Getting to Know the Alberta Flavour Learning Lab
Alberta plays a vital role in national and international food systems. We have one of the world’s most productive agricultural economies and a global reputation for top quality food products. But how strong is our local food system? What exactly does local mean anyway? When we think about local food, we tend to think small. We imagine community gardens where people grow their own tomatoes, carrots, and greens. Or we think about farmers’ markets, where people buy fresh produce directly from local farmers. In recent years, SPIN farming, vertical farming, and other forms of urban agriculture have added to our local food imaginary. These kinds of local food initiatives contribute greatly to the social, economic, and environmental sustainability of communities across Canada; yet, they are not the whole picture.
In recent years there has been shift to begin thinking about the role of larger institutions in supporting regional food systems. Responding to increased demand for more local and sustainably produced food, large institutions like hospitals, schools, and conference centres are rethinking their food procurement practices. This shift is further bolstered by recent government initiatives, including ongoing efforts at the federal level to create a food policy for Canada. As the lessons of the food movement go mainstream, institutional procurement presents an opportunity to scale-up local food, making it more viable for producers, and more accessible and affordable for consumers. As a recent Civil Eats article put it, “farm-to-institution sourcing is the sleeping giant of local food.”
The Alberta Flavour Learning Lab is a community of practice at the leading edge of the institutional procurement conversation in Canada. Established in 2014, the Learning Lab convenes diverse actors including institutional food buyers, distributors, processors, producers, retailers, researchers, and government representatives. This membership includes representation from institutions that spend over one-hundred million dollars annually on food. That’s a lot of purchasing power! Together, members of the Learning Lab are working to direct money already being spent towards supporting Alberta’s agriculture industry and local businesses. And the benefits don’t stop there. Institutional local food procurement has the added advantage of reducing food miles, which means better tasting, more sustainably produced food for Albertans.
Supporting local food producers and business sounds great, but what does “local” actually mean? Coming up with a shared definition of local was an early and essential first step for the Learning Lab. As Jessie Radies, a lead organizer of the Learning Lab, put it in a recent report from Food Secure Canada,
groups of institutions, working in regional distribution areas together, can have a bigger impact on transparency of local supply chains and tracking if they can reach consensus on defining local. A definition is a starting point for creating inventory and product listings which enable measurement and evaluation work.
In order to scale-up the benefits of local food, Learning Lab members decided on a definition of local food with a regional emphasis. For a food to be considered local it had to meet at least 2 of the following 3 criteria: 1) Ingredients produced in Alberta; 2) Processing occurs in Alberta; 3) Alberta owned business. For the Learning Lab, local food is Alberta food. Establishing this shared definition enabled the group to create an inventory of local products, and work towards the shared goal of creating positive community impact by getting more Alberta food on more plates.
The Learning Lab currently convenes every 6 weeks to share experiences and resources, hear from guest speakers, and review relevant research. The group also holds regular food tours where members visit local farms and businesses, get first-hand knowledge of our growing local food system, and get to enjoy some delicious Alberta food. Through regular meetings and events, Learning Lab members have developed a shared vision built on trust, mutual interest, and collaboration.
In order to help spread the word about the value of institutional procurement and continue to tell the story of the Alberta Flavour Learning Lab, we will be profiling several of the organizations and businesses represented by our members, which include:
- Alberta Agriculture and Forestry
- Alberta Health Services
- Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions
- City of Edmonton
- Erdmann's Gardens and Greenhouses
- Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT)
- Shaw Conference Centre
- Gordon Food Services (GFS)
- University of Alberta
You can find already find our profile of NAIT and the University of Alberta on our website www.albertaflavour.com. Follow us on Twitter at @AlbertaFlavour for the latest Learning Lab profiles and for the latest Alberta food stories and news!