Growing the local food economy

By David Parkinson

Yarrow, one of the medicinal plants we found thriving next to the road on Brian Lee's wild plant walk

Yarrow, one of the medicinal plants we found thriving next to the road on Brian Lee's wild plant walk

This past weekend, as part of my work with the Powell River Food Security Project, I hosted something I called a “Food Skills Weekend“. This consisted of a series of workshops and talks on improving our personal and community-level self-reliance and resilience with respect to our food supply. We had one workshop on increasing our capacity to produce food in our own backyard, led by Robin Wheeler, edible landscapist extraordinaire; local canning whizzes Nicole Narbonne, Will Langlands, and Peggy Fedor presented two workshops on the basics of water-bath and pressure canning; and wild plant aficionado Brian Lee took us on a wild plant walk around Powell River to learn about some of the wild foods in our area.

Among all of that, Robin led two workshop/discussions on the importance of breaking down barriers that get between us and increased resilience. Much of this conversation consisted of talking about what prevents us — as individuals — from becoming better prepared in the home and garden, and what prevents us — as a community — from working better together to increase resilience at the level of the neighbourhood, town, district, or region.

This is a valuable and an essential conversation to be having.

When we think of becoming more food-secure in our own homes, we can think of certain assets we can work on creating:

  • a thriving garden;
  • a well-stocked pantry;
  • a kitchen where we can prepare healthy meals;

And creating each of these assets might require that we work with others in the community who can help us acquire the necessary knowledge and skills. In some cases, we might achieve economies of scale by working with others; a good example here are old-fashioned canning bees, which allow us to put large amounts of food by at one time by working together.

Community food security consists of the sum total of individual and household food security plus the sorts of resources which exist to serve larger groups within the community. Farms, farmers’ markets, buyers’ groups and cooperatives, garden-sharing networks, community dinners, food pantries and food banks… all of these are ways of organizing food security at higher levels and building resilience into the local food economy.

Many people around us are aware of the importance of food security and are concerned about the fragility of the global food supply, especially in a time of economic uncertainty. All over our region and elsewhere throughout the world, people are having conversations about how to increase their control over the food that they eat, how to create community around food, and how to develop a robust local food economy. This is a huge topic, but I want to focus here on personal and community food security, and especially on how we can start to create more initiatives which will allow us to become more self-reliant without having to spend all of our time and energy gardening, canning, and cooking.

So, what are the skills, areas of knowledge and know-how, and capacities that add up to personal food security? Let’s look at three pretty basic ones. In each case I want to briefly outline what I’m talking about and also think out loud about some of the ways we can make it easier for people to acquire the necessary skills or take advantage of other people’s skills and work.

I. The ability to produce food

This is a huge domain of knowledge, skills, and experience. It covers everything from planning a garden and selecting seeds to rotating crops, using water efficiently, building soil, choosing amendments, and many many more practical and theoretical skills. (I’m setting aside some other ways of producing food, such as foraging, hunting, and fishing.)

How can we make it easier for people?

Some people are simply unable to grow food for themselves. Maybe they lack the necessary space; or the time it takes to do all the planning, planting, weeding, watering, and so on; or they are physically unable to do some of the strenuous work. There are businesses springing up all around which use urban lots to grow food, and about as many business models as there are businesses: some grow the food for the homeowner; some use lots as urban farms and sell the produce; some are more like a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, which produce food for subscribers. (You can browse a number of these urban-farming enterprises here.)

These sorts of enterprises — whether structured as for-profit corporations, not-for-profit community initiatives, or cooperatives — are necessary because we are unlikely to find ways to free up people’s time or make them more physically able to work in the garden.

So how can we encourage more people to think of farming the city and collaborating on larger farming operations? What stands in the way? Is it simply not economically feasible? Not attractive enough as a potential business opportunity? Too much damn work for most people to even think about? Maybe there are not enough highly visible models… yet.

II. The ability to process and store food

There are many skills associated with processing and storing food, especially used when food is abundant. Canning, freezing, pickling, drying, fermenting, and root-cellaring are among these skills.

How can we make it easier for people?

Besides continuing to present workshops so that those who are experienced in these techniques can hand their knowledge on to people willing to acquire them, we need to start considering some of the real barriers that stand in the way of people doing more of this. One of the major ones is the cost of the necessary equipment and supplies as well as access to proper processing facilities; in the case of canning, this might mean the cost of a canner or pressure canner, jars, lids, and other bits of kitchen equipment. As so many people have pointed out to me, why should everyone have to own their own canner, etc.? And why should everyone have to work alone in their own kitchen processing large quantities of food? There are surely economies of scale to be realized by working together in a common kitchen, not to mention that it would be a more pleasurable activity, like an old-fashioned canning bee.

