NS Food Gathering – What we learned

On May 9 to 11, the Nova Scotia Food Gathering brought together over 140 people to talk about food in Nova Scotia.  Community food projects, farmers markets, fisheries, poverty, gardens, nutrition – you name, we talked about it.  As with many big events, we came out of it with lots of ideas and inspiration and wanted to share some of our insights.  I polled my new co-workers to get their thoughts.  Here are some of our favourite moments and lessons from the conference:

1) Our ‘small scale’ and ‘local’ Fisheries

It’s hard to have a favourite, but for me, it was the Our ‘small scale’ and ‘local’ Fisheries session. Seafoodies shared their experiences and visions to help us explore how ‘small scale’ and ‘local’ fisheries and aquaculture can make a difference to our food security, and the challenges they face. To my knowledge this is the first time a sea food panel was part of a provincial food gathering and hopefully it won’t be the last, as there are many connections to build upon.

How many of us have been in the seafood section of the grocery store and found that the majority, if not the only available sources are from very far away?  It’s always struck me as odd,
if not down right deplorable, that it is so hard to find local seafood when the ocean is our backyard. Panelists attributed this phenomenon to many complex reasons including overfishing, government regulation that favours large-scale fishing and fish processors, not to mention aquaculture, which is currently a hotly debated topic in our province.

Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles, there are lots of opportunities for innovation, according to the expert panelists. The EAC’s Off the Hook program is one great example. This program, which to me sounded like a fish CSA, is an ingenious way of getting around some of the prohibitive legislation, and a unique way of getting folks fresh local seafood, while supporting the livelihoods of local fisherpeople.

2) Innovations in Community Food: Gardens and Ovens

This session featured several diverse examples of community gardens and a community oven as community food innovations, and was simply jam-packed with knowledge-sharing about unique community food programs. Common Roots Urban Farm was presented as an innovative model for urban food growing – including several community garden plots, loads of edible landscaping, and a farmer mentoring/market garden component. The Park Ave. Community Oven presentation had everyone not only craving a good pizza, but inspired us all to explore such enterprises as part of our own community food hubs. Others inspiring examples of innovation included installing pollinator gardens and seed saving gardens as regular components of community gardening.

Timeline3) The History of the NS Food Movement

The NS Food Gathering was the perfect place to get connected the many actors and initiatives that have been driving food systems issues in Nova Scotia for more than a decade (and in many cases, much longer!). Friday morning opened with a timeline review that reached back to the year 2000, and offered a visual description of the dedication and commitment of so many players who have been working to bring good food ideas and innovations to the forefront of our collective actions. To mirror this timeline was a room full of eager foodies from a wide range of communities an disciplines, each there to help address the complexity of food systems issues from their own perspectives and vantage points.  To read more of the history, click here.

4) Inclusivity

One of the most invigorating segments of the gathering was an afternoon of breakout discussions where participants were able to bring items forward which they identified as critical elements of the dialogue. From this emerged a host of topics that ranged from mobilizing policy makers to ensuring long-term financial support across the food movement. A conversation I participated in brought forth the notion of inclusivity, and a need for diligence in our efforts to ensure that the people discussing these ideas are as diverse as the ideas themselves. Always asking questions about who’s at the table, who’s missing, and why? Most importantly, to recognize that sometimes it’s not just a matter of sending the invite, but picking people up, and offering them a welcoming meal that sends a clear message of inclusively and a need for collective action around these important issues that affect us all.

5) Wayne McNaughton – Anti-Poverty Activist:
Amongst all the excitement of the growing food movement, Wayne reminded us that fresh, local and organic food still remains inaccessible to many marginalized communities, suffering from poverty, disability, illness and discrimination. Through a story telling approach, Wayne shared his own powerful day to day experiences with poverty, sharing with us the daily coping mechanisms low-income families use to meet their basic food needs. Threaded throughout this narrative, he eloquently detailed the gradual erosion of social assistance and disability supports over the past 30 years that have made it increasingly difficult for those living on fixed incomes. The take away message was that as important as rebuilding the social safety net is, food security cannot be achieved without overcoming the negative societal myths we hold about people living in poverty.

