Our Garden is Growing!

Welcome everyone to the Food Action Society of the North Okanagan’s Annual General Meeting. We’re here to give our members an update of what we have been doing during the past year, and give you a glimpse of the plans we have for the coming year.

We thought the best way to accomplish this would be to try to visualize our work through the lens of a metaphor: Our Garden is Growing.

No doubt during the potluck you will have noticed our rendition of a community garden behind me. Leeanne Stringer is our resident artist and Board member, who painted this picture for us, so that we could together visualize the work we are doing, and how all of the components of our work fit together.

You’ll notice a few features of this garden right away.

First, the garden has no fence. It is a community garden. This means that it is for the community and of the community. There are no “keep out” signs, no barriers, no admonitions imploring you to “stay off the grass”.

Likewise, the Food Action Society is a community organization. We are a registered charitable organization.  The Society grew out of a desire to raise awareness of food security, provide a vehicle for community action, and a means through which to educate the community about the role that fresh, local food can play in our healthy lives.

We are open to all. We welcome your input and participation. Last year at the AGM, eight new Board members joined us, and have become a vibrant part of our activity. If you are inspired by our mission, we hope you will join us as board members, contributors, volunteers for a specific project, or as partners within other community organizations that we work with.

A second feature of this garden is that it is very much a work in progress. Some plants are strong and deeply rooted, others are just seedlings, barely poking their heads above the earth. We had some fun coming up with representations of the projects we are involved in. Not all will necessarily survive; others will grow, change, or cross-pollinate. This is OK, we don’t profess to have the answers or a master plan for everything.

We  hope you’ll forgive us if we push this metaphor too far. But tonight, let’s see how far we can take it. We want your input!

Let’s look more closely at a few features of our garden.

You’ll notice that our garden is rooted in a deep layer of soil. In our garden, the Food Action Society is that soil. We help seeds sprout and take root, and supply nutrients to the plants. Now, soil is a complicated thing. If you have weak soil without nutrients, not much is going to grow. If you don’t care for your soil, adding compost and organic matter, your garden won’t thrive. On the other hand, with really fertile soil, it is amazing how much will grow in a small space.

If you’re just walking past a garden and glance at it, the soil isn’t the first thing you’ll see. It’s not glamorous; few people will comment, “what beautiful soil you have”. Without it, you wouldn’t have a garden, though. Plants won’t thrive without it.

Likewise, individual community projects must be rooted in place. They can be transplanted, but that’s traumatic and we seek to minimize change. Projects need bank accounts, a legal framework, accountability, administrative infrastructure, publicity, a way for the general public to find them. The Food Action society has provided this base for a variety of projects, as we’ll see in a few minutes.

What does soil need to make it strong? Earthworms!

Earthworms are essential to vibrant, fertile soil. They aerate it and fertilize it. At the risk of offending all of you, our members are our earthworms. The more earthworms you have, the stronger the soil. We need more worms! To be biologically correct, soil also needs other macro arthropods, such as Nematodes, mites, fungus and bacteria. If you know any, invite them to join us!

On a more serious note, thank you for coming out tonight and renewing your memberships, or if you are joining for the first time, welcome! One of the factors donors look for when they are evaluating grant applications is the size of membership. We’ll tell you more about the opportunities we are planning to take advantage of in the coming years, and much of our work will depend on successfully applying for grants. Thank you for your support, and urging your friends, family, and colleagues to become members of the Food Action Society. It is important for us to increase our numbers.

What are other necessary components of a healthy garden?

Pollinators. Plants need pollination, and pollinators like bees are essential to the success of many plants.

Community support is our pollinator. We rely on countless volunteers, and countless volunteer hours to do our work. We collaborate – or cross-pollinate – with other organizations. These include Vernon In Transition, SENS, Kindale Developmental Association, Social Planning Council, Okanagan College, Faith groups, Okanagan Science Centre, Interior Health, Allan Brooks Nature Centre. And now with the launching of Cook it. Try it. Like it! (which is an after school cooking program) we have developed a relationship with even more organizations: SD 22, Boys and Girls Club, Salvation Army, Whitevalley Community Resource Centre and Maven Lane child care society.

In fact, collaboration is essential to our long-term success. Collaboration helps everyone, it avoids duplication of effort, and it allows us all to share resources. A critical part of our growth in the past year has been in our collaboration with other community organizations. This is going to be increasingly important in the years to come.

Sunshine represents the warmth and happiness of people who benefit from our garden. Benefits include good health, social interaction, and economic benefits. Food is the pride of our community; good food brings happiness.

Let’s turn to examine what is actually growing in our garden.

This is a fruit salad tree. You may have heard of these: they produce several kinds of fruit and nuts from a single tree. The fruit salad tree is the most established member of our garden, and represents the Good Food Box. Hundreds of families a month benefit from the bulk buying power of the Good Food Box!

We would like to expand the good food box in a variety of directions. We’d like to have an option for online ordering and payment for good food boxes. The volunteer pool is very active, but some of the key volunteers are getting on in years, so we would love to see younger volunteers step up and get involved. This is already happening to some extent with homeschool volunteers, but we’d love to see this expand.

