How to feed a hungry city

How to feed a hungry city

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"Do you want to feed the fish?" Not an everyday question inside a shipping container. But here within Ripple Farms' home on the campus of Toronto's Seneca College it's routine, and without awaiting an answer, Steven Bourne – one of the co-founders of the local aquaponics start-up – swiftly hands over a carefully measured container of organic fish feed.

"Sprinkle it over the top," Mr. Bourne says and, within seconds, scores of tilapia dart to the surface seeking their lunch. "We feed them really good food, so our fish are happy and that means our plants are happy," he says, beaming with pride.

This modified shipping container is Ripple's second pilot project in the city, following its inaugural farm at Evergreen Brickworks. The ground floor is filled with a large fish tank, along with a system of pumps and filters that provide nutrient-rich water to the greenhouse set atop the shipping container, feeding plants such as arugula, Swiss chard, kale, basil and mint. The system not only produces extremely healthy crops, but creates no waste beyond rich fertilizer that is later used in traditional soil farming.

Because of this remarkable sustainability and the capacity to produce food year-round, many point to aquaponics farms such as Ripple's as the future, but aquaponics is hardly alone in the urban farming landscape. Urban agriculture as a whole is on the rise in Toronto – this year, the mayor's office recognized Toronto's first Urban Agriculture Day on Sept. 15, marking a milestone for the city's growing community of practitioners. That community includes entrepreneurial farms such as Ripple, as well as traditional backyard gardens, community gardens, school gardens, rooftop farms, backyard chickens and more. Even before this year's recognition by Mayor John Tory, Toronto had been hailed as a leader in the field thanks to the GrowTO Urban Agriculture Action Plan unanimously approved by City Council in 2012 to provide a framework for encouraging the growth of urban agriculture.

But while this is viewed as a global model for city planning, local experts caution that not all is rosy in Toronto's gardens, as a number of projects have recently stalled due to lagging approvals and other challenges.

Brandon Hebor, co-founder of Ripple Farms Inc., inspects the growing lights of an aquaponic lab. Ripple currently sells its produce to high-end chefs.

Brandon Hebor, co-founder of Ripple Farms Inc., inspects the growing lights of an aquaponic lab. Ripple currently sells its produce to high-end chefs.

" Torontonians have long grown in their backyards and continue to do so, but it's mostly been under the radar," notes Joe Nasr of the Centre for Studies in Food Security at Ryerson University and a co-ordinator of Toronto Urban Growers (TUG). "What's new is this attention to the fact it exists and that it has a place in the city, and that the city can help it prosper."

TUG has brought together a diverse group of civilian stakeholders since 2009, with the goal of increasing the availability of healthy and sustainable food grown, processed and sold in Toronto. Through networking meetings, public forums and lobbying, the group has done just that, and – working with the Toronto Food Policy Council (TFPC) – was largely behind efforts to bring Toronto's Urban Agriculture Day to fruition.

Experts explain that supporting urban agriculture citywide is crucial because projects such as community gardens or larger-scale operations such as Black Creek Community Farm not only provide access to healthy and affordable food but offer skills and job training.

"I'm very keen on urban agriculture," Lori Stahlbrand, co-ordinator of the TFPC, says. "There are so many ways you can address health, nutrition, social inclusion, the environment and economic development, all using food." In contrast to the civilian TUG, the food-policy council is directly embedded in city government. "We were the first food-policy council in a major city in the world," Dr. Stahlbrand says. "There are now several hundred, but the key to what makes ours different is that I'm a permanent staff of the City of Toronto."

Established in 1991 as a subcommittee of the Toronto Board of Health, the TFPC focuses on the city's food policy as a whole, a large part of which includes strategies for increasing urban agriculture.

Many point to aquaponics farms such as Ripple’s as the future.

Many point to aquaponics farms such as Ripple’s as the future.

"Our concern is about food security in the broadest sense," Dr. Stahlbrand explains. "When we say 'food insecurity,' people think about hunger and lack of access, but food security is a much broader concept of having a food system that is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable – and urban agriculture is a great way of addressing that."

This year's first Urban Agriculture Day was preceded by a week of tours around the city led by TUG and the TFPC, seeking to expose some of the ways urban agriculture can result in healthy, low-cost food, engagement of isolated communities such as seniors and people living with mental illness, as well as promising entrepreneurial ventures.

"We're starting to encounter the problem that because people don't know what urban agriculture is, they're more likely to say no to projects," says Rhonda Teitel-Payne, another TUG co-ordinator, on the importance of the tours. Other events included public forums, workshops and a harvest dinner at Black Creek Community Farm with some of Toronto's top chefs.

Located in one of Toronto's poorest neighbourhoods, Black Creek Community Farm has quickly become a model for other cities. "The vision was to look at how this farm can play a role in food security in the Jane and Finch community – doing this from a community-development perspective, ensuring community members are part of the decision making," Leticia Boahen, Black Creek's director, says.

From those initial goals, the eight-acre farm founded in 2012 by Everdale Environmental Learning Centre, Food Share and African Food Basket has evolved to become a jewel of the community. The farm addresses food security by providing access to farmland and discounted fresh produce to low-income families in the area, but a major part of its program is about education and engagement. There are programs on environmental education, a farm camp program, a program for local school visits, a youth internship program and a seniors' program.

