Taking Root: Food Producers Forum addressing food security in Newfoundland and Labrador

By Akseli Virratvuori 

Food (growing it, preparing it, and eating it) shapes us as people and as societies. A province-wide project led by a group of community collaborators and Memorial faculty and staff is working to provide local food opportunities, building greater food security and a sense of shared purpose.

Dan Rubin

It was a belief in the benefits of locally-produced food options that initially brought founding partners Dan Rubin, a retired educator turned food activist, and Dr. Atanu Sarkar, Associate Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine, together.

Several years ago, they created a committee of Memorial and community partners who worked together to develop a concept for an earth sheltered greenhouse. The idea was to demonstrate how traditional knowledge combined with modern know-how could help address local food challenges. It was a practical response to a desire and momentum towards self-sustainability in the province that both had already noticed on the community level.

“What I have learned from a public health perspective is that solutions live in the community,” explained Dr. Sarkar. He also sees significant opportunities to engage community in learning opportunities for students. “It is good to share this with the students, not just faculty. Collboration can be built into their courses: how does community perspective add to our ability to understand?” he said. “It shouldn’t be one-way knowledge transfer.”

Dr. Atanu SarKar

As the group worked together, it became clear that the collaborative models that Mr. Rubin and Dr. Sarkar had become accustomed to in academic and corporate worlds did not translate outside of these spheres due to their hierarchical and non-collaborative structures. This realization led them to experiment with new forms of collaboration, which helped better serve their end-goal of provincial food security, but also became valuable lessons in their own right.

The group includes membership from around the world, including India, Cameroon, Colombia and communities across Newfoundland and Labrador, all linked by their commitment to local food sustainability. With so much enthusiasm at the table, the group has made a point of embracing, and celebrating the diversity of experiences within their multicultural group brought to the table and sought to engage them in a reciprocal process of knowledge transfer in the spirit of respect, creativity, collaboration and inclusivity. As they did so, more and more people with various backgrounds and expertise joined them.

“We’ve taken a “Round Robin” approach: we pose a question or an issue, and everyone has a turn. It comes back to the chair, and I sum up what we’ve heard,” said Mr. Rubin. “By the second time around the circle, there is usually a resolution, and if not, we hold off.”

As they put out a call for applications for communities around the province to host their greenhouses, the resulting 26 applications vastly exceeded their expectations and proved that communities were both worried about food security and interested in taking steps to address it.

During the process of consulting stakeholders, it also became apparent that there was a need for a central hub that could be used to coordinate sustainable food production in the province, and that could act as a repository of local knowledge that those wishing to take part could leverage. “People are in their silos, doing what they do but not talking with each other. All kinds of learning opportunities are in danger of being lost,” said Mr. Rubin.

The need for a place where actors who shared the same goal but who were not in each others’ orbits led to the creation of the Food Producers Forum, a website which acts as a ground-level repository for gardeners, growers, farmers, hunters, fishers and foragers seeking to exchange information, expand access to healthy local food and work towards a return to a level of food security by solidifying local food distribution networks.

In the two years following its founding as a provincially registered non-profit society, the Food Producers Forum has been able to reach out across the province and bring together local efforts on food sustainability in the service of the larger goal of food security. It has also created an online encyclopedia of articles and knowledge relating to food production.

The online forum is a part of a larger series of projects that the group is heading in an effort to ensure that Newfoundland and Labrador can overcome the food crisis that the province is experiencing and achieve self-sustaining year-round production of food.

These efforts include the Greenhouse Outreach Project that is building earth sheltered greenhouses across the province to act as incubation hubs and education centres, the “Where’s the Food?”-project that is collecting data on local food production in order to guide future efforts in food security, the Regeneration Conference on rebuilding food production and food security in the province supported by Memorial’s Office of Public Engagement, the Guerilla Garlic Gardeners project in partnership with the Single Parents Association of Newfoundland and Labrador that built raised bed gardens for single-parent families in St. John’s, the NL Grown food map in collaboration with Nancy Winsor and supported with federal funding through Food Producers Forum that maps local food production, enabling consumers to connect directly with local producers, a collaboration with the Community Garden Alliance seeking to re-form and creating communications between gardeners in order to maximise the province’s local food production, and “From the Ground Up,” a collaboration with CBC for a series of television and radio profiles on local food producers.

For Mr. Rubin and Dr. Sarkar, funding received from Memorial combined with the vote of confidence and support that the Office of Public Engagement has provided has been critically important. In turn, he and his cohort have been able to reach out across the province to connect with and support individuals, groups, and communities who’ve previously thought themselves to be alone in their struggle against food insecurity.

If you are involved, in or concerned about, local food production in Newfoundland and Labrador, be sure to visit the Food Producers Forum or email them at foodproducersforum@gmail.com. The Forum is also looking for volunteers to help with posting on social media, writing articles, and helping with their upcoming virtual conference “Regeneration: Soil, Food, Community – Building a Sustainable Food System in Newfoundland & Labrador” based at Memorial’s campus May 5-7th 2022.

If you are looking to kickstart or expand a community-university collaboration of your own, make sure to check out the Office of Public Engagement’s suite of funding programs.

Akseli Virratvuori is a Graduate Support Student with Memorial’s Office of Public Engagement and a PhD Candidate at Memorial’s Department of Folklore.