Helping local food security with hyper-localized solutions
Operating in ten Edmonton West End neighbourhoods, Food4Good is a non-profit that aims to improve food access for Edmontonians facing barriers in an open and convenient manner. Operating in a variety of program areas to tackle various aspects of food insecurity, the organization has community gardens, food-focused workshops, fresh produce markets, and a Travelling Food Hub. The following snapshot, informed by Food4Good’s coordinator and Community Food Animator, Ashley Thompson, will profile the organization’s innovative approaches to enrich and promote regional food systems via long-term, community-based strategies.
LOCATIONS, PROJECTS, AND PROGRAMS
The ten neighbourhoods Food4Good serves range from middle class, older areas with a large proportion of single family homes and a lot of seniors, to lower income neighbourhoods, with higher proportions of rentals and large newcomer populations. Addressing regional food system challenges is a prime consideration for the organization, especially the prominence of “food swamps” in the areas where Food4Good operates. According to Thompson, this means there is an overabundance of “low quality and unhealthy fast food, convenience stores, [and] dollar stores” where many residents end up buying their food. From this context, Food4Good aims to help people access fresh, healthy, culturally appropriate foods at affordable prices.
Food4Good’s key priorities are in four areas: growing, cooking, food access, and education & advocacy. The organization coordinates 40 growing spaces over 8 locations in the West End, which are in communal allotment-style areas as well as private yards. Growers at these plots rent the space for $20 or two hours of volunteering, and then can do what they’d like with the food they grow. Some choose to sell the food (since it’s grown on private property), while others choose to eat it. To further encourage the idea of growing, Food4Good also holds workshops on topics such as composting and container gardening, along with providing general gardening resources and support. Cooking workshops are also held, and include a variety of classes, on topics such as preserving and canning, cooking with cultural cuisines, and budget cooking.
Food access is addressed through collective kitchens, wherein participants pay a set price of $3 to come make large batches of 2-3 healthy recipes, most of the produce for which is donated. Thompson notes that this is “a cooking activity, but also a food access initiative and [source of] community building”. Participants take home 8-12 servings of food and have dinner for the week. Other food access programs run by Food4Good include pop-up markets, where donated produce from farmers and grocers is sold for affordable prices. Thompson notes that “people can come and have an affordable farmers’ market experience and it's close to their home”, which is especially important for those who have difficulty accessing transportation. Additionally, as of January 2017, Food4Good is piloting a “Travelling Food Hub”, with the idea of combining many of its programs and projects. This mobile initiative will serve as an access point for community members to come and participate in food-related activities. The Travelling Food Hub will go to community leagues in the West End and is a key area of growth and potential for Food4Good.
Finally, rounding out Food4Good’s programs is a focus on community education and advocacy. To increase food-related awareness and skills, documentary nights, training sessions, and other skill development workshops are held regularly. When taken together, all of the various program areas of Food4Good mean that it is established to address food access and affordability via a variety of community-based channels.
Food4Good was established in Edmonton’s West End in 2013, and is a clear case of the power of a strong community focus and of the possibility of partnership. A series of survey and consultation sessions as part of a 2013 Listening Project found that people in the area, regardless of regardless of socioeconomic status, age, or cultural background, wanted improved access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Another finding from the 2013 Listening Project was the desire to have a community-level initiative that brought back a sense of neighbourliness and connected people. Initially starting with four community partners, under the name of the West End Food Hub Alliance, Food4Good emerged with the aim of alleviating food insecurity and building community relationships from the ground up. Its entire organizational structure reinforces this, and as a small, grassroots organization, Food4Good has grown to a coalition of seven community partners operating in and around Edmonton’s West End. This coalition prioritizes group decision-making, and including Food4Good, also consists of three churches (Trinity United, Hosanna Lutheran, Annunciation Catholic), the Jasper Place Wellness Centre, the Edmonton West Primary Care Network and the City of Edmonton. According to Thompson, “each organization has a representative and we have monthly meetings. It's called our transition team. We also have some community members that attend our meetings. This makes up our decision-making, visioning, and governance body.”