Brandon Hebor, left, and Steven Bourne. This modified shipping container is Ripple’s second pilot project in the city, following its inaugural farm at Evergreen Brickworks.

Brandon Hebor, left, and Steven Bourne. This modified shipping container is Ripple’s second pilot project in the city, following its inaugural farm at Evergreen Brickworks.

The benefits of education and food literacy continually come up when speaking with urban-agriculture experts. Local organizations such as FoodShare have long tried to address this issue, with programs of school nutrition and the goal of a food-growing garden in every school.

"It's a terrific idea," Dr. Stahlbrand says. "Programs where students are engaged and learning food-growing skills train them in real skills, make them employable in the food system – and they also learn so much about good eating."

Postsecondary schools are becoming more involved, with entire programs now dedicated to food studies. And local universities and colleges are beginning to implement gardens on empty spaces or campus rooftops. Seneca's partnership with Ripple Farms is just one such example. The farm will be operated by students and the school will partner on related educational programs with Ripple's founders, Mr. Bourne and Brandon Hebor – themselves recent graduates of Seneca's Green Business Management program.

Ripple Farms is a for-profit business but it's run as a social enterprise , meaning its founders are focused on tackling societal issues and providing education above pure profit-seeking. "There's a big shift happening with our generation," Mr. Bourneexplains. "My metrics aren't how much money is going into my pocket at the end of the day, it's how many people do I feed? I will make money, but it's not my main impact measure."

The company currently sells mainly to high-end chefs because of limited production, but that will soon change. Ripple recently received government loans that will be used to build a 10,000-square-foot farm in Toronto that can produce 250,000 pounds of fresh produce a year – the equivalent of feeding approximately 55,000 people three meals a day.

Steven Bourne inspects some of the herbs that Ripple Farms has been growing.

Steven Bourne inspects some of the herbs that Ripple Farms has been growing.

Ripple has been using tilapia in its system, as almost all aquaponics farmers do, but more local species such as trout and catfish are being considered. This would then provide a sustainable source of high-quality local fish in addition to the fresh produce. Among those interested are local restaurants such as Montgomery's, which has purchased some of Ripple's herbs and vegetables.

Focusing on seasonal, local ingredients was always essential for Kim Montgomery-Rawlings and her husband, chef Guy Rawlings, but the pair wanted to think locally beyond the menu when they opened their first restaurant last summer. "Guy and I always said we wanted to make a restaurant that wasn't just a restaurant," Ms. Montgomery-Rawlings says. "It's an opportunity to get involved with the community, meet new people, branch out and share ideas."

While researching local food issues, Ms. Montgomery-Rawlings was introduced to TUG and the TFPC and immediately began attending meetings – eventually becoming an elected member of the TFPC. Montgomery's is also a local leader in featuring seasonal and local products; in addition to local produce purchased from others, it maintains a rooftop garden of its own, built in self-watering containers.

In fact, the idea of adding container gardens to empty lots around the city is one the TFPC's Dr. Stahlbrand is especially fond of. In Vancouver, Sole Food Street Farms has been successful at growing 25 tonnes of food a year while transforming empty lots and employing dozens of members of the city's poorest neighbourhoods. TUG's Dr. Nasr also points to Paris as inspiration, where a municipal program has made 44 sites throughout the city available for agriculture.

Having Dr. Stahlbrand as a permanent city employee through the food policy council is undoubtedly beneficial, but if Toronto hopes to follow the lead of other cities and adopt projects such as these, many suggest another city staff member dedicated to urban agriculture is needed. "The positive is that there are so many people trying to get very innovative projects going, but the city can't quite handle it all," Ms. Teitel-Payne says.

The ground floor of Ripple Farms is filled with a large fish tank, along with a system of pumps and filters that provide nutrient-rich water to the greenhouse set atop the shipping container.

The ground floor of Ripple Farms is filled with a large fish tank, along with a system of pumps and filters that provide nutrient-rich water to the greenhouse set atop the shipping container.

One promising large-scale project that has run up against challenges involves building community farms within underused hydro corridors. Such farms would be a new hybrid model meshing community gardens with farmers' markets, creating economic development to support low-income communities. With soil and electromagnetic tests completed by Toronto Public Health nearly four years ago, city staff got on board and have backed the program. Unfortunately, gaining final approval from Hydro One has been more onerous and expensive than expected, as more than $100,000 raised from Toronto Public Health and private grants has been put into Hydro's site-assessment processes. Supporters believe they're close to clearing the final hurdle. "If we finally do get these farms in the ground, it's going to be amazing," Ms. Teitel-Payne says. "The space is there, the communities desperately need the farms and it will be a chance to test out new urban-farming models."

Even with frustrations such as these, optimism is high coming off the proclamation of Urban Agriculture Day. "It really does feel like we're at a tipping point of food policy being a much more important discussion," Ms. Montgomery-Rawlings says.

New entrepreneurs are also cropping up, large developers such as the Daniels Corporation have shown interest in building rooftop farms and members of city government and community organizers are increasingly advocating for the benefits urban-agriculture projects. "The solutions are out there, we just need to work on convincing people that this can be done here," Lori Stahlbrand says. "It's definitely time for the next big step in Toronto and because of the structure we have, I don't see a reason why it won't happen."

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