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Creating Community: Why Local Food Is Not A Spectator Sport | NextGen Speaks Out on Food

It’s official: the backlash against local food has begun. May it be as short-lived as it is ill-conceived.

 

Earlier this year, a Toronto couple released ‘The Localvore’s Dilemma’, critiquing the localvore movement and turning on its head many of the valorous claims it made. Lower carbon footprint? More ethically sourced? All quantifiably bunk, say authors Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu.

 

But they miss the most important motivating factor of the local food movement.

It’s never been about quantitative trade-offs on miles-trucked or litres-of-pesticide-sprayed. It’s about satisfying a deep, emotional desire to feel connected to what’s on our plate.

 

Two years ago, at Pecha Kucha night 8, I delivered a talk about some of the tensions of local food – the need to overcome the geographic barriers of our cold, continental climate; the fickleness of the tastemakers that deem local food trendy and authentic; and the risk of cooption from bigger players in the agrifood business. But in my talk, I forgot one divisive, and perhaps unsolvable challenge: isolation.

 

On that last point, I place the blame squarely on Food Inc.

 

The 2009 documentary asserts that we have a stark but simple choice to make: support an industry of frankenfoods that exploit animals, natural resources and farm workers without consequence; or make thoughtful purchases at local grocery stores and farmers market which have cascading effects for increasing justice and harmony in the food system.

 

What’s missing from that argument, however, is that

the local food movement isn’t only about farmer’s markets and restaurants. It’s about a network of people.

Actually scratch that – it’s about a network of networks, where individuals from different organizations with sometimes-differing motivations come together to influence, animate and promote local food.

 

This network is equal parts local food economy and local food community. Without one, the other cannot survive.

 

On July 4, NextGen’s Engage working group hosted ‘DIYalogue Talks Food’, to convene and celebrate our local food community. The event had local food luminaries act as conversation hosts for 15-minute conversations about their lens on local food. NextGen was delighted to have bloggers and publishers, cafe and food truck owners, farmers and foragers, event organizers, and local food advocates and activists from across the city and region act as mentors for the evening.
John at DIYalogue
photo courtesy of Alistair Henning

 

Want to get a sense of who was there, and how their work contributes to our burgeoning local food scene, and where to find them online? Click here to view the Slideshare presentation

 

What was interesting – and perhaps a bit shocking to me – were the comments from the food mentors on how unusual it was for them to be in the same room together.

 

So how can we leverage this network of networks?

 

Much of it comes down to building capacity, and community. Organizations like Operation Fruit Rescue and Slow Food Edmonton, alongside events like DIYalogue Talks Food, and Eat Alberta – held for the second time this spring – are meant to do just that by allowing those on the periphery of the movement to get more involved in a hands-on, meaningful way.

 

But the economic case is a harder one to make, and will take sustained time and energy to coordinate. Producers – and by this I mean farmers, restaurateurs and marketers – are facing an uphill battle.

 

Take, for example, a fledgling local-organic food market like Pangea, which recently opened its doors on 104 Street downtown. I know the owner, Vincen Halwa, quite well – his parents and mine both farmed in the same community.

 

Vincen is both a supplier, growing some of the produce for the store, and marketer, helping to connect other local and regional food producers – not just to consumers, but to the processing facilities and specialized equipment that are all part of the experience of getting local products into local kitchens.

 

And that is more challenging than it appears.

Though there’s a perception that the local food movement brings small-town values into the city, the opposite is generally more true.

In many rural centers across the province, farmers markets disappeared years ago. Unless it’s grown in a back yard, food on rural Alberta dinner tables is more likely to come from Costco than a coop. Farmers committed to local food truck their goods to market in the cities because the networks locally – smaller grocery stores and butchers – prefer the cheaper, mass-produced goods they can sell for a higher markup.

 

But people like Vincen are helping bridge the gap between small-town producer and big-city consumers. They are on the front lines of trying to make local food better – easier to access and more reliable, with better selection and diversity of products.

 

He has even offered to help me coordinate the Five-Mile Meal – a harvest dinner I am hosting at Pigeon Lake later this fall. But Vincen knows as well as anyone, that celebrating from the sidelines is not enough.

When it comes to local food, community is a verb, not a noun.

 

 

Bio:
Carol Neuman

 

Carol is a NextGen community member and a lover a local food. Along with John Loveseth, she helped organize NextGen’s recent DIYalogue Talks food conversation salon. This fall, she will host the 5 Mile Meal, a harvest supper at Pigeon Lake.

 

Disclaimer
NextGen Speaks Out, our guest blogging series, is envisioned as a hub for information and discussion. NextGen is a non-political, non-denominational organization focused on giving all nextgeners a voice. NextGen does not represent the opinions expressed by the individual columnists.