Patchwork Farms is a community collective farm and garden and is located on the Okanagan College Property overlooking Kal Lake. It is a not-for-profit that is operational thanks to partnering groups such as Kindale Development Association, Social Planning Council, Mental Illness Family Support Centre, and the RDNO. Patchwork Farms was launched three years ago and has grown amazingly over the past couple seasons. It is open to the public during set times and volunteers are always welcome. The model that is used to run the farm currently is dependent on volunteers helping out with the sowing, weeding and harvesting. Patchwork has donated a large portion of their produce to the Womens Transition House, Upper Room Mission, Elks Lodge, and more.

Under the same umbrella as Patchwork Farms are two of Vernon’s community Gardens, as represented by a squash patch. One located in the East Hill area and the other in West Vernon. These gardens contain allotments that citizens can rent out and use to grow their own food. The community environment at each garden is thriving. Plots are used by a wide range of people, some who love growing and need a space, and others who grow out of necessity for food- A great example of Vernon’s advancing food security. Those interested in renting a garden plot can do so at the Vernon Rec Centre and can find out more information in Vernon’s leisure guide.

The corn in our garden represents backyard gleaning. Gleaning is a wonderful way to redistribute food to those in greatest need. This makes particular sense in our region, which has such favourable growing conditions and an abundance of produce. Gleaning programs have run off-and-on in our community for over 10 years with the Salvation Army most recently filling this vital community need. What is preventing community gleaning from really taking hold?

Funding for coordination is certainly a factor. The Salvation Army has most recently been coordinating community gleaning by hiring a summer student for the last few years. Although this coordination has been beneficial, gleaning has been difficult to accomplish after August, once school has started.

We may seek some instruction here from our garden metaphor. When growing sweet corn, we should avoid planting one long row in the garden. Instead, clever farmers plant sweet corn in blocks of at least four rows to ensure proper pollination.

The take-away lesson is to cross pollinate a community gleaning program with other organizations to harness a strong volunteer base and distribution system.  By working more closely together, we can hopefully grow a stronger more resilient gleaning program.

The Salvation army has announced that it will not continue coordinating backyard gleaning in Vernon next year, so this again is a gap in our community, and something we would like to step up to fill.

The beans represent Community Kitchens, a long standing food program in the North Okanagan. We choose the long spindly beans to represent Community Kitchens, because although this program has been serving the North Okanagan for many years, it hasn’t been able to flourish in a way that it could with more secure funding.  Though once it served 7 communities in the North Okanagan, it currently only runs in Vernon, Cherryville and Salmon Arm.

You may have noticed that the three sisters grow in our garden. That is, squash, corn and beans. The three sisters grow better together than they do individually. Likewise, community gardens, gleaning and community kitchens all benefit each other. The more these programs can work together, the better they all succeed.

We chose the haskap berry to represent our vision of a community food centre.  Haskap is an amazingly hardy, fast growing, high yielding, great tasting berry bush that is relatively new to North America. It’s becoming a bit of a sensation and we hope the same will be true for the community food centre. There is currently a feasibility study underway to develop a model of what a community food centre could look like in Vernon. You may have heard of Community Food Centers in Ontario, like The Stop in Toronto. As part of the feasibility study in Vernon, we want to find out what sorts of programs and services could be offered here. What would people be willing to pay? How could these programs and services be accessible to all, including those unable to pay? How could it be sustainable in terms of operating costs? The Food Action Society is part of the working group for the community food centre. We are eager to hear what the community wants.

The strawberry patch represents Cook it, Try it, like it – an after school cooking program that we will be offering in the New Year. We will be partnering with a number of local agencies and schools in the communities of Lumby, Armstrong and Vernon, to deliver this program starting in the New Year. We will be contracting a coordinator to lead the program and mentor staff and volunteers from these organizations to hopefully continue offering the program in the future.  Just like a strawberry patch continues to send out runners and grow, we hope that this program will grow and continue to root itself beyond the timeframe of our funding.

Flowers: local government.

Often overlooked in a food garden, they’re not just pretty, they attract beneficial insects, etc. etc.

The Food Action Society sees strong relationships and collaboration with local government as vitally important to creating vibrant, healthy and food secure communities in the North Okanagan. We envision a community where elected officials, community planners and staff work collaboratively with community partners to increase access to local food and support local food production. The Food Action Society is beginning to explore how we can play a greater role in engaging local government in local food systems issues.

The Sunflowers in our garden represent our visible presence. This is the way the Food Action society communicates with our membership and the wider public. For the last few months, Sarah has been sending out a monthly newsletter to our membership. We really want to grow into an easy, comprehensive, and convenient source of information about food-related matters in our community. We hope you have found the newsletter useful. We would love to include more in our newsletters, so please email us anytime with items you would like us to inform our membership about.

Another sunflower is our facebook presence. Over the last year, it has been much more active, and we really appreciate your feedback, likes, and comments. It’s a great way to reach a lot of people.