6) Moving Your Ideas Into Action – Break-Out Groups
On the final day of the event, attendees who had project ideas or ‘burning questions’ were asked to come forward with their ideas. Those people acted as moderators for a discussion on that topic, and participants were invited to join a table that interested them to share their feedback. Roughly 8-10 ideas tables were formed with topics ranging from school gardens, an HRM food charter, food distribution networks, and promoting breastfeeding to name a few. Participants circulated from one topic table to the next each 15 minutes. The exercise offered a rich opportunity for people with project ideas to be exposed to a multiplicity of opinions and ideas that they might not otherwise be exposed to. Contrarily, it allowed participants to gain a greater idea of the many projects happening, or about to happen around them. For a list of project ideas, click here.

7) Sustainable soil health 
Josh Oulton from TapRoot Farms shared some of his journey with us on the opening night of the Gathering. What stood out most for me was his description of soil health on conventionally farmed land vs. organically farmed land. The first farm they bought had been conventionally managed and nothing grew. The second farm they bought had been organic and was ‘ready to go’, anything they planted thrived. He shared that the conventional farm took everything out of the soil and left nothing. I was inspired at his desire to manage his farm organically in order to pass onto the next farmer or next generation that vitality.

8) Propagating the food movement
Charles Levkoe led two interactive sessions about his cross-Canada research on provincial food networks. Being an interactive learner myself, I loved his approach of inviting participants into the food system by naming the barriers and existing initiatives for healthy food communities. I also felt very motivated by his visuals and map of the many layered connections within provinces and nationally in Canada. This perspective of being a part of a larger movement gives me strength and hope!

9) Three school gardens success stories

In 2004, students and staff at Dr. Arthur Hines Elementary School, in West Hants, started growing food in a vegetable garden, and using that food in a healthy lunch program. The meals are prepared by grade 6 students, who are dismissed early from regular class to help in the kitchen. I asked how the school administration was persuaded to allow students to miss class time to prepare lunches. She said, it wasn’t easy at first, but the benefits soon became clear. Students, many of whom struggled academically, were experiencing success in the kitchen! They were receiving a lot of positive feedback! They were cooperating as part of a team; feeling good about themselves. Clearly, the healthy lunch program is about much more than improving one’s physical health.

The Dal Urban Garden, is located in an unlikely spot, in back of the computer science building. Where Comp Sci students had once smoked cigarettes, people are now growing Kale. Perhaps most Comp Sci students were not interested in getting dirty in the garden, but have volunteered their services to help programme an automated greenhouse system.

St. Catherine’s elementary is a special school. Amongst the recent surge of school gardens, St. Cats stands out as being ahead of the game. While they are indeed a city school (located not far from the Halifax shopping center) they have managed to plant apple trees, plough their garden with oxen (yes, oxen), and grow enough food to feed the entire school a harvest lunch. Secret to their success? It seems: school + community involvement. Not only do they have the support of teachers, but they have dedicated parents involved too. In summer, the garden is adopted by the families at the school. In the evenings, families meet in the garden, share food, kids play/help. Garden work gets done but so does socializing.

porkbelly10) The food showcase
A food gathering would not be a food gathering without exquisite food. And this one lived up to the test. What delicious discoveries were to be had! Mouth-watering morsels of locally grown food, made by some of our best chefs. I could hardly contain my excitement. Lamb meatball, buttered oysters, and pork bellies (X2!!) Oh My! Flaky Spanakopita, and freshly made gnocchi. And for dessert: chewy cookies, rhubarb parfait and 12 different types of cheesecake including one that wasn’t cheese at all. Oh la la! It was really a fabulous display of creative cuisine using, in large part, made from simple Nova Scotia grown ingredients. Lessons learned: The proof is really in the pudding (or the lamb meatball, I would argue) and that when you’re working with good ingredients, the food really does taste that much better.

If you’d like to read more about the NS Food Gathering, all the info can be from on the Nova Scotia Food Gathering website.

Yours in food,


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