The Green Medium is an Emerald Award-winning, youth-run blog that seeks to innovate how we discuss and inform ourselves on environmental concerns.

Urban Food: Take Action

Urban Food: Take Action

Urban agriculture has enormous potential to help reduce food insecurity, create welcoming community spaces, and help us become more connected to our food sources. However, I certainly wouldn’t feel qualified to go buy a giant plot of land or start an aquaponics company, and I suspect that a lot of you feel the same way. So what can you do to support urban agriculture if you’re not a trained farmer?

1. Grow in your own backyard

The most obvious way to participate in the urban food movement is to start in your own backyard (or balcony, or kitchen)! Home food production can take many forms, including planter boxes, herb pots, and fruit trees. If you are able to plant in an outdoor area at home, consider planting perennials like rhubarb, raspberry bushes, and cherry trees. These will persist over time, growing stronger and more productive each year. Perennials contribute to the ecosystem of your garden by maintaining a stable soil ecosystem, letting nutrients, worms, and microorganisms thrive. If you live in an apartment, small planters can be used for tomatoes and carrots on the balcony, while a pot in your kitchen is great for herbs like basil (which is also safe for pets!). Home gardening is even better if you can involve your family and friends by planting together and sharing produce.

Herbs planted in my backyard and raspberries from our garden - perfect for summer salads!    Left photo by Kaelin Koufogiannakis, right photo by Denise Koufogiannakis

2. The birds and the bees

If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, consider taking the next step with birds and bees - that is to say, keep hens or a beehive! The City of Edmonton has recently updated the Zoning Bylaw and other regulations to allow for both activities.

Bees help pollinate our crops, adding about $2 billion to the Canadian economy annually. Bringing bees into urban environments is crucial for the success of other types of urban agriculture, and one colony can produce more than 100 pounds of honey in a year! To become a beekeeper, you will need to follow the Urban Beekeeping Guidelines: take a basic apiculture course, notify your neighbours, and ensure the hive follows specific rules. For readers age 12-18, Northlands hosts a free weekly beekeeping course each summer, where you’ll get to tend to multiple hives. The program is led by Dustin Bajer, who I interviewed in the previous article of this series. Dustin suggests that before setting up a hive, you familiarize yourself with honeybee behaviour, life cycles, and hive structure. “The more you can learn about bees the better the beekeeper you’ll make.”

When it comes to birds, the City of Edmonton is currently conducting a pilot project on urban hen keeping. Hens will produce about one egg per day, more nutrient-rich than a store-bought egg. Keeping hens can also provide a great educational opportunity for kids. The pilot project is at maximum capacity right now, but you can join a wait list and check out the regulations. Keeping hens is no less responsibility than caring for any other type of pet, and once they stop laying eggs (after two years) you must be prepared to care for them or relocate them to a farm.

A couple of the bees I’ve photographed in Edmonton, pollinating urban plants

3. Get out into the community

Instead of (or in addition to) taking on the responsibility of backyard urban agriculture, consider getting involved with a community garden! Sustainable Food Edmonton has a map of gardens on public land you can use to find one nearby. Apartment buildings may also have private community gardens you can join. Most community gardens are welcoming to new members and will even teach you gardening basics. Imagine having a fresh source of tomatoes, peas, lettuce, zucchini, and tons of other produce, in exchange for being part of a diverse community of neighbours you get to spend time outdoors with. That’s a community garden.

4. Compost your wastes

The first three suggestions have been about urban food production - what about disposal? In nature, everything is recycled cyclically. Dead and decaying trees serve as the source of nutrients for new sprouts, worms use rotten apples as food, and carbon dioxide released by forest fires is cycled back into trees through photosynthesis. In stark contrast to this model, cities generally send wastes - food packaging, production byproducts, expired food - to a giant hole in the ground, out of sight and mind. New ecosystems cannot form in landfills because of high contaminant levels, non-biodegradable wastes, and lack of oxygen. Of course, it will take a systematic change to transform human consumption into an entirely cyclical process, but it starts with each one of us being more conscious about disposal of food waste. By starting a backyard compost, you can divert biodegradables from going to the landfill and produce your own nutrient-rich soil.

Backyard composting can take on a variety of forms, including vermicomposting (worms!), tumbling bins raised above the ground, or enclosed compost heaps. Check out the City of Edmonton’s Composting page to learn more about what type would be best for you. Just make sure to watch the balance of greens (food waste, tea, house plants, etc.) to browns (twigs, paper, wood chips, etc.). Some community gardens also have shared composts you can use!

5. Rescue urban food

This is me rescuing some urban fruit in Italy a couple years ago,
photo by Denise Koufogiannakis

Sometimes, urban agriculture is so successful that growers end up with more food than they need! Luckily, there are few option for ensuring that extra food doesn’t go to waste. One is an Edmonton non-profit called Operation Fruit Rescue (OFRE). Their mission is to “mobilize volunteers to harvest, process, and preserve local fruit” with the goal of increasing community well-being. Growers contact OFRE to ask for volunteers, and then 25% of the fruit goes to the owner, 25% to volunteers, 25% to OFRE for preservation, and 25% to a local charity. To become a member and volunteer, visit their website!

You can also take on your own initiative to donate some of your produce to a local food bank. I volunteer at the Campus Food Bank at the U of A, and we frequently receive produce donations from community members and organizations with gardens. By doing so, your urban agriculture project can also help reduce food insecurity in Edmonton.

6. Use your purchasing power

Supporting urban agriculture doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to put on your gardening gloves or your beekeeping suit. By using your purchasing power to buy from local farmers and growers, you demonstrate support for both local producers and policies of urban agriculture. By buying Edmonton honey, for example, you support both local apiarists and the City of Edmonton’s decision to allow urban beekeeping.

There are several urban farms in Edmonton, such as Reclaim in the Garneau area and Lactuca downtown. They sell at farmers markets throughout Edmonton, which is another great place to find other local food products. Keep an eye out for YEG Bees Honey Co-op, which sells raw honey labelled with the hive’s neighbourhood.

For those in the University area, the Green and Gold Garden is located at South Campus and sells produce by donation. They have on-site markets on Tuesdays and Saturdays during the Summer and Fall, and donations go towards a women’s non-profit in Rwanda. Prairie Urban Farm is just down the road and has weekly markets on Thursdays.

The Old Strathcona Farmers Market, my favourite place to go buy fresh, local produce and goodies every week!

Urban agriculture as part of Edmonton’s future

The 6 ideas I’ve outlined are just a starting point for embracing urban agriculture. They are things that you and your neighbours can do to support a movement toward reconnecting with local food and creating community. In the long term, we will need more concrete action from City Council and higher orders of government to fully embrace the potential of urban agriculture. These actions may include zoning to allow intensive urban food production, expanded financial support for community gardens, and the introduction of local food festivals. Edmonton’s Food and Urban Agriculture strategy, FRESH, lays out much of this groundwork. With both government action and community-led initiatives, I think the potential of urban agriculture can be realized. If you agree, disagree, or have other ideas about what we can all do to support urban agriculture, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Urban Food: Interview with Dustin Bajer

Urban Food: Interview with Dustin Bajer