Who: Heidi Grantner
What: FED’s Urban Learning Garden
by Adrian Paradis
Heidi Grantner is the first to admit that she is not a stellar gardener. While her attempts over the years have never worked out—including in her mother’s garden as a child—she openly admires those who toil effectively in the dirt. Luckily for Victoria, Grantner’s missing green thumb hasn’t stopped her from being a driving force in the region’s local food movement, most recently by organizing the Urban Learning Garden at the downtown public library.
Grantner was raised in Nanaimo but moved away after high school. She attended Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario for economics before working for a private equity firm in Toronto. Missing the Island, Grantner realized she wasn’t connecting with her co-workers. “I didn’t feel that anyone in my network’s values’ aligned with mine, in terms of environmental issues and wanting to change the way the system works,” she says. She moved back to Nanaimo, spent a summer WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in Hawaii, then relocated to Victoria.
In 2014, while volunteering for Cascadia Collaborative, a green building non-profit, she met Jill Doucette. Doucette is a founding partner at Synergy Enterprises, a company that calculates business’s carbon footprints and helps them develop sustainability strategies—just what Grantner was looking for. They met for coffee, and Doucette offered her an internship at Synergy’s non-profit, the Synergy Sustainability Institute (SSI). After a few months of data collection, Grantner became project coordinator for the Food Eco District (FED) in January of 2015.
FED is an independent non-profit organization that is administered by SSI. It was founded by a few local restaurateurs who envisioned transforming Victoria into a sustainable food destination. FED covers eight square blocks downtown, with a few businesses in other neighbourhoods, and counts locations like Agrius, be love, and Fishhook as members. Grantner describes FED as an arts and culture district unified by great food and green practices.
“We find restaurants that are doing it right and try and promote them to locals and tourists so that our consumer dollars are supporting businesses that are helping us to a green economy and a sustainable food system,” says Grantner.
This year, FED began work on its Urban Learning Garden in partnership with LifeCycles Project Society. “We have been wanting to bring an educational element to FED for a long time,” Granter says. “We feel education is important to avoid greenwashing and empower citizens to make informed decisions about the food they are eating.”
With funding from Victoria’s municipal participatory budgeting process, Co-op Community Spaces, and Vancity’s Community Partnership program, the garden is taking shape in the courtyard of the GVPL’s central branch. Organizers hope to have six different planting zones by the end of 2020, including plots for Indigenous food and medicinal plants, native plants, and a perennial food garden.
Grantner has also helped shape Victoria’s innovative food policies, like the Growing in the City initiative, through the Urban Food Table (UFT). The table started in the spring of 2016 when city councillors Ben Isitt and Jeremy Loveday put out a call for anyone working in the food industry to come share their views. Grantner was curious. She had never worked on food policy, but felt the table’s goals meshed with hers and it provided an opportunity to make sure the city’s policies align with food security issues.
“At the first meeting, I realized I knew nothing about how municipal governments work,” says Grantner. However, she had excellent note-taking skills from her years as an admin assistant, so she took minutes and kept showing up, learning the ropes and eventually becoming a table co-chair. The city currently relies on the UFT for guidance with food policy and the table is working to become an official food policy council.
Today, Grantner is a full-time project manager for Synergy. She still takes notes at UFT meetings and works with FED, but she officially stepped down from leadership positions earlier this year to focus on the learning garden.
While much work remains, Grantner is hopeful about the future sustainability of Victoria’s food system and says she would love to see it included in more of the many new construction projects.
“We have this incredible opportunity that we are starting to build what Victoria will look like for the next 50 to 100 years. We could be doing so much to integrate food growing, “ she says. “Every building could have a rooftop garden, or every building with residents should have the opportunity to have a growing space.” Grantner may only have time to admire these gardens from afar, but she will likely continue to orchestrate a greener, healthier city for everyone to enjoy for years to come.
While these days Grantner’s most ubiquitous tool is her Google calendar, she still loves her secateurs (hand-held pruning clippers). “I don’t know if it’s the most useful, but it’s my favourite gardening tool. I love pruning and making things pretty.”