The excitement thrums in the air. Around the room, bright thinkers and thought leaders wait eagerly for the next speaker.
Our audience is diverse. It includes farmers, teachers, activists, students, entrepreneurs, and members of government. Our diversity is our strength. Like a forest, our diversity is what allows us to thrive and innovate. We are eager to grow like young saplings, but we are also eager to share like the log giving nutrients back to the soil. We are all sharing and growing in the ecosystem of our discussions.
Despite many of us only meeting today, we are also connected. Our passion for a strong food system connects us, as do our activities and dedication to our roles. We are here because we have heard of permaculture techniques, or we are concerned about the disappearance of small family farms. We all recognize how food insecurity is a persistent challenge in our communities.
We were brought together by a shared passion for building resilience in our food system. Seven presentations, and seventeen audience members, all of whom travelled across Alberta to be here on this day. In this article, I will be sharing with you the recurring themes and lessons learned from our event, Cultivating Food Sovereignty, which was held in Bruderheim on November 28, 2023.
Introducing Our Speakers
Collaborating for the Cultivating Food Sovereignty Project, Resilient Rurals and SevGen Consulting Inc. chose presenters for the session based on their active involvement in the food system, as well as the relationships built in previous engagements.
Our speakers included representatives of non-profits, tribal councils, educational institutions, and farmers. As such, we were able to learn from a variety of perspectives and experts. We have outlined our presenters and their associated organizations below:
Penny Fox - Community Futures
Keleigh Cormier - Connect for Food
Cheryl Savoie - Yellowhead Tribal Council Gardens
Brady Weiler and Mario Swampy - Maskwacis Education Schools Commission (MESC) Nanâtohk Mîciwin (Universal School Food Strategy)
JR Weasel Fat and Ade Onanuga - Mi’kai’sto Red Crow Community College
Trudy Harrold - Harrold Family Farm and Aspenhurst Permaculture
Brayden Omeasoo-Steinhauer - Maskwacis Youth Representative and University of Alberta student
We would also like to acknowledge our audience, their thoughtful questions, and their own valuable experiences. They contributed to a full and rounded discussion, and their contribution played a valuable role in the group’s learning.
Hearing the unique perspectives and informed contributions of these speakers encouraged us all to expand how we think about the topic of food sovereignty. The messages interwoven throughout the day’s discussion left all attendees eager to continue the work and the conversation beyond the walls of Bruderheim’s Community Center.
Fostering Connection in Diverse Ways
Like the diversity in our attendees, a main theme that emerged from food sustainability and food sovereignty was the importance of diversity and connection. A diverse and interconnected ecosystem is more resilient than a monoculture or single-crop field. Likewise, the diversity of our roles around the food system is necessary, and speaking to one another about our roles, challenges, and areas of growth fosters connection. This theme also emerges in the diversity of actions taken to improve food sovereignty and the central role of connection in the success of those actions.
Keleigh Cormier, a representative of Connect for Food, specializes in making connections throughout the food system. Her initiative recognizes the desire in Alberta to craft a healthy, thriving local food system, as well as the reality that there are challenges in this area, including the fact that consumers are disconnected from where their food comes from. Many consumers aren’t even eating food produced in our agriculturally-inclined province. “How can we start connecting these people?” she asks, explaining how she and her colleague drove across northeast Alberta to start conversations with producers, distributors, consumers, and more. “We want people in the community to understand, be excited, and drive an initiative,” she explains, and that drive only comes when people are truly connected to their food system.
Introducing healthy food options to a community also necessitates diverse strategies and connections with that community. Penny Fox, the General Manager of Community Futures and President of St. Paul Champions for Change, has spent the past 14 years of her career introducing small strategies in St. Paul to encourage healthier eating and reduce the rate of chronic illness. “Everyone wants to live in a healthy community… let’s do things in a small and manageable way,” she explains. Small and manageable changes over a decade are bound to show up in big ways. Actions such as introducing healthful food options at community events give attendees the right to choose their food, and many choose to eat strawberry yogurt parfaits over cake and ice cream. Building connections between consumers, restaurants, and producers at their Harvest Ball brought the community together, supported activities, and established awareness of the local food system. Community gardens, food preservation workshops, and even policy changes were all a part of the diverse strategy in St. Paul to improve food options and overall health.
