Yesterday evening we hosted another passionate group of people in our downtown Campaign HQ to discuss the topic of sustainability and fostering a local food culture. This topic was one that originated a bit more organically than some of our previous policy evenings. It was routed in the desire of a few people to come together to try and see if there could be a role that the City would play in connecting people to local food and shifting our community to think in terms of long range sustainably. We decided to widen the circle and invite a few other voices to the table and we ended up having some amazing discussions as a result.
Most of the attendants were small business owners, however I don’t think that that is how they would describe themselves. They were organic small lot food growers, passionate chefs, restauranteurs, food advocacy collective members, and zero waste champions. The discussion started off with a sort of casual report card as to where we currently find ourselves, and our collective conciseness around topics such as where our food comes from, what is the true cost of supporting local vs. the benefits, and how we might go about changing some of our preconceived notions of value and cost of sustainable products and foodstuffs. Questions were raised about the City’s use, and ability to regulate products like Roundup.
The main topic eventually came around to a conversation relating to Chilliwack’s amazing potential as an agricultural producer, and yet our massive local disconnect from purchasing locally produced foods. With the exception of corn season and berries, as well as the odd vegetable stand selling peppers and the like, we are not a community that is overly supportive of locally produced goods. This trend is all the more alarming as we look to municipalities to our West who have become somewhat fanatically steeped in local food culture, supporting producers, restaurants and businesses that work to offer more and more locally produced goods each day. One woman who produces a variety of organic ground crops here in Chilliwack commented that there is only one restaurant, Curly Kale, that buys her products locally, and the rest she ships West and takes to farmers markets in Vancouver. The restauranteurs in attendance commented on how hard those decisions really are, because they can buy potatoes for .50 Cents/ lb from CISCO and locally they would be $2.00/ lb. They indicated how difficult it was to speak about truly buying and supporting local to their customers, as everyone seems to say that, and yet few truly do.
Ideas were floated about how the City might be able to assist in supporting small lot producers and urban agriculture, as Agricultural Land Reserve land parcels in Chilliwack are either small, and occupied by the wealthy as estate homes, or they are massive, at upwards of $100,000/ acre, and impossible for a new small lot farmer to buy or lease. Would the City be able to either buy land, or work with a couple of major land owners to create a community garden of sorts for smaller producers, who could share services such as a well, a tractor or other expensive investments, to provide a possible avenue for those who wish to get involved in the industry or grow their own food to do so? And what we also heard loud and clear was a need to have a proper farmers market. There have been many different versions tried over the years, some of which have even had support from the City, however none have lasted. It is a shame, largely due to the fact that we have such amazing products being grown here, but also because Mary Forstbaur, a Chilliwack matriarch, was the founder of BC Association of Farmers Markets.
The topic of a kitchen collective was raised as a way to support small scale catering companies, bakers, and chefs, who currently find it hard to find commercial kitchen space to operate in and so they are unable to build out their business ideas. As talked food trucks and food carts, mobile licences and business incubation. The group spoke about how in many places food trucks are where chef’s test their ideas, and often transition into full restaurants once they have built a clientele, a skill set and saved some money. That in addition to creating urban street culture and a more diverse offering of food throughout Chilliwack. I must admit that I had never thought of food trucks as a business incubation model.
Overall it was a great eventing of sharing ideas, talking about what could be, and perhaps shaping what will be. I took away a feeling of optimism as I am constantly fuelled by those pushing for the things that they are most passionate about, and being active participants in shaping the community that they desire to live in one day.