Why Calgary's food plan is now an economic booster, not a plan to feed its people
'The pattern of it has been: ask a little bit, build on your wins, ask a little bit,' says researcher
NOTE: This story was originally published Jan. 6.
Ten years ago, Calgary city council embraced an ambitious plan to ensure healthy food was accessible to all residents.
It was the culmination of years of advocacy and guerilla or illegal gardening by people facing food insecurity themselves. But that approach — "potatoes for the people" — is still mostly a dream.
Instead of communal farms, the city got a vibrant craft brewery scene, more farmers' markets and indoor hydroponic farms — a win for food security and an economic boost appreciated by many, but not the vision those early advocates had been fighting for.
It left some advocates cynical and disillusioned, says John Bailey, a landscaper turned academic who focused his 2021 masters thesis for the University of Calgary on understanding what happened to the food action plan, Calgary Eats!
"Early on, there was a lot of skepticism and some pushback from the administration and council," Bailey said. "So the pattern of it has been: ask a little bit, build on your wins, ask a little bit."
"(City staff) did the best with the resources that they had.… But there could be a much larger movement to address accessibility to help people who are suffering from food insecurity so that they wouldn't have to do the guerrilla urbanist movements and these things that are prohibited."
Today, pandemic-related supply chain issues and drought are driving up food prices, causing many to look again at the security of Calgary's food system. Families and individuals are having to budget and cut back on healthy food choices, sometimes for the first time.
As part of CBC Calgary's High Cost of Food project, several Calgary residents have asked about collective gardening and access to land. The reason why that's limited today goes back to the rollout of Calgary Eats! But of course the future is still to be written, and city officials say progress is being made.
'Potatoes for the people'
Donna Clarke remembers 2012. That was the year she looked out of her new rental apartment and swore the vacant lot next door wouldn't be empty for long.
The idea was simple. She painted the sign, "Potatoes for the people," then invited neighbours to grow tubers in old tires together, cultivating friendships with the plan to donate extra veggies to the food bank. It would give residents control to help address their own food insecurity.
But they had only just planted when then alderman John Mar happened to walk by and called police.
In Calgary, a developer is allowed to let property sit vacant; neighbours are not allowed to grow on it. Clarke was forced to dig it all up.
Still, she thought all the media coverage and debate would make a difference.
"I thought it was something that wouldn't die out so quickly," she said. "I've seen nothing the city has done and I'm a pretty informed individual."
A shift in focus leaves some behind
Bailey, who interviewed 18 restaurant and community leaders and city officials for his analysis, says what happened follows a typical pattern. The movement started with community advocates passionate about the issue because they saw an immediate and pressing need. When restaurant, business and government officials got involved, they naturally brought a different lens — one focused on risk, zoning and economic development.
Ideally, the parties find common ground and mutual benefit — both bringing legitimacy and resources to the process.
But in this case, said Bailey, "when the city came in, the shift was so profound that some of the initial members couldn't reconcile with that change."
Farm stands, chickens and a farming test case
Kristi Peters leads Calgary Eats! for the city. She wasn't hired until 2016 and she was the first to be dedicated full time to this work.
Much of the city's efforts have been focused on changing bylaws to cut barriers for businesses such as craft breweries, intensive commercial farms in residential backyards and for indoor, hydroponic farms. There are six urban farms in those two categories now and several other companies have told city officials they're working on plans.
Through Peters' work, the city also supports regional agriculture with 21 farm stands in the city. And this spring, after more than a decade of lobbying, the city will allow backyard chickens.
As for growing food communally at scale — the agrihood or communal urban farm some other North American cities have embraced — in the past, politicians worried about mess, noise and disorder, Peters says.
"We need a great success story," she said, describing the careful process city officials undertook to find a suitable non-residential area for a test case.
They now have a database of unused land, and in 2019, the Compost Council of Canada and the city partnered with local advocates to create the Highfield Regenerative Farm in south central Calgary. It has a temporary lease to transportation reserve land.
Peters hopes it can guide future bylaw changes.
COVID set Highfield back. But their one paid staff member, Heather Ramshaw, says they had roughly 20 regular helpers last summer and hope to expand. Volunteers get their hands dirty, learn about farming and walk away with fresh produce.
"Food security is a giant issue. Just replicating us is not going to solve the issue, but it could have a big impact," Ramshaw said. "To know we'll be there permanently would really open things up for us."
'A sidelined priority,' says mayor
Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek spoke at length with CBC's Daybreak Alberta this week. She said the last two years of COVID have shown the folly of letting food security issues slide.
"It's been a sidelined priority," Gondek said, pledging to advocate for greater efforts on this file. "We need to start looking at how we are using city-owned spaces and assets to really encourage more urban agriculture that can be easily accessed by people who are in need of food."
Gondek said if she can accomplish one thing on this file this term, it will be to let people start farming unused lands such as those along the future Green Line. And she would like to work with private owners of land within city limits but not yet under development.
"I know a lot of those landowners would be incredibly interested to partner with folks who want to do some sort of farming initiative."
CBC Calgary: High Cost of Food
CBC Calgary is wrapping up its focus on the high cost of food. Since Nov. 1, we've been sharing tips and taking suggestions from Alberta residents facing a tight budget with help from a text-messaging app.
Read the full series at cbc.ca/costoffood.
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