Similarly, Brady Weiler and Mario Swampy play an integral role in establishing connections and diversity in the Nanâtohk Mîciwin (Universal School Food Strategy). Offering whole foods cooked in the schools themselves, this program introduces students to a variety of nutritious and delicious meals, including a fully stocked salad bar. Much like St. Paul, simply offering this nutritious option opened the door for students to introduce new foods to their diet. This innovative school food strategy would not have been possible without the connection between the four Nations that have partnered to establish Maskwacîs. Montana, Louis Bull, Samson, and Ermineskin Nations are all autonomous governments that have recognized the value of cooperation, especially as it pertains to the children and youth in their school system.
Our youth are our future, and also our champions of diverse solutions. In his policy proposal written while studying at the University of Alberta, Brayden Omeasoo-Steinhauer emphasizes that a diversity of food sovereignty solutions can be generated if we give communities the tools to develop their own strategies. He points to the success of the Tsuu-tina bison farm, which not only feeds the Nation but also is an important connection to their traditional culture. “This is a wild game farm so we have to treat our relationships with the utmost respect, which includes animals and non-living things. When they harvest a bison, they practice their culture and ceremonies when harvesting that meat,” he emphasizes the importance of putting the creative power in the hands of communities.
Connection and diversity on the land itself are equally important as our diverse connections within our food system.
At Mi’kai’sto Red Crow Community College their agronomy program seeks to connect Indigenous students back to the land while imparting agricultural skills and opportunities. Ade Onanuga explains, “We have to connect to our land in order for the land to give us good produce… We always have Indigenous ceremonies, whenever we want to start an operation, we connect to our Creator”. JR Weasel Fat’s connection to the land is what drew him to an agricultural teaching position; “Me going back to school – I did it with a passion, and I work the land with a passion. Because the land, it is us. I think everyone in here can say we depend on the land.” Connecting to the land, understanding its needs, and incorporating diversity are integral to farming in a sustainable way. Mi’kai’sto Red Crow Community College seeks to impart this knowledge to its students. Moreover, 10,000 pounds of food they grew was shared with the community, furthering this sense of connection.
Trudy Harrold, representing Harrold Family Farms and Aspenhurst Permaculture, shared her own perspective on the importance of diversity when growing crops. Not only does her family farm integrate diverse strategies to improve productivity, including permaculture gardens, solar projects, and riparian area restoration, but Trudy explains “It’s not just about the parts, it’s about how to connect those parts and have them work really well together”. The diversity of her farm requires that relationships and interconnections are established between each component. Diverse plants work better when they are complementary to one another and the established ecosystem. For example, her pollinator garden nurtures native plants and is designed to support local pollinators. Beyond her garden, Trudy and her husband also act within their local food system to support small farmers. They have done this both by creating a livestock feed blend and by hosting a market of small producers on their property.
Education Encourages Sovereign Choice
Growing nutritious food is a piece of the resilient food system puzzle. But how do we get people in our community to eat the food we grow? If vegetables aren’t a staple already on someone’s plate, why would they suddenly eat vegetables that are locally grown? As we’ve researched and developed materials on this topic, we could not find the answers to these questions.
Luckily, our event speakers were able to answer it for us.
In the case of Community Futures and St. Paul Champions for Change, something as simple as offering a second option at public events meant that about half the community chose that second, nutritious option. Moreover, initiatives that introduce the concept of vegetables, what they look like, and how they grow also play an important role in increasing their community member’s familiarity with the produce. Incredible Edible Barrels is one initiative that does just that. By planting barrels filled with edible flowers and vegetables, and including information cards about what is growing and how to use it, St. Paul is showing (not telling) their residents how food is grown and how it can be incorporated onto their dinner plates. The freedom to use the produce of these barrels further encourages residents to take those vegetables home to cook with.
