Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Good Things Are Growing at Windermere Secondary

This week, Quest volunteer, Talia, and I took a little trip to Windermere Secondary School in East Vancouver. I had heard amazing things about their gardening and farming project, and wanted to check it out firsthand. Two students there, Brendan and Cassandra, were kind enough to give us a tour of their facility.

I’m not sure what your high school courtyard was like, but mine certainly did not look like this.

Brendan and Cassandra said that this garden was originally a student initiative started in 2007. A few years ago, a grant request was submitted for the composter, and it went from there. Only three schools in the Lower Mainland were recipients of the grant. The composter aerates the organic material by turning it and heating it, thus speeding up the decomposition. The students use the soil for their own planter beds and will give some away to farms in the area if they have extra.

One of the first things I noticed was that the garden housed a small hive of mason bees (whose importance was outlined in our last post) and lots of flowers to try to attract more to the area.

The garden included several cedar planter beds filled with various vegetables, including kale and lettuce. There were also quite a few garlic plants, which the students will dry later for their use.

Not far away stood a greenhouse built entirely by Windermere students. The greenhouse had an aquaponics system, which is a combination of hydroponics and aquaculture. Aquaponics “combines the two practices to form a co-dependent farming ecosystem that capitalizes on the benefits of aquaculture and hydroponics and minimizes the negative effects of each”. In this section, the students are growing lemon cucumber and lettuce. The fish in their system are currently goldfish, but Cassandra mentioned the students were looking to get tilapia eventually. Talia and I were amazed that these plants were thriving with no soil in the beds, only gravel. The students also had a fair-sized citrus tree, which had been grafted five times. It now bears five different types of fruit, including limes and tangerines. Last but not least, Brendan and Cassandra pointed out a beautiful gardenia plant, which is their teacher’s personal project.

The students spend on average about 5 hours per week in the garden, watering and tending to the plants. More time is required for replanting.

All of the food that is grown in the garden is used in Windermere’s school cafeteria. This allows the students to see the full cycle of food production: from garden to plate. Quest may even be able to benefit from some of the extra produce this year!

Thanks for the tour Brendan and Cassandra!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bee-ware a decline in the pollinator population

Recent declines in bee populations are beginning to bring about more awareness regarding the importance of bees to our food system. While most people think of honey production when they think of bees, the critical role they play in the pollination of many of the foods we consume often goes unnoticed. It has been estimated that 1/3 of the human food supply is dependent on insect pollination. The role of bees is important in ensuring that our food systems are healthy and stable. It is estimated that the total value of bees to Canadian agriculture is over $1 billion per year.

Farmers rely on bees to pollinate thousands of crops: strawberries, melons, cucumbers, apples, cherries, and tomatoes, just to name a few. The degree to which a crop is pollinated determines its yield. Materials used post-pollination, such as fertilizers and pesticides, are designed to protect and preserve a crop, not increase the amount produced. To increase crop yields, some farmers enlist commercial beekeepers to bring mobile hives to their farms, as they cannot rely on wild and feral bees to complete such a large task. In order to pollinate California's 420,000 acres of almond trees, for instance, farmers require up to 1 million colonies of bees. Without bee pollination, the availability of thousands of crops would sharply decline.

There are over 1000 types of bees in Canada alone. The honey bee is the most important, since it is an equal opportunity pollinator, and will pollinate more plants than other specific types of bees which may gravitate toward only some plants.

The phenomenon of dying honey bees has been dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Although colony decline is expected during winter months, declines within the past 5 years have been unusally high. Some beekeepers report a loss of 30-90% of their colonies. Many theories have been generated as to why this is. Some scientists have suggested that mites and other hive pests are partially responsible, which others speculate that the use of pesticides and chemicals have something to do with it. It could be a culmination of a number of environmental and chemial stresses that has caused this widespread die-off.

There are simple things we can do in our own backyard to help rejuvenate the bee population:



  • Keeping a garden is a simple way to start. Planting an array of wild flowers native to your local environment provides a rich and diverse supply of pollen and nectar.

  • Reducing the use of pesticides and insecticides can also help to ensure the health and safety of bees.