Our website is a continual work in progress. It wasn’t updated as often as we would have liked, but we have started a systematic redesign. We want it easier to use, and we want the local food directory to be user friendly and up to date. There are a number of organizations and websites that have similar local food directories, so we are in the process of finding the most effective organizations to partner with to provide a satisfying user experience. April Sheehan, a really talented local web designer, is working with us to streamline our website.

You’ll notice a couple of signs in our garden. These are celebrations of our local food system that happen twice a year.

Shoots n Blooms has happened every spring for the past three years. It’s a celebration of the beginning of the growing season. Every year it has been hosted at a different local farm. We’ve had exhibitors, artisans, information booths, and farm tours. This year, we partnered with Screen Free Week to include Shoots n Blooms as one afternoon in a week’s worth of activities, to give families an alternative to using electronic media. Shoots n Blooms has grown a lot over the past years: this year we had an estimated 5-600 attendees.

We would definitely like to continue with Shoots n Blooms next year, though the format may possibly change. One idea that we came up is a tour of local backyard gardens, possibly with an optional cycling component. Ever since Sarah suggested it last year, it’s been my personal dream to have an event called Tour de Plants. Perhaps this kind of distributed model is a viable alternative to cramming increasing numbers of people into a single farm in an afternoon.

Roots n Brews was a huge success this year. I think it’s really come into its own as a harvest celebration. We had a much younger and more diverse crowd this year, which was great to see. We were sold out, and used the full size ballroom at the Lodge. The food was the best it’s ever been, and we loved the energetic participation of lots of small-scale local farmers. It was truly a showcase for the best our community has to offer!

Both of these annual events take a lot of organization and planning. This means that volunteers from our Board have taken on a huge commitment of time. We have reached a turning point in our organization. We don’t want our best people to burn out because of the time commitment required by planning these events. This brings us to carrots.

What are these weird carrots? They represent our Board members, who spend most of their time underground, toiling away. Sometimes they peek up above ground. These carrots are in an unusual position. On the one hand, we’re really passionate, and care deeply about what we’re doing. We’ve had a vibrant and energetic Board this past year, which has allowed us to move ahead with some great projects in this garden.

On the other hand, we’re a victim of our own success. Our work as an organization has grown to such an extent that we need to change the way we do things. We don’t want our most passionate people to burn out. We’ve thought a lot about what changes we need to make, gotten together with our partners, and come up with an ambitious plan.

Let’s take a step back for a moment to look at the broader picture of this garden. We’re still missing one key component of a healthy garden: water.

Water in our metaphorical garden represents money. People talk about “turning off the tap”, and having a “rainmaker”. Water is essential to any garden. Even a rock garden requires water. Without water, everything dies – it’s as simple as that.

We have a number of sources of water. Right now, they’re tiny watering cans that supply each project individually.

Rainfall in our community garden has been fairly sparse, and the existing watering cans need to be refilled frequently. If we really want our community garden to thrive, we need something like an irrigation system.

This is where our big idea comes into play. We have been working together with our community partners to increase the capacity of our organization, so that we can install an irrigation system. What does this mean exactly?

First, it means working on our governance. We are developing policies and procedures for hiring and oversight of staff for programmes like Cook it Try it Like it. We are adopting best practices for Human Resources. Kindale Developmental Association and the Social Planning Council have really stepped up to help us professionalize our governance.

Second, it means looking closely at our constitution and bylaws, and ensuring that we have the legal and organizational structures needed to work efficiently. We must ensure we are always in full compliance with our charter as a registered charitable organization.

Third, it means ensuring our financial house is in order. We have hired Ruth Dixon as our bookkeeper, and we are putting into place standard procedures and accountability standards for our finances. We have a new treasurer coming on board in January, after she has completed her business degree and starts full time work at KPMG.

We are developing expertise in applying for grants, and are cooperating with other organizations who have this expertise.

To continue with our garden metaphor, the goal of all of this earthmoving is to lay the groundwork for a new irrigation system. We wish to apply for long-term, stable provincial gaming funding. The application deadline is next fall, so we are working hard to reach this deadline.

What would irrigation do for our community garden? What would a stable, predictable source of funding provide for the Food Action Society?

Most importantly, it would allow us to hire staff.

This would have several consequences:

It would strengthen existing programmes, and help put them on a strong footing. Our sunflowers could really thrive. Community kitchens could have administrative support and publicity.

We could network far more effectively with other community organizations and collaborate in truly meaningful ways.

Ever since its inception, the Food Action Society has had the goal of being the place to go for information about local food. It was envisioned as a hub for education, information, and celebration.

So far, these plans have not reached their potential because of the limits of having an all-volunteer organization with a working board. In practice, this has meant that Board members have done much of the work themselves. Having paid staff would transform the nature of the organization.

Here’s a telling example. We recently successfully applied for a grant to run our Cook it, Try it, Like it after-school cooking programme for kids. Several weeks ago we posted a job advertisement for a coordinator. Ever since we have been inundated by applications from experienced, passionate people who are keen to become involved.

We live in a community blessed with potential. A little money goes a long way. With a generous amount of stable funding, we can go very far indeed.

Thank you for coming out tonight, and being involved in our community garden!