Showing people nutritious options, rather than telling people they should eat healthier, is essential if one wants to shift the food environment. The Maskwacîs Education Schools Commission implemented a Universal School Food Strategy in 2013 to do just that. Made from whole foods, sourced as locally and affordably as possible, this program feeds nearly 3,000 students and staff breakfast and lunch each day. Brady Weiler, the Interim Director of MESC-Universal School Foods Strategy, is proud of the work his team has done to cut costs and introduce superior products to the students. For example, skipping the grocery store ensures that MESC is saving dollars and their orchard owner partner is better compensated for his produce. “[The apples] are an exceptional product, we buy them from the farm,” he explains. Perhaps most fascinating of all is the evolution of the salad bar in their program. At first, many students did not add fresh salads to their plates. However, that changed and over time a second salad bar was needed as the fresh greens became so popular. In addition to offering nutritious meals to students, MESC’s Universal food Strategy also offers a pipeline for students to join the food industry themselves by apprenticing in the program as cooks; “we are going to make the path for students to go through this program, and hopefully carry on with their education”.
Offering the option of fresh vegetables is key. The Yellowhead Tribal Council operates within the City of Edmonton and serves the urban Indigenous population, 30% of whom are food insecure. A significant pattern within food insecurity is that fruits and vegetables are the first food groups dropped when money is tight (Eskandari et al., 2022). YTC decided to tackle this discrepancy by opening its hydroponic growing operation, which now has over 450 different cultivars and produces 400 heads of mature lettuce each week. “The uptake of the greens was massive, we didn’t expect it,” Cheryl Savoie shares, while explaining the other strategies YTC employs to improve their food environment. “At the tribal council level, we are saying to ourselves start demonstrating what healthy eating actually looks like.” This perspective led to the opening of a salad and smoothie bar within their building. Food sovereignty refers to a level of ownership and choice over one’s food that is not included under a food security definition. “I don’t want to rely on people for my quality of life,” Cheryl states, “people are hungry and we aren’t controlling our own food, we have this push from people looking to address their own constraints.” The work YTC Gardens is doing seeks to foster food sovereignty among the urban Indigenous population within Edmonton.
The choice about what we eat and whether it supports our health is a key aspect of food sovereignty. In communities across Alberta, unique food needs are not often provided for in local grocery stores or convenience stores. In her role as a food producer, Trudy Harrold was able to learn to provide for her own needs when grocery stores did not provide celiac-friendly options. “If I can preserve some of my own produce and maintain it through the winter months, I would have that food to turn to,” she shares on the topic. This exemplifies critical aspects of food sovereignty whereby people should have the knowledge and the option to prepare food that is appropriate for their diets.
How We Grow Supports Our Future
Our food system is dependent on our environment, and our environment is shifting every year. Farming and growing practices that have become embedded in Alberta may not work as well as they once did and may hurt our ability to grow crops in the future. Our event participants had much to say on this matter.
For example, monocultures use a large plot of land for one crop like wheat, barley, or canola. This method of farming not only makes that land vulnerable to the conditions of the summer, pests, and disease, but it also strips the soil of nutrients and leads to the overuse of fertilizers. Monocultures over time can have a disastrous impact on the soil. Our soil is one of our most important assets, “if we are not nice to our soil it will not be nice to us. If we don’t manage our soil very well, we will get crop failure.” Mi’kai’sto Red Crow Community College places high value on their soil, recognizing how the land itself allows us to farm at all. Using only organic fertilizer as needed, and reducing erosion with windbreaks and mulch, their program was able to produce corn, carrots, onions, potatoes, and tobacco, much of which was shared with the community and those in need.
Trudy Harrold also integrates environmental goals within her family farm. Solar projects and riparian area restoration are key ways to reduce energy usage and protect local ecosystems and their services. Beyond that, Trudy’s permaculture projects are “a nature-based design method for land, people, and communities”. Permaculture seeks to provide back to the land, reduce waste, produce a yield, and maintain sustainable growing conditions. While the practice itself is new to Trudy, many of the principles were already in place on her farm as she and her family worked to reduce waste, protect their land, and cultivate a strong local food system. “Our new motto is about honouring the past and growing the future,” Trudy says in her presentation, and her actions demonstrate the vision behind this motto.
However, one does not need to be working the land to protect it. At YTC Gardens in Edmonton, they have made significant strides in reducing their waste. Similarly, MESC’s school nutrition program recycles tons of cardboard, while incorporating land-based education through diet. “Treaty is not always about rights, it’s about responsibility” Councillor Mario Swampy shares, “Each and every one of us have a sphere of influence; no one has all the answers and all the solutions, but we can learn from each other and implement them slowly and truly.”