So one thing I personally want to concentrate on this summer — in collaboration with the local Fruit Tree Project — is to organize canning bees in local kitchens. We’ll need to work out the details of how people participate; people should be able to put in labour or money or some combination of the two. But the bottom line is that by working together we ought to be able to produce large quantities of properly canned food at affordable prices.

Likewise with drying food: why should everyone have to have their own dehydrator? What if we pool money to buy a good solid commercial-quality dehydrator, which people can rent space and time in? We can organize work parties to prepare food (gleaned locally or otherwise procured) and keep the costs as low as possible. And again people can choose to participate by contributing labour or money or both.

III. The ability to find, store, and prepare healthy inexpensive food

An obvious aspect of personal or household food security is knowing how to get the best food at the lowest possible prices, how to store food against rainy days or disruptions in the food supply, and how to use basic ingredients to prepare nutritious meals at a reasonable cost.

How can we make it easier for people?

This is, of course, a huge area and not likely to be successfully tackled anytime soon. Part of this involves educating people about how they can save money and eat better while supporting the local food economy as much as possible. The 50-mile diet challenge and the Open Air Market are two of the best and most visible ambassadors for healthier local eating. But we need more. One thing we could use are more cooperative food-purchasing groups or food cooperatives. Many people have no room to store frozen food, while others have huge amounts of room to spare.

As with the need to get more food produced locally, part of the problem here is simply that the global food supply is working well enough that there is no widespread perception of fragility. And by the time there is that perception, it will be late in the day to start developing these enterprises, man of which will require a long and cautious incubation period.

Creating a local food economy

I’m throwing some of these ideas out there in a casual fashion, but as a community we need to start tackling some of these if we intend to become a region where everyone is secure in his or her ability to eat well and to do so in a way which supports a strong local economy. There are all kinds of efforts out there which point in this direction, but the sky is the limit. It is impossible to have too many projects which aim to help people become more self-reliant, more able to produce and store food safely and wisely, more able to understand how to eat cheaply and well.

More and more, I understand that this is not going to happen solely as a result of not-for-profit or volunteer-based endeavours, whether government-funded (e.g., the Food Security Project which I work for, or the Food Bank), charitable (e.g., various church dinners and food pantries), or ‘shoestring’ (e.g., the Fruit Tree Project, which has no reliable funding or infrastructure). We have to start trying to develop the local food economy, with the accent on economy. There is a huge amount of critical work to be done, and too much is already happening as a result of volunteer effort. The most important thing we can do to increase food security in this region is to develop small businesses or cooperative enterprises and support each other in these efforts.

One type of enterprise I dream about is a cooperative which will bring together people who want to be as food-secure as possible. Members will contribute time, labour, money, or some combination of these. In return for their contribution, they will be subscribed to a year-round food-security service which will:

  • produce food on their behalf;
  • provide them with collective work parties where they can learn essential skills and get the benefit of their work (e.g., canning bees, sowing and weeding parties);
  • offer them significant savings on purchases of bulk staples, sourced as locally as possible;
  • work closely with local producers to create and support markets for dairy, meat, fish, grain, and other foods which require larger-scale production;
  • provide members with a library of shared tools and common food storage facilities;
  • act as a clearinghouse for information and expertise, offer workshops, etc.

As Robin pointed out in her workshops on this subject, some of the barriers to developing cooperative efforts are pretty widespread and easy to identify: lack of time, lack of trust, and often a lack of self-confidence and willingness to step forward and claim a common problem as our own and start working on it. I don’t know how to address these stumbling blocks, but clearly we need to fight against the isolation that keeps us all in our own personal silos working on our own personal problems and failing to draw the connecting lines between my garden and your freezer, between her farm and our canning bee, between our buyers’ group and their community dinner.

I think we’ll get there in due time, but if anyone out there wants to start working towards these goals now, contact me.


4 Responses to “Growing the local food economy”

  1. 1 Margy May 4, 2009 at 21:27

    Sounds like you had a great workshop. Wish I had been able to be there. I enjoy growing some of my own fresh vegetables, but my garden is too small to grow much for storage. Even so, I would like to try some canning, especially when the blackberries are ripe. Maybe this year. I’ve found some really good resource books at the Economy Shop in Powell River. Now all I have to do is try. Thanks for the inspiration. – Margy

  1. 1 The cooperative local economy « Slow Coast Trackback on May 11, 2009 at 19:11
  2. 2 Gifts and promises « Slow Coast Trackback on January 4, 2010 at 18:46
  3. 3 Serving the community, cooperatively « Slow Coast Trackback on February 9, 2010 at 12:06
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