City of Vancouver set to launch long-term food strategy
Fresh produce at community corner stores, mini farmers markets in lower-income areas, and an expansion of community gardens at local sites including rooftops could be among the measures put forward as part of a city-wide food strategy set to be released early next year.
The long-term plan, scheduled to go to city council in late January 2013, will include over 60 actions intended to expand Vancouver’s food system.
In an update of the strategy on November 14, city staff told council that urban farm land has quadrupled in the last two years, and over 450 new garden plots were created between 2010 and the beginning of 2012.
Earlier this week, Vancouver-based company Alterrus Systems harvested its first crop from a new vertical farm on the rooftop of a downtown parkade, a space it’s leasing from the City of Vancouver. The company plans to grow 200-plus kilograms of fresh produce daily that it will sell to local restaurants and the produce delivery service SPUD.ca.
But as the city looks to expand its food production, staff also acknowledge a challenge remains addressing unequal food access in neighbourhoods across the city—from isolated seniors, newcomers, and single parents on the West Side or in South Vancouver, to the many low-income residents of the Downtown Eastside.
Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer, who chairs the city’s planning and environment committee, said she wants to ensure that as the city pursues its local food agenda, it doesn’t leave the issue of access to food behind.
“Having been in food bank lineups myself, you’ll take any food when you need food, but the concept of just access to food is an important one moving forward, to think about that one as hard as we’re thinking about local food production,” Reimer told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
According to the City of Vancouver’s director of social policy, Mary Clare Zak, the forthcoming strategy includes a focus on improving food access. Potential actions could include enacting licensing changes to allow more “community markets” with fresh produce to be set up at low-income sites such as social housing, as well as setting up mobile green grocers, encouraging healthy corner stores, and procuring more nutritious food in bulk for charitable providers in the Downtown Eastside.
“I think we’ve identified the things that are going to...turn the dial as much as we can,” Zak told the Straight in a phone interview.
The idea of purchasing local produce for food providers in the low-income neighbourhood is being championed by the Downtown Eastside Kitchen Tables Project, an initiative of the Potluck Café Society.
Heather O’Hara, the executive director of the organization, said a food-procurement initiative will be launched early next year. As part of the effort, a buyer will purchase food directly from producers in the region for between three and nine kitchens in the neighbourhood that provide high-volume food programs for the homeless and low-income population.
“It’s going to be fresh produce, vegetables, and protein,” she explained. “It’s perishable food, which is a good thing, because it means it’s fresh and it’s healthy.”
O’Hara sees the initiative as part of a broader “shift” toward providing access to healthier food to residents in the area. The society also employs a team of Downtown Eastside residents to do outreach in the community on nutrition.
“That’s really important to us—that we actually create a model that’s built around community economic development as its ultimate goal,” she said. “Even though we’re all charities, [we’re] looking for something other than charity—something that’s sustainable, community-building for the long term. Affordable access to nutritional, quality food is really at the heart of that.”
O’Hara said that as the project expands the organization also hopes to eventually support local urban farmers by purchasing directly from them.
Expanding urban-farming initiatives, in addition to community gardens, is another central focus of the city’s food strategy. Vancouver currently has 19 urban farms, according to Zak, but aims to see that number grow to 35 by the year 2020, through measures such as the creation of an urban-farming business-licence category.
“We have numerous urban farmers,” noted Brent Mansfield, the cochair of the Vancouver Food Policy Council, which has been working with the city to create the food strategy. “But there does need to be some bylaw and regulation changes…so things around licensing, and things around home-based sales.”
Green party councillor Adriane Carr also wants to see the city take measures to ensure community gardens can be maintained in long-term spaces. Carr recently brought a motion forward requesting information on the number of community gardens that may be facing upheaval due to impending development.
“I think there are a significant number of community gardens and community garden plots that are really insecure,” Carr told the Straight in a phone interview. “They are on private land that is slated for development, the developer is not ready to move forward, and has agreed to a community garden onsite—and they get a big tax break for doing that. But those gardens are…really threatened with imminent development.”
According to Zak, the city hasn’t yet had to remove a community-garden space.
“That’s not to say that as we grow to be more populated and such, that might be the case,” she noted. “We hope it isn’t.” She added the food strategy may involve ways of finding more “flexible” spaces for gardens as the city densifies, including initiatives like gardens on rooftops or even on movable containers.
At the launch of Alterrus’s urban garden on Richards Street this week, the mayor pointed to this type of rooftop urban farm as the “next wave” in the city’s long-term initiative to double its food assets.
“We do have a significant amount of green roof acreage, compared to most cities,” Robertson told the Straight in an interview. “But this is taking it to the next level and actually creating jobs and growing food commercially. So I hope we see lots more of this where it makes sense. If we can make the most use of our sunniest patches on top of buildings and for this, that’s a big breakthrough.”