Community Food Resiliency:
Envisioning Our Food System in 2040
Guest Authors: Shelby Tay & Jay Penner
Over a hundred people gathered at the Museum of Vancouver on a Tuesday night in February for the follow up event "From Here to There (Part Two): Food, Energy and Transitioning to Community Resilience." At the launch event in December, over a hundred gathered in the same place to start a visioning process around what a just, sustainable, resilient food system might look like in 2040. Both events were collaboratively organized by the Museum of Vancouver, members of Village Vancouver (VV) and the Vancouver Food Policy Council, and was convened at MOV. The night began with a freshly cooked spread of soup, breads and roasted root vegetables and the room quieted to listen to Senaqwila Wyss, 17, of Skwxwu7mesh, Sto:Lo, Tsimsian, Hawaiian, and Swiss heritage (and food security queen in her own right!) who shared a beautiful Musqueam song, acknowledging the unceded First Nations’ land on which the gathering took place.
How did we get here?
Herb Barbolet began the panel presentations drawing from his 30 years of experience engaging in issues relating to the food system. Herb talked about his experience with projects relating to organic food production, cooperative restaurants, collective living, to founding Farm Folk City Folk and Community Supported Agriculture initiatives. It became clear to him early on that people were becoming more and more disconnected with their food and that education was needed – addressing issues of health, social justice, equity – and exploring alternatives to globalization and corrupt capitalism.
Herb explained that since the end of WWII we have seen our agricultural system fundamentally transformed -”industrialized and chemicalized”. Chemically contaminated food systems have been divided into two food systems based on wealth. Herb noted another fundamental change was that the definition of poverty shifted from a “...lack of land to a lack of income” with sustenance farming no longer seen as a viable option. “Wars over oil are also wars over food... the mainstream global food system is not as it appears to us here.”
“What kind of diet must we have? How can we sustain our populations? How do we rebuild the commons – networks of mutual aid and respect? What was food about before government and corporations?” Herb suggested we need better questions for more sophisticated answers and we need to re-frame what we do and how we think. “A loss of the commons means loss of freedom, personal accountability and responsibility and we must regain control over these parts of our lives.” Despite the challenges ahead, Herb emphasized that there are many inspiring examples of what our future could look like right here in the city, including the forthcoming New City Market food hub, and that each has a role to play in reshaping our food system. “Urban agriculture mobilizes community and breaks down fear, recreating a collective vision and engaging youth.”
Making food systems resilient
The next speaker of the night, Lena Soots, spoke to the group about creating resilient communities. Lena has been involved with the Transition Towns Network for several years and works with communities on addressing issues of energy uncertainty, climate change and community mobilization. As a trainer, Lena has introduced communities to the concept of an EDAP, or Energy Descent Action Plan, a model that was pioneered by Rob Hopkins and his students in Kinsale, Ireland and later in Totnes, England and several communities worldwide -- the focus of the night being unique in developing an Energy Descent Action Plan with a focus on food, or FED-AP. “The Transition approach has a fun and experimenting spirit in a serious context...what we’re doing now has never been done before.”
“The term resilience,” Lena explained, “is the ability of a system (person, community, ecosystem) to absorb shocks, stresses and changes while maintaining its essential function. Keeping in mind that the system may change while still maintaining its essential function”. She cautioned the room about the term and it’s over-use, noting “it often gets thrown around - like ‘sustainability’.”
Lena discussed three important characteristics of resilient systems; diversity, modularity and feedback, relating each back to food systems. Diversity is the spectrum of activities needed to maintain the central function and depth within each component. Modularity refers to the interconnectedness of a system but not connected to everything directly so that if one part of the system experiences issues, the system can still function and the entire system does not collapse. Feedback is about communicating the health of the system allowing for a fast enough response to crisis. “Decisions must be made a the lowest level possible - where people are most affected.”
Lena also emphasized the need to look to indicators for resilience - many of which have already become the focus of research; diversified leadership, community member involvement, optimism about the future, mutual assistance and cooperation, and the percentile of people with food production skills. These indicators can help us bridge our past and present with our future and how it relates to the bigger picture.
She finished by suggesting a shift in the language of our narratives, “Resilience isn’t a point that we want to get to – we are already resilient...Lets start telling the story of resilience in Vancouver: How Vancouver feeds itself.”
Following the opening presentations by Herb and Lena, Hannah Whitman shifted the discussion to the role of the rural and its connection to urban food systems. She provided an example of the International Peasant Movement, La Via Campesina, a project founded in 1993 involving 150 organizations from 70 countries, representing about 200 million farmers. Farmers must have a place in local food systems and Hannah argued for a more local focus on diet, local suppliers and institutionalizing relationships through local government.
“Food security means getting food from somewhere but it doesn’t address the autonomy of consumers and producers, where food is coming from, who benefits and under who’s interests and for what purpose?” She explained that what is needed is not food security, but food sovereignty, as well as “frameworks with diverse actions in diverse communities that facilitate choice.” She ended by providing some examples of food sovereignty campaigns and the various issues they aim to address, including; keeping agriculture out of the WTO; ending violence against women – with women producing more than half the food in rural regions (globally); and peasant rights such as land access and food producing rights.
It started with drop-in spaghetti nights
Ross Moster, founder of Village Vancouver Transition Society, spoke of a need for groups to work together. “[The] challenges are so enormous that we really need to work together," with VV approaching many different groups to rise to the task of community-based, local responses to the challenges of creating resilient food systems.
Before founding Village Vancouver, Ross and his partner decided to get to know their neighbours and invited them over for a big pot of spaghetti. They did it to have fun, and realized two days later that what had happened was that rather than everyone cooking in their own homes, they had collectively lowered their carbon footprint and without even thinking about it had become more resilient. Today, Village Vancouver engages in a variety of projects from seed libraries, to neighbourhood food networks to skill-sharing workshops across the city. It all starts with the suggestion, “Get to know your neighbours and see what happens.”
Moving into action
Brent Mansfield, co-chair of the Vancouver Food Policy Council, led a general discussion, getting people to pair up and talk about “what brought you here? What drives us toward a different future?” Brent sees that while 2040 targets are arbitrary, we need to focus on what has to be different and what do we want to be different -- that this process is not just about individual change but how can we re-envision our communities, families, cities and beyond. These solutions can only be achieved together.
Closing discussion returned the group to thinking about Vancouver communities with one panelist asking the group “What does our FED-AP look like? What does a resilient Vancouver look like?” Transition is not a spectator sport and FED-AP is on the verge of creating working groups and engaging as many as possible.
All of the presenters reinforced the idea that bringing about change to the food system is as much about visioning and storytelling as it is about planning. As the evening winded down, people made their way up to the front of the room to drop their names into paper bags, each marked with the topic of a working group. Participants were invited to join a group of interest for future discussions around various topics to start looking at the next steps from here, building the momentum to weave together relationships, vision, projects, stories of what will become the FED-AP, a collaborative community-based food resiliency plan.
To get involved in a working group, contact Ross Moster by writing an email to ross [at] villagevancouver.ca or through Hanna Cho at the Museum of Vancouver, hcho [at] museumofvancouver.ca
See more photos from the event here.
Jay Penner is a graduate student at the University of British Columbia specializing in adult education and a researcher with CityStudio. His interests are in the area of experiential and real-world learning, collaborative learning, environmental education and program planning.
Shelby Tay is a member of Village Vancouver and the Vancouver Food Policy Council and has worked with the Transition Towns movement for several years exploring how we create spaces that foster agency, connection, sense of place and stewardship.