  • Learning more about bees can be an invaluable contribution to their wellbeing. Learning where they live, what they eat, and how they behave can help all of us to understand and save our local bee populations.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Thoughts on Change Through: Food Systems

This week, I had the pleasure of attending a fantastic discussion put on by the organizers of Change Through ______. The topic of the day was Food Systems. In Vancouver, there are many passionate people who gather to discuss local issues, and this was a good representation.

The format was not completely lecture-style, but instead welcomed much more participation from the audience, and opened the floor to anyone who wanted to contribute.

There were three speakers and a moderator to get the ball rolling on the topic. Anthony Nicalo (@foodtree), chef and entrepreneur, asked questions of Arzeena Hamir (@arzeena) with Richmond Food Security Society, Herb Barbolet, food activist and author, and Mijune Pak (@followmefoodie), author of the blog Follow Me Foodie.

Here are some of the notes that I took away from this event:

Most of the work done in this world is still related to feeding ourselves in some manner. However, we are still so detached to the process by which we get this food and how it is made. Many people do not participate in the system other than as consumers. This is due to the globalization, corporatization, and consolidation of resources to just a few suppliers.

Food is a commonality between every single person. We all need it to survive and it should act as a binder to bring people together.

Change to food systems is already taking place on a neighbourhood scale, with people who have shown an interest. How do we reach those who are not attending events like Change Through _______? There is very little representation of minority and low-income communities with food system/policy dialogue.

A question was brought up: should we continue to eat food not grown in BC/Canada and how does it affect those who have immigrated here? For example, should rice be made unavailable to Asian Canadian or Indo-Canadian families? How will this change their culture? On the flip side, why are we not open to learning more about other systems used around the world, which have been around longer and are more sustainable than our own? Perhaps we should take advice from other cultures instead of making new Canadians assimilate to our way of life.

It is not a problem of not making enough food, just that we export much of it. For example, quinoa, a nutrient-dense grain/seed, has become a hot commodity in North America as of late. Those producing it in South America (mainly Peru and Bolivia) are earning money by exporting it, but they also lose the chance to use the food to feed their own people. To put it a bit closer to home, we learned that many people who use food banks in Canada are farmers in the prairie provinces. The producers of our food are not even able to enjoy the fruits of their labour (pun intended).

The conversation then turned to the language of food. It is a loaded topic; morality and judgment are inherent in it. Without even realizing it, one might place judgment on a fellow shopper’s items in the checkout line at the grocery store. A change in policy goes along with a change in our perception of the subject, and language is a big part of that.

In that vein, there is a group working on changing Vancouver’s policies surrounding food. They are very aptly named Vancouver Food Policy Council. Check out their website for more details.

If anyone else attended this event or something similar, please feel free to add your comments.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Volunteer Entry: Talia Starts at Quest

We're excited to welcome our newest office volunteer, Talia, to the Quest team. Talia has quite a bit of experience with food security and will contribute her knowledge to our fundraising and outreach efforts.

My name is Talia and I recently started volunteering with Quest Food Exchange. As a newcomer to Vancouver, I was very excited to find an organization that was so passionate about ensuring that all people, regardless of income, were able to access fresh and healthy food at an affordable cost. My previous work in Ontario focused largely on issues of food security and I am so pleased to be able to continue with this work in a new city.

In my previous job, I worked for a local poverty reduction strategy which attempts to ensure the social and economic well-being for all residents in the area. Most of the concerns I heard from local residents had to do with access to affordable food. Many of them utilized services like food banks, and were frustrated with the lack of choice and limited amount of nutrition in the items they found there.

Out of the important concerns, residents began to bring forward innovative ideas to address many of the food security issues faced by those with lived experience of poverty. Some residents advocated for more community gardens, while others pushed for increased access to local farmer's markets for people living on a low income. Many of the people we worked with strongly advocated for a $100 healthy food supplement for those in receipt of social assistance. These extra funds would allow for increased access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and protein. The ability to purchase nutritious items and live a healthier lifestyle is a critical step in ensuring the well-being of citizens.

Coming to a new city, I was thrilled to see that the passion for food security issues extends clear across the country. I am so excited to have the opportunity to share some of my experiences and volunteer with an organization like Quest.

Thanks Talia! We look forward to collaborating with you. Keep an eye out for more posts from Talia in the future.