Food in Northwestern Ontario has much to offer the taste buds and the imagination. But beyond just a good meal, food can provide mechanisms for survival, identity and connectedness. Digging deeper into the community-based food practices in Northwestern Ontario reveals ways that people are challenging the dominant ideas of the market economy that puts profits above people. Over the past two years I have had the great pleasure of working with an energetic and inspiring team of researchers at Lakehead University exploring the social economy of food in Northwestern Ontario.
The Quebec-based Chantier de l'économie sociale describes the social economy as a network of initiatives rooted in the needs of people as opposed to only enhancing economic gain and managed collectively by communities as opposed to government. These kinds of initiatives include community-based organizations, cooperatives, and non-profit organizations and are based on principles of inclusivity and empowerment along with individual and collective responsibility.
Working closely with Lakehead faculty (Dr. Connie Nelson and Dr. Mirella Stroink), graduate students (Esther McKay, Rachel Kakegamic, Allison Streutker, and Will Stoltz) and a range of community partners, we have explored the unique social, environmental and economic benefits that emerge from initiatives working for sustainable food systems across Northwestern Ontario. Through our research, we have explored ways that these initiatives consider people as more than self-interested and profit-seeking, but as deeply embedded in relationships with other people and local environments.
Our study involved an exploration of four case studies as examples of ways that communities are sharing food-based knowledge and skills in informal and creative ways. First, we worked with Cloverbelt Local Food Co-op (CLFC; http://cloverbeltlocalfoodcoop.com/), a regional food cooperative creating a thriving food system by increasing the visibility and accessibility of local food. Governed collectively by producers, consumers and community organizations, CLFC aggregates and distributes local food across Northwestern Ontario, along with education about the value of a sustainable regional food system. Second, Willow Springs Creative Centre (WSCC; http://www.willowsprings.ca/), is a progressive social purpose enterprise with a mission to promote growth through creative expression and community development. To meet that goal, they provide inclusive art, therapeutic gardening and food programs and training. Third, we worked with blueberry foragers to better understand the links between ecological preservation, health, cultural identity and community building. Finally, we worked with Bearskin Lake First Nation, a fly-in community of about 460 people where the cost of imported foods can be more than doublethan the costs in urban areas. We learned about ways the community is using public events, local knowledge, and digital technologies to share food and revitalize traditional practices and cultural identities.
From our collective research, we found that all four case studies demonstrated examples of building community purpose and connectedness; and thus, challenge the accepted wisdom of the externally-driven, profit-oriented market economy. We also found that these different initiatives contributed to enhancing community identity, accessing local products, and building pride in the north. As a result, the initiatives are an important part of the diversity and innovation that builds well-being, adaptation, and resilience in Northwestern Ontario communities.
More information and details on the case studies can be found at http://nourishingontario.ca/the-social-economy-of-food/case-studies-subversions-from-the-informal-and-social-economy/.
Written by Dr. Charles Levkoe, Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems at Lakehead University.