Policy: A Barrier or an Opportunity?
Municipal, provincial, and federal policies can serve to support or inhibit grassroots movements. The policies of a town may encourage residents to garden and potentially even raise small animals, or they may outlaw these practices entirely.
So is policy a barrier or an opportunity? In our conversations, we found it could be both but most often was an opportunity to share knowledge and new perspectives.
“Everyone has to eat,” Keleigh states matter-of-factly, but that does not mean everyone supports a thriving local food system. In her work, Keleigh found that sometimes municipalities don’t understand the value behind farming. They may be too removed from their food, and lack a fundamental understanding of how a farm operates. Agrotourism is an opportunity to shift those perspectives. If you take the time to invite government representatives to a farm and give them a tour of the operations, it establishes an understanding of the value of that work. Oftentimes, it also opens up new policy avenues to either allow for small-scale growing in towns or support wider agrotourism opportunities.
A policy can also be used to prop up food initiatives. Penny Fox helped start conversations by asking “How do we make policy changes in our community to make it a little bit easier for people to access healthy food”? These conversations led to change, such as the implementation of a policy restricting how close fast-food restaurants are allowed to be to schools. In some high schools, the three closest food sources are fast food restaurants. A policy like the one implemented in St. Paul would have had a positive influence on overall student nutrition.
Policy change is possible, but it takes time. Brayden Omeasoo-Steinhauer, a youth representative from Maskwacîs, shared with us his vision of a food-sovereign future which he developed in his pursuit of post-secondary studies at the University of Alberta. He shared important food statistics with us; did you know that 10% of households experience food insecurity, and of that 10%, 80% of those households are working but not making enough money to cover basic living expenses? In addition, food insecurity is connected to rates and patterns of chronic illness, including diabetes and heart disease. These facts are a public health problem, and yet communities usually hold the answers to these concerns themselves - they just lack the financial resources to pursue their solutions. Brayden and his peers, recognizing this pervasive problem, presented their policy proposal on a national level and recommended that the Government of Alberta initiate a funding program to aid communities in their pursuit of food sovereignty. By allowing communities to brainstorm their own solutions and giving them tools to make those goals a reality, this program would support the foundations for a better food system, including the right to food, healthy and sustainable food, a sustainable food system, an avenue for reconciliation through food, and the inclusion of more voices at the table.
Food For Thought
Throughout our Cultivating Food Sovereignty event, we have sown the seeds for a food system discussion that is rooted in resilience, sustainability, and connection. We have heard from representatives of traditional farming, Indigenous organizations, community initiatives, and future leaders.
We are excited to see where our diverse initiatives and projects grow, and for what new ideas can sprout in this fertile ground.
Cultivating Food Sovereignty - A Government of Alberta Project Funded Through The Municipal Climate Change Action Centre
The Municipal Climate Change Action Centre (MCCAC) is a partnership between Alberta Municipalities, Rural Municipalities of Alberta, and the Government of Alberta. Their funding has enabled the Town of Bruderheim and its partners to implement Resilient Rurals actions to improve climate resilience in the region.
Our project, Cultivating Food Sovereignty, emerged as a cross-cultural strategy to improve food sovereignty sustainably and adaptively. We engaged food system contributors across Alberta to better understand the challenges and hopes in this industry. Our engagement sessions helped us identify passionate speakers and stakeholders, whom we invited to our event, Cultivating Food Sovereignty in the Town of Bruderheim. The stories, lessons, and successes shared in this event opened up doors for conversation, and hope for new initiatives, and stressed the importance of building a resilient food system in the face of climate change. Above all, we were asked to continue the conversation around our food system resilience, which has shaped the development of our webinar series centered around innovative food choices.
We have also learned that many of our attendees, despite being embedded in the food system, had not yet recognized the challenges a changing climate will bring to our food system. This information, and the value of sovereignty over our food, are topics Resilient Rurals will focus on in a growing conversation.
Eskandari, F., Lake, A. A., Rose, K., Butler, M., & O’Malley, C. (2022). A mixed‐method systematic review and meta‐analysis of the influences of food environments and food insecurity on obesity in high‐income countries. Food Science & Nutrition, 10(11), 3689–3723. https://doi-org.login.ezproxy.library.ualberta.ca/10.1002/fsn3.2969