Bring Food Home 2010

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Bring Food Home – Connecting Ontario Farm and Food Networks was a provincial conference was held in March 2010 at the Kitchener Delta Hotel. The conference brought together a broad range of participants from diverse regions and sectors, including farmers, food enterprises, health promoters, community groups and government organizations. The purpose of this gathering was to facilitate our learning and working together to create food systems that are healthy, just, accessible, culturally appropriate, financially viable and sustainable.

“Bring food home” is a seemingly simple directive, one that immediately brings to mind a shopping cart and a family dinner table. But in the case of the conference sponsored by Sustain Ontario, FoodNet Ontario and other partners it means so much more.

To a low-income earner bringing food home necessitates sometimes difficult choices. It may be the choice between nutrition and empty, hunger-abating calories or the choice between food and some of the other necessities of life. To someone who works in their community promoting healthy choices, bringing food home encompasses the areas of nutrition, health, education and community engagement.

Farmers, challenged by a global trading system that places control and profits in the hands of a few multinationals, are re-examining the opportunities to bring food home to local consumers. Others, conscious of the challenges of climate change, peak energy and environmental degradation, see the decision-making power that brings food home as a universal right. To a community, bringing food home is part of the discussion and planning to develop a local sustainable food system.

The Conference was organized into the following streams:

  • Training for Emerging Farmers
  • Community Food Security
  • Strengthening Regional Economies
  • Sustaining Food Production – Farm, City and Countryside

Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms and of Food, Inc. fame was one of several keynote speakers, as well as Martin Gooch from the George Morris Centre who led a workshop in value chain management.

Reflecting on the 2010 Bring Food Home conference

The Bring Food Home conference was a huge success, with over 350 farm and food leaders from across the province. We so appreciate those of you who travelled from far and wide – Sudbury and Thunder Bay, Ottawa and Windsor. Incredibly, most places in between were also represented.

Before I provide you with some reflections on the conference, I want to mention the conference planning process. Our vision for the conference was to provide a venue where different farm and food networks could host their events simultaneously, to bring people from different sectors together and avoid overlap. Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition, FoodNet Ontario, FarmStart, the FarmOn Alliance, the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance, the Greater Toronto Area Agricultural Action Committee, FoodShare, Canadian Organic Growers Perth-Waterloo-Wellington and the Ignatius Jesuit Centre of Guelph all participated in the planning and program development for the conference.

The program was chock full of engaging conversations about the practical work that is going on right now – on farms, in communities, neighbourhoods, towns and cities, regions and province-wide.

On Thursday the new farmer training sessions attracted both starting and experienced farmers interested in new ideas for their farm enterprises. As I entered the hotel ballroom Thursday evening to hear Joel Salatin speak I heard someone exclaim that this was the youngest crowd he had ever seen at a farm meeting!

Also on Thursday were a series of networking sessions. I attended two, one where we mapped community food security and discussed the role of community food centres across the province; and another on forming a provincial urban agriculture network. Stay tuned for a newsletter that showcases some of the amazing ‘maps’ produced. The Planting Urban Ontario working group was formed and the group committed to compile and post urban agriculture resources on the Sustain Ontario website. This group will also be putting together a resource in preparation for the upcoming election. It will include top urban agriculture policy issues and questions to engage candidates in a conversation about these issues.

To summarize the rest of conference I’ll refer to my notes from the closing keynotes:

Wayne Roberts spoke about a growing movement for food systems transformation. Things are changing very quickly in the farm and food sector. Two years ago we did not have a provincial organization such as Sustain Ontario. Now we are poised to take things to the next level. This means growing beyond a niche sector. “When we hit 10% of the market, we are going to rock the system,” Wayne stated. But there is work to be done. There was very little mention of farming and food in the Throne Speech or provincial budget. We are not on the radar of politicians, yet there is not a single issue we are working on that people wouldn’t agree with. To move things forward, Wayne suggested five strategies:

  • Present solutions
  • Connect to mainstream issues like transportation, diversity, environment, economy, etc.
  • Build bridges – between rural Canada and urban Canada. This means listening hard.
  • Focus on continuous improvement. A half a loaf of bread is better than none if you are hungry.
  • Bust silos. We are the “whole enchilada” movement.

Angie Koch, a young, successful farmer from the Waterloo Region, spoke about putting food at the centre of our lives. “This conference is full of creative, passionate visionaries,” she exclaimed. She called on conference participants to “pull stories up through the fabric of what is happening at the grassroots level” and connect these to regional, provincial and national efforts. The main challenge is farm viability. The new farmer training sessions were very encouraging. “These issues are owned by people, families, and communities. And people are working on many levels and from many perspectives to change things.”

Katherine Pigott from Region of Waterloo Public Health welcomed us to the region. She spoke about the beauty of the region, and its unique rural/urban. “Food that is so life-giving is making sick,” explained Katherine. “The food system doesn’t care about health, and the health care system doesn’t care about food.” Katherine spoke about the initiatives Public Health is taking at the regional and provincial level across the province to change this. She proposed that Sustain Ontario begin to have conversations with Medical Officers’ of Health across the province – to congratulate them on their work to date and build on this work. There are so many farm and food issues that can be moved forward at the regional and municipal level: putting food in Official Plans, local food procurement, community gardens, etc. Waterloo Region has led the way on all these issues. Katherine concluded by talking about the power of networks, and the role of the Waterloo Food Systems Roundtable. These networks, Katherine explained, are the key to “remaking the middle” and embracing the farming and business perspective. “We won’t always see eye to eye, but we must keep the dialogue open.”

Joan Brady, farmer, coordinator of FoodNet Ontario and NFU Women’s President, spoke from her many hats. First she spoke as a mother of farm kids. Joan said she is happy to be able to provide her daughter who attended the new farmer training sessions with new perspectives on farming and food. Joan explained that she retired from hog farming in 2006 because she didn’t see a future for her farm. She was right. As a new market gardener she got lots of information at the conference to share with her customers. Joan also sites on her local Farmer’s Market Board, as well as the Huron Perth Farm to Table Committee. She will take information from this conference to those groups. Joan spoke about her role with FoodNet Ontario as facilitative. The FoodNet website can be used to exchange information. The National Farmer’s Union is a forum for making change. In November Joan went to an NFU women’s networking session. She shared that the session was very touching. “When we grow food we feel like we are doing the right thing.” Joan spoke about the importance of the triple bottom line: social, environmental and economic sustainability.

On the last day of the conference participants broke into small groups to discuss the conference outcomes. The following working groups were formed by conference participants:

  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Food literacy and school programs
  • Save our abattoirs
  • Ontario local food research network
  • Disappearing farmland working group
  • Buy local mandate and national food policy
  • Scaleable regulations
  • Ecological and social goods and services
  • Pro-preneurship and local food movement
  • Raising cash for good food (donation campaign)
  • Viable farm models
  • Farmers market voucher working group
  • Produce processing working group
  • Food and climate change
  • New farmer policy for 2013
  • Urban agriculture working group
  • Food justice summit
  • Food and agriculture act