A day in Guelph—local food, permaculture and more!

Last week I had a great day at the University of Guelph that included exploring research questions for CFCC, a permaculture farm site visit, a food procurement discussion and tour, and speaking on the panel of a third-year geography class.

The day started with Trace McKay (Interim Research and Evaluation Manager at CFCC) and I meeting with Prof. Evan Fraser’s academic team to discuss ways to leverage their research expertise to examine questions that CFCC is addressing in our work. Although CFCC’s primary target audience are community members in low-income communities, we also seek to support local farmers employing sustainable growing practices through healthy food purchases at CFCs. However, the benefit to farmers is yet to be understood in detail, and in the coming months, masters students will be examining and evaluating this question. We’ll be sure to share their insights on The Pod as they come.

Later in the day I met with Paul Wartman, founder of Many Rivers Permaculture, at the Guelph Centre for Organic Agriculture. When I arrived Paul and others were busily washing potatoes, carrots and other recently harvested veggies to take to the campus farmers’ market. Upon entering the farm, I was immediately struck by the beauty and fullness of the garden, which includes large sections of wild perennial flowers in bloom. On our walking tour Paul was quick to point out that these sections were not merely aesthetic—they also house beneficial birds and insects that help to keep pests at bay.

We walked down the south-facing hill and past a patch of delicious golden raspberries (that Paul insisted I sample) to his experimental agroforestry plots. Stretching in a large crescent arc down the slope, each plot is comprised of an apple tree nested within different plantings of associated beneficial plant species. In this portion of the farm Paul is sampling soil nutrients and microfauna diversity surrounding the trees to compare what effect the permaculture treatments have on productivity compared to conventional growing practices. Essentially, Paul is trying to quantify one of the core questions in permaculture with scientific measures. If forest ecosystems are able to be wildly productive without any fossil fuel or chemical inputs, why can’t our food productions systems do so too? We laughed when he explained that some of the species he was co-planting with the apple trees to see if they helped to improve soil quality and micro-fauna were the same ones that his supervisors had been previously study how to remove from the soil in agricultural systems.

I also met with Mark Kenny (@100milemark), who’s in charge of $7 million of institutional food procurement that happens annually at the University of Guelph. Interestingly, the university doesn’t contract their campus food service out to an external food service provider like most other schools. This enables champions like Mark to create and capitalize on opportunities when they see them. He showed me one such example, their recently built ‘processing room,’ which allows the university to take in huge volumes of seasonal produce and process it into a range of products that can either be used fresh or stored through freezing, canning and vacuum packing.

Although the local food distribution component of The Local CFC in Stratford ON operates under a much lower demand than a university with $7 million of purchasing annually, my conversation with Mark got me thinking about how this type of facility would look in a Community Food Centre context where large volumes (relatively speaking) of healthy seasonal products are brought in to enable other social service agencies to access healthy local food.

Later in the day, I spoke on a panel alongside people involved with food banking in Guelph in Prof. Evan Fraser’s Food Systems: Issues in Security and Sustainability class. Brittany from the CSA university food bank shared elements of her programming in response to hunger o -campus. One example that stood out for me was that volunteers would search and cut out weekly grocery specials that were happening along Guelph’s bus routes, and then post this information on social media to help inform students making their food purchasing decisions. She also spoke about about changing the culture of students eating poor quality food: “Should we really be proud to say that I survived on Mr. Noodles for four years of my undergraduate?” Despite the the fact that the food bank addresses a different context than most CFCs, I was glad to hear Brittany speak politically about the underlying cultural and systemic root causes of hunger on campus.

What I took away most from this visit was the importance of staying curious and to continuing learn about how others are engaging in food insecurity and food systems issues in their contexts. Without a culture of debate and a continual process of re-imagination, we run the risk of creating another social institution that fails to adapt as conditions change and requires us to evolve.

In addition to housing transferable lessons from the CFC model, The Pod is also a place where we host conversations on innovations/adaptations to our response to hunger, poverty and sustainability. Join us for othe next installment in our webinar series, where we'll explore strategies for bridging the divide between local, sustainable food and low-income communities with The New Farm's Gillian Flies and the West End Food Coop's Ayal Dinner. Register now.