumped here from thousands of miles away? Is that affordable? To a low income family — damned straight it is! On the hierarchy of needs, it’s eat first and worry about the world a little later.

ThinkingSeptember14OneAccessing local produce in North America is — tragically — a first world problem. But I don’t think that should make it a choice only for higher income families. So, how do I connect these local farmers with markets without adding costs to them?

What pre-existing distribution models can I borrow/piggy-back on to make this work? I’m working on that…


Food Security, Food Sustainability, Local Food availability

“…if you ain’t a gardener, you ain’t gangsta.”


Food deserts. Perhaps you’ve heard of them. South Central Los Angeles is one big food desert. What is a food desert? It’s a place where you have lower to lowest incomes, fast food outlets everywhere and a not a fresh fruit or vegetable in sight. Ron Finley lives in South Central. He is an artist and, obviously, a big idea guy. He started using city land to grow food and his story is awesome. Here is his TED talk from this past February.

I’m thinking now about how to make gardening more gangsta. We need more local produce. That is becoming clear in my research. We need more to increase supply to meet the growing demand, more to increase competition and keep prices realistic. A challenge I’ve discovered is to how to make it sustainable to be a farmer. If farmers can’t earn a decent living, we won’t have any farmers. How do we balance that decent living with food prices that average people can pay?

“Funny thing about sustainability is that it has to be sustainable.”

Urban farming is a huge piece of the puzzle. It grows food that is accessible to those who need it, often at no cost to them. It teaches youth about where food comes from and what it takes to make it happen. As Ron says, “if a kid grows kale, he eats kale”. I love what Ron is doing. Fresh Roots and Sole Food Street Farm are doing similar things in Vancouver.

Food security is what we call a “wicked problem”. It is like a hydra with whipping tentacles everywhere. It will take people like Ron Finley; Ilana Labow and Marc Shutzbank from Fresh Roots; and Michael Ableman and Seann J Dory from Sole Foods to contribute to slaying this beast. I hope to add my shovel to the battle.