Food Security, Food Sustainability, Local Food availability

And…Pivot!

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.

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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…

ThinkingSeptember14Two

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Food Security, Food Sustainability, Local Food availability

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

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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.

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Food Security, Food Sustainability, Local Food availability

Is Local Just Too Gucci?

I’m starting to realize that, because people want locally grown produce at a groundswell-movement level, it has become a luxury of sorts. Why? Are some people perhaps taking advantage of the demand to push prices up? Not to be too “mother earth” about this, but we are all human beings on a planet that is beginning to groan with the weight of supporting all of us and our acquisitive natures.

Maybe there needs to be less “what’s in it for me” and more “what can I do to help out”? People for Good is giving it a shot. It seems a bit vague right now, but there are people willing to put their money where there hearts are.

When I lost my husband in March last year, my world fell apart. But Ray and I were never the kind of couple that let tragedy get in our way. I wasn’t going to be that kind of widow. I felt inspired by my loss. I felt motivated to make something better out of it. And that’s why I’m working on Dangling the Local Carrot. I will do many more things like this, but this is my “training-wheels project” to learn some of the skills to make change happen.

What concerns me at this point in my current learning curve is that what attracted me to working on this project is a cultural meme — and people have jumped on it like a fat kid on a Smartie to find a way to make it hugely profitable. Local is the new “gold standard” and, just because it’s local, it’s a lot more expensive.

But why does it cost that much more when it gets to an urban farmer’s market where people will trample each other for cute little pattypan squashes?

I had a fabulous talk with Linda Delli Santi, Executive Director of BC Greenhouse Growers Association this afternoon. She gave me a quick flyover of what the greenhouse business is all about. She’s had a lot of hands-on experience, having run her own greenhouse farm for years. It’s not simple. You need to consider that land and labour are both expensive in North America. Granted, the greenhouses make incredibly good use of the land they use, growing up instead of out, but it still costs a lot to get a tomato to pop out of them. I don’t argue with the fact that, for so many reasons, it costs more to grow something locally than it does to bring it from Mexico. But why does it cost that much more when it gets to an urban farmer’s market where people will trample each other for cute little pattypan squashes?

My goal is to find a way to make local produce more accessible and more affordable in Metro Vancouver.

I repeat that to myself every 1/2 hour to remind myself of what I’m doing. It’s so easy to get lost down a rabbit hole doing research like this. If I want to find a way to make it more accessible and more affordable, that means finding a way to green some of the urban food deserts and, if not to make local less expensive, then to make it no more expensive for people who can’t drive to it than for people who can.

I can’t change the law of supply and demand, but there has to be another (well many others, actually) way to crack this local hazelnut. It’s not Gucci. It’s just a nut.

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Food Security, Food Sustainability, Local Food availability

Narrowing the Field

I’m learning so much, just through secondary research on this project. It’s really overwhelming. There are so many people doing so many good things here in the Greater Vancouver Region as well as throughout Canada and the U.S. It helps me better understand where my work might fit and help. I’m so impressed with organizations like Fresh Roots, the Truck Farm, Victory Gardens, Vancouver Fruit Tree Project, The Sharing Farm and Urban Edibles for doing things large and small to get people closer to the sources of their food. I get excited about backyard chickens and locally, organically raised meats, but I want to focus on my core goal: find a way to make locally grown produce more affordable and accessible in Metro Vancouver.

People like Fresh Roots and the Truck Farm are finding unique ways to grow food and connect the community. Others are making sure that more and more locally (and when possible, organically) grown produce is available. I have over eighty responses to my survey (and I hope you will take the time to do it as well) which tells me that people are very motivated to buy local produce, but it can be inconvenient to either find it or get to it, and it is often more expensive. If it can be made more available and more reasonably priced, people in Metro Vancouver will buy it.

Many have told me that they would choose organic over local, which is an ongoing struggle for a lot of people, including me. When I think about the needs of people on fixed or limited incomes, however, I feel that local has to come first as growing organically costs farmers more and by default must cost more at the point of purchase. At best it’s a nice-to-have for lower income families. The nutritional value and freshness of local produce should be available to all families, regardless of their income and that is my goal. I’m not specifically focused on lower-income, but my goal is to have this be inclusive.

I’m making lists of the people I want to interview now. I will also ask some of my subjects to allow me into their homes to talk about food and cooking as well as to tag along with them on a shopping trip to document their process to put nutritious food on the table. I will keep you posted as I work through this discovery process.

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Local Food availability

Attempting to Live My Passion

It’s easier said than done to eat local all of the time and, in fact, I think it’s unreasonable. That said, I do think we can combine locally grown foods with other foods that give us variety.

Today’s lunch started with walking about 10 steps out of my back door and picking arugula, basil and Italian parsley to make a salad, combined with local hothouse tomatoes (more about these later). I drizzled it with Olivia’s black mission fig balsamic from Kelowna.

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I freely admit that this fresher-than-fresh salad was accompanied by leftover pizza from Panago…but I’m trying!

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Local Food availability

The Mexican Tomatoes Made Me Do It

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I was in a chain grocery store about 3 months ago…that would make it April, I guess. I wanted tomatoes. I went to the organic section first — always my first choice if it’s local and organic. No deal, they were from Mexico. That’s too many miles away, harvested too early, grown with I don’t know what kind of organic growing standards. So I went to the regular section, and those were also from Mexico. There they may have been sprayed and fertilized with things I wouldn’t want in my body, let alone my childrens’. And again, harvested too early, and shipped thousands of miles in a vehicle spewing carbon fuel byproducts.

I actually teared up, right there in the produce section.

I could practically throw a rock at the commercial greenhouses growing tomatoes right here in Richmond and yet they couldn’t get them that far in a truck. Those same greenhouses also grow cucumbers, peppers and lettuces and yet, in this store, I found nothing grown even in this province. I was instantly inspired to do something about it.

Enter California College of the Arts’ unique Leading by Design Fellows Program in San Francisco.

“The Leading by Design Fellows Program at California College of the Art (CCA) provides executives and senior professionals the insights, skills, and confidence to lead change that creates lasting, sustainable business and social value.”

I had already been looking for a Design Thinking program that focussed on innovation, and one I could attend with low residency. CCA’s program is unique in this regard. The only other school of its kind is Stanford’s d.school, which would require me to abandon my 30-year-old business to attend, which I’m not willing to do.

So here I am. My goal is to find a way to scale up local produce availability so that local food is available to more people for less money. Seems logical, but I’m certain it will be a challenge. There are all kinds of reasons why it can’t be done. I’m looking for ways that it can. I ask for your follows, your feedback (positive or negative) as I work on this. The end of October this year is my deadline to make a proposal. After that, I hope to make it work in real life.

Thanks for reading!

Casey

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