Central Experimental Farm, Ottawa
Monday, while heading down the 401 on my trip back from Ottawa, I had plenty of time to listen to summer radio programming on the CBC.
The Dirt on Soil – worth a chuckle no? – was playing, an exploration of our relationship with soil, its plight and the efforts that some are taking to renew this resource. It made for some engaging listening to pass the time.
But it was when WIll Allen, part way through an interview, highlighted the shared benefits that soil and food systems could bring a community that my brain started turning over. As I listened more, I passed through verdant Ontario countryside. This land in southern Ontario is known for its high agricultural productivity and as one of the most dense population clusters in Canada.
This dual notoriety is interesting as it demands a balancing of different and competing interests. We can think about meeting the objectives of both of these communities by balancing economic, planning and public health objectives. The concept of food systems lends itself to finding that balance between urban and rural and delivering shared benefits to each.
A while back I worked on a project with public health epidemiologists looking into the linkages between food systems, public health and urban planning. We were researching how factors of the built environment might affect access to healthy food and how access is in-turn related to health outcomes. Beyond my understanding of 'food deserts', to me the connection between urban planning, food and public health seemed weak. While researching, I learned how the transportation, production, availability and consumption of food and even the growth of our cities is closely linked to the vitality of communities and the health of the people within them.
This was my first introduction to the idea of urban food systems. It's a concept that connects public health, the socio-economic vitality of communities and urban planning together. While researching, I noted some initiatives in a few cities that provide great examples of how a food systems lens can work.
Here are three programs that illustrate how aspects of food systems thinking can better the lives of city residents and achieve shared objectives in planning, economic development and public health. Thinking about food can provide a catalyst for addressing community needs.
1. Lufa Farms, For-Profit Urban Agriculture - Montreal, QC
Lufa is an interesting urban agriculture project in Montreal. Lufa Farms is a for-profit business operating two rooftop greenhouses totalling 75,000 sq ft of production space. The project is a proof of the potential of large-scale rooftop agriculture.
Not only does the business supply freshly harvested produce to the city but there is an economic vitality realised through their success. For-profit projects like these can make use of a city's underutilised employment lands and they benefit from the availability of older, large industrial buildings (buildings need to be strong, with a load capacity of 45kg per sq ft). Greenhouses also make for good neighbours. The greenhouses occupy rooftops on employment lands in Montreal and Laval close to other light-industrial buildings. Projects like these also provide new employment in a neighbourhood.
The financing, design and approval of projects like these is a challenge. (Read more about the design of Lufa Farms' first greenhouse.) The project is successful in simplifying the delivery of food to people, providing new economic activity and reducing the need to ship and warehouse fruits and vegetables.
From their two sites in Montreal Lufa Farms produces nearly 200 metric tons of produce year-round, each year. It's all available to Montrealers on-line through the click of a button. Demand for their locally grown produce is high. Lufa Farms is exploring expansion plans in other cities.
2. Healthy Corner Stores Project, Increasing Access to Healthy Food - Toronto, Ontario
Understanding the importance of healthy nutrition and the decreasing availability of affordable grocery stores, Toronto Public Health has launched the Healthy Corner Stores project. This is a pilot project to identify ways of reducing barriers to accessing affordable, healthy food in Toronto.
You may be familiar with the concept of 'food deserts', areas beyond convenient access to grocery stores. Geography can often present barriers to accessing food, with detrimental effects to population health. Providing access to food is only a part of the challenge of creating healthy food environments. Food costs at particular neighbourhood supermarkets can lead residents to find cheaper alternatives and not all alternatives are equally healthy. Affordable grocery stores might not even be within reasonable distances of residents' homes. Opening new supermarkets in neighbourhoods to solve this problem is not always feasible.
The Healthy Corner Stores Project in Toronto identifies the many convenience stores located in rich and poor neighbourhoods across the city as potential locations to introduce healthy, affordable foods.
Convenience store owners face barriers in offering healthier food items including:
- lack of knowledge about buying and promoting healthier foods;
- difficulty finding distributors who offer produce at affordable prices;
- difficulty finding capital to purchase display and refrigeration units.
The project reduces these barriers. Through the Healthy Corner Stores Project, Toronto Public Health leverages financial tools, supports and incentives to better the nutrition of neighbourhood residents. Toronto Public Health also proposes making use of the Residential Apartment Commercial Zone which permits a broad mix of non-residential uses in some of the neighbourhoods that most need access to affordable nutrition.
Toronto Public Health has been working under the Toronto Food Strategy to ensure sound Food System Planning in the city. Click to read a 2013 update on projects.
3. Healthy Food System Plan, Aligning Objectives for Healthy Vibrant Communities - Region of Waterloo, Ontario
The Waterloo plan grew out of growth management planning and the creation of the countryside line, a regional greenbelt. The region considered several related implementation projects to ensure the vitality of lower-tier municipalities within the regional greenbelt and the long-term success of the growth management strategy. Preparing a community food system plan was one of the implementation projects considered. The region drafted the plan following consultations over several years. The goal of the plan was threefold: access to healthy food, environmentally sustainable production and the economic vitality of rural communities.
This has led to some interesting arrangements in the region. For instance, the Kitchener Official Plan permits temporary farmers' markets, community gardens and urban agriculture for all land use designations within the city. The official plan of the City of Waterloo makes specific mention of accommodations to permit food stores within close access of residential neighbourhoods in all parts of the city. The real result of the food system plan remains to be figured out however. Planning documents in several lower-tier municipalities mention access to locally grown, foods and provide language to accommodate continued food systems planning.
In Waterloo Region, the growth management strategy ensures the preservation of highly productive agricultural land. The Healthy Food Systems Plan ensures that the community can access nutritious food and in turn that rural communities will continue to be economically viable.
By seeking a planning objective, the Region of Waterloo was able to better promote public health and economic goals as well by using a food systems lens.