Imagining Sustainable and Thriving Food Systems

Posted on Wednesday, 14 December 2022 under Stories

What would thriving and sustainable food systems in British Columbia look like?

Imagine: Food sovereignty is a reality for communities around the province; there are more farmers growing food locally; farmers are making a good living; food production is building soil health, increasing biodiversity, and providing other ecosystem services; equity and inclusion are at the forefront of our food systems from seed to plate; agricultural emissions are drastically reduced; food is produced and sold with accountability and transparency; and communities connect directly with those who grow, raise, and catch their food.

Telling new and better stories is an integral part of working toward change. Imagining alternatives to our current food systems is the beginning of making new ones. We invited folks to start imagining and sharing stories of hope and transformation, aiming to create space for people to share their vision of sustainable food systems in BC.

Stories shape how we understand the world, our place in it, and our ability to change it.” – Ella Saltmarshe, Using Story to Change Systems

What differences would thriving and sustainable food systems make? How would they change the food security of our communities, the climate impact of our agriculture, the resilience of our province, the robustness of our local economies, the protection of our soil health, and the way we live and eat?

Why visioning is important

In ‘The case for imagination’, A Growing Culture describes how the importance of stories has become increasingly prevalent to them in their work that focuses on systems change in food and agriculture. They write that while systems change comes up a lot, the often-missed critical question is, “Can we even imagine systems beyond the ones we have now?”

If we do not have a vision for what our food systems could look like, how can we hope to create positive change? Share on X

A Growing Culture goes on to describe how spending time reimagining, “Allows the space for individual communities to identify the unique barriers to realizing this vision in their own contexts, and to come up with innovative, creative solutions.”

In 2021, the National Farmers Union (NFU) published an inspirational vision of agriculture and food systems in Canada. In the introduction to the report, the authors describe that “What follows is neither prediction nor projection.” What they describe as the importance of the report, however, “Is the realization that safe and positive paths exist, that they can be afforded, and that they offer many benefits beyond just curbing emissions of greenhouse gases.”

In other words, to work towards change, we need to recognize that there are positive paths forward.

What can you imagine for the future of the food systems you engage with and are part of?

We asked BC farmers and food systems advocates to share with us their vision for a sustainable and thriving food system in their community.

Grounded Acres Organic Farm

Grounded Acres Organic Farm is located in Gibsons, on BC’s Sunshine Coast. A queer family farm started in 2021; they grow certified organic produce and eggs. Farmers Hannah Lewis and Mel Sylvestre are passionate about small-scale agriculture, seed saving, food justice, and education.

Lewis told us that she first got hooked on farming when she realized how powerful food can be for connecting people to place. She says, “Once you feel a connection to place, the possibilities are so open for motivating people around sustainability, justice, healing, and community.”

At Grounded Acres Organic Farm, farming in relationship with their ecosystem is at the centre of what they do, as well as investing in and being part of their community. Lewis says, “We really love knowledge sharing and giving back.” Their identity as queer folks is also deeply important to them. Lewis shares, “For queer folks, even just women, trans and non-binary folks, to know that they can be a farmer, that they can see other farmers that look like them and live like them is really important to us.”

Lewis describes how the “Global industrial food system that has externalized the true cost of what it means to produce food” means that “We’ve got really, really, really cheap food produced in a way that is not sustainable, is harming communities, people, and land, and actually undercutting our own ability to feed ourselves and live on this planet.”

One of the biggest challenges Lewis and Sylvestre face as growers is the fact that because they grow food in a way that does not harm people or the land and charge what it actually costs, it makes the food inaccessible to a lot of people.

Lewis shares her vision: “Community hubs for food access where everybody feels like they belong there.” Places where growers and producers can bring their products, and where people can have stable and consistent access to fresh food at a price point that works for them without any stigma.

Improved access to land for young and new farmers is central to Lewis’ vision for sustainable and thriving food systems in BC.

Lewis describes, “Right now there are so many young folks or just folks who are new to farming, who are going to farm schools, helping out on farms, WWOOFing, and getting excited about farming.” At the same time, however, “The cost of land in almost any agricultural region is so high that people can’t afford it.”

She is excited about programs that help young folks access land, whether through affordable leases or training on how to establish and run a cooperative. These programs are already making a difference but could do much more with increased support and permanent funding.

Lewis emphasizes the value of farmers working together. Whether working together to reach sales channels or share equipment, initiatives for collaboration create opportunities that would not otherwise be possible.

Lewis paints a picture of what realizing the potential of these dreams would mean, describing a “Vibrant community of small-scale growers focused on land stewardship that would all be able to share resources and knowledge together and show up to the sales channels here.”

Charlene Seward

Charlene Seward, Indigenous Foodways Community Outreach Facilitator with the KPU Institute for Sustainable Food Systems, shared with us her ideas and thoughts for thriving and sustainable food systems.