The purpose of Food4Good’s collaborative approach to operations is to have the largest impact possible in the communities in which it operates. In addition to the partners previously identified, Food4Good has approximately twenty-five ongoing local organizational partnerships that assist in various capacities: event co-hosts, promotional assistance, speaker opportunities, and more. Beyond this local context, Food4Good is also a part of Alberta Food Matters/Growing Food Security Alberta network, and is recognized as a “Good Food Organization” with Toronto-based Community Food Centres Canada. Coordinating all of this is Ashley Thompson, who, as the Community Food Animator for Food4Good, has a wide-reaching role that ranges from project design, to coordination, to execution, and everything in between. She works behind the scenes, and also focuses on “building relationships with other partners in the community, increasing donations, talent-seeking community members who have leadership skills that [can be brought] into the fold, liaising with [the] transition team...and best practice research”. Thompson is also instrumental in project execution and program delivery.
Food4Good is a non-profit organization, so continuous searching for and securing of funding are necessary. One of its guiding principles is to draw on available community assets to enrich programs and operations. Fiscal operations of the organization are conducted wholly by the Jasper Place Wellness Centre (JPWC), which is also a facility for Food4Good events. According to Thompson, this support has been instrumental in Food4Good’s success, as “the human resources and bookkeeping aspect… can be a real slog for new, small organizations”. For the three years that it has been operating, Food4Good has been funded by a three-year grant from the Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) in conjunction with the ECF’s Vital Signs Report. The ECF funding expires on August 31, 2017.
OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES
Food4Good faces a number of challenges and opportunities, most of which relate to its unique model, size, and position within the regional food landscape. One challenge is the decision-making process, as the coalition model of the organization means coming to decisions can be slow. The large number of organizations involved in Food4Good’s programs is another challenge, and as according to Thompson, “everyone has their own interest and their own reasons for participating in the organization”. Furthermore, as Food4Good grows, deepening and strengthening these partnerships, as well as adding more partners and volunteers will be necessary, as Thompson is currently the only employee of Food4Good. Additionally, a tough economy means that more people are now accessing Food4Good’s programming than before, which means that additional resources are necessary. Thompson notes that given the economic challenges facing Alberta, she has noticed that at recent Food4Good events there have been “more younger families...and low income folks living in subsidized housing” attending.
Despite these impediments, Food4Good is well positioned for the future, and the key strengths of the organization are its unique model, strong community presence, and relationships with other organizations and government bodies. One of its partners, the City of Edmonton, is invested in enhancing the regional system through community growing and greening spaces and has been highly supportive of organizations such as Food4Good. Going forward, Thompson hopes to increase the amount of people reached, yet ensuring that Food4Good remains grounded in the communities it serves. In particular, the travelling food hub program will increase regularity and visibility of the organization. Building the sense of community and finding leaders to participate in Food4Good programs is a priority growth area. Thompson actively encourages the development of community leaders by gradually encouraging participants to increase their involvement, and by continuing to focus on relationship building, with a constant understanding of the multiple and complex realities of many of the people that access Food4Good’s programs.
INNOVATION AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS
According to Thompson, the most innovative aspect of Food4Good is the combination of the diversity of its projects and its position as a neighbourhood-level, “hyper-localized, community driven food hub” rather than a larger-scale food hub. In particular, the Travelling Food Hub, evolved from Food4Good’s pop-up markets, has great capacity to create a community meeting place for ideas exchange, social connections, and skills building. Thompson notes that this project “makes an impact on how comfortable people feel in their neighbourhood and makes them feel a part of something...for what we may lack in organizational size, we make up for in community ownership…[our projects are] involving people very directly and I think that's pretty unique.”
Future priorities for Food4Good are, in the short-term, accessing funding to support operations and increasing relationships with its various organizational partners. Its basis as a coalition between many organizations means that deepening commitments and relationships are necessary to long-term survival. Another more long-term ambition for Food4Good is to acquire a physical space from which to deliver programming; a community food centre or multipurpose food hub with community kitchens and gardens where community members can come together.
Overall, it’s clear that Food4Good, though a relatively new organization, has had a notable impact in the communities in which it operates. Its grassroots programming and strong community presence make it a sustainable means of increasing food security and regional food system resilience.