Seward is a proud member of the Squamish Nation with close family ties to the Snuneymuxw Nation. She is passionate about developing meaningful relationships that support change at multiple levels. After spending close to a decade working to support the reconciliation movement, Seward decided to shift her work to focus on Indigenous food sovereignty and food systems. Seward says, “I see this work very much still as an act of reconciliation. It’s an opportunity to undo the harms caused by colonization and the residential school system.”

As Indigenous Foodways Community Outreach Facilitator, Seward connects “With nation members from Indigenous communities across the province to build an understanding of what their current situation looks like and to build the Institute’s understanding of what we can do to support food sovereignty on a local and on a provincial level.” She explores how food systems and Indigenous food sovereignty can further reconciliation and decolonization.

Her work is supported by an Indigenous Advisory Circle made up of entrepreneurs, food security experts, urban planners and youth leaders from across the province. Their voices help guide what the work should look like.

Seward stresses the importance of recognizing that the colonial government intentionally disrupted and destroyed Indigenous food sovereignty, and in that way, the system is working as it was designed to. She says, “Whether it was clearing the plains of buffalo, forbidding us from practicing our culture, or preventing our access to traditional food sources and medicines, the truth is that the system wasn’t made to benefit us.”

Imagining new systems requires a process of co-creation. “I think food sovereignty is inseparable from Indigenous sovereignty. You can’t have one without the other,” Seward says.

Seward’s dream is that Indigenous people will have food sovereignty again. She says, “I think that for a lot of us, food is healing; food is our connection to the land.”

Seward expresses her vision saying, “My hope is that Indigenous youth, Indigenous children grow up feeling food secure. That they have an opportunity to experience food sovereignty and control over their own food systems […] My hope is that there will be government policies that allow us to practice our traditional ways of knowing and being.”

She explains that seeing Indigenous people being able to practice their traditional culture and celebrate and honour their heritage and connection to the land would be life-changing for everyone in their communities.

It is important to recognize that the answers and solutions will not look the same in every community. Seward emphasizes that the goal is not to dictate the answer but to support each community’s dreams and vision. There is an incredible amount of diversity throughout Indigenous communities. The objective is “To help them build food sovereignty in a way that feels right for their community, in a way that’s guided by their community’s voice.”

Seward describes that this work is deeply important because food is so integral to and intertwined with culture and identity.

As we return to our traditional foodways, we return to our traditional relationships with each other, we reinvestigate or reinvigorate that understanding that we operate within a community of care, that we have a duty not just to take care of the land, but to take care of each other,” she says.

The Sharing Farm

The Sharing Farm, located in Richmond BC, is a non-profit organization that provides fresh, healthy, sustainably grown produce to community members facing food insecurity. With a core of staff and the help of many volunteers, The Sharing Farm grows and donates more than 20,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables annually on its four-acre farm. They also sell vegetables through a weekly farmstand, CSA, online store, and farmers markets.

Melad Charkhabi, Farm Manager at The Sharing Farm, says, “The Sharing Farm’s mission is to grow food and community through farming.” He adds, “We also try to reconnect people to agriculture and champion sustainable food systems.”

Charkhabi sees many barriers to small-scale farming in BC rooted in economic challenges. “I see a lot of farmers get into this kind of agriculture and have a really tough time of making a go, and I see a lot of burnout just to get by,” he describes.

For Charkhabi, a perfect food system would entail living wages for farmers and farm workers, increased access to good food, and more collaboration in food production.

A shared and cooperative spirit of food production in communities is central to Charkhabi’s vision. Especially between smaller farms, he sees opportunities for farmers to work together to invest in machinery, reach markets, and improve their quality of life. “I don’t see a reason why we can’t work together, pool our resources, and I think a lot can be achieved in that way,” he explains.

“People need to be at the center of a thriving, sustainable food system,” says Melad Charkhabi, Farm Manager at The Sharing Farm. Share on X

A thriving and sustainable food system means that people have access to good healthy food, and farming is a viable career choice in which people can make a living wage.

We put the question of what a thriving and sustainable food system would look like to our community of engaged food system advocates, foodies, gardeners, farmers, and eaters.

At our annual local food celebration and fundraising event, we asked guests to share with us their vision for thriving and sustainable food systems in our province. Through an interactive exercise, people shared thoughts including affordable agricultural land, connection between farmers and consumers, and reduced food waste. Many people described a food system in which healthy food is accessible to all.

On social media and through a survey, folks shared thoughts and ideas, including bringing more hands and hearts into food production, adopting greenhouse and vertical farming methods developed in the Netherlands, and creating opportunities for communities to work together to provide good local food.

Throughout this project, it was evident that people envision food systems in BC that are both sustainable and just. Food systems that communities have control over, and that are collaborative and transparent. People described knowing where their food comes from and being connected to the production process. Ensuring that farmers can access affordable land to grow on and everyone can access healthy food.

Making space for new and better stories is important in making positive change a reality.

This initiative was partially funded by Metro Vancouver and Vancity.