The Good Food Summit celebrates its third year by highlighting community

by Quinn MacDonald

ON A COLD, rainy, and otherwise gloomy evening in November, the Victoria Theatre bustled with warm chatter as people took their seats for the inaugural edition of Savoury Stories. Hosted by the Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable, as part of its annual two-day Good Food Summit, the evening ‘s goal was to raise money for CRFAIR’s Good Food Network. But the stories shared over the next two hours also connected community members who care about local food through the inspiring power of personal tales and poignant words.

Newly re-elected Victoria city councillor Jeremy Loveday opened the night with a performance of his 2014 slam poem “Food for the Future” with lines about the Island’s limited food. Loveday then acknowledged the territory of the Lekwungen-speaking peoples, the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations, who lived on and cared for this abundant food-producing region for thousands of years before settlers arrived.

Salt Spring Island farmer Simone Cazabon provided levity as the MC, and other storytellers included Tiffany Joseph, who shared a lively update of her “Story of SEMSEMÍYE,” originally featured in Concrete Garden’s summer issue, an organizer from the QT2IPOC dinners, and two students from the gardening program at Reynolds Secondary as well as Leah Seltzer from LifeCycles, the Growing Schools coordinator.

Leah Seltzer from Lifecycles. Photo: Lauren Sortome

“Yes, I gained practical gardening skills, but I have also gained confidence in my opinions, my problem-solving abilities, and my leadership skills,” said Rebecca Gittens, a grade 11 student, as the screen flashed with images of students building beds, planting seeds, and preparing and sharing meals from the food they grew.

“Just being in the garden has also had a noticeable and positive impact on my overall health,” said Sophie Sianen, a grade 10 student. “The clean and crisp air always clears my lungs, while being out and enjoying garden also helps me de-stress.”

Leah Seltzer felt moved by seeing the students show up as leaders and speak about their program with the larger local food community, “As the students left the stage proud and beaming, I could see how vital it is to create avenues for youth voices to be heard and empowered in food movements,” she said. “During the intermission, audience members surrounded the students and their families to express how touched they were to hear these stories.  I was reminded how profound it is to hear young people share their passion for connecting with the land and growing food; it brings us joy and it gives us hope.”

The Reynolds students were also a standout for Em Bellinger, the communications and engagement coordinator at CRFAIR, who began dreaming up this evening in the hot days of summer. “It was beautiful to hear the multitude of ways in which the garden program at their schools has impacted them,” says Bellinger. “From positive effects on mental health to hard skills, they were beaming on stage about the experience and what it brought them.”

Jennifer Ferris of the Victoria Storytellers Guild helped with the evening, and her “storytelling wisdom” was integral to the night’s success, according to Bellinger. Ferris shared a story about a gruff uncle who dealt with the trauma of World War One by farming in the English countryside.

The idea for the Savoury Stories event came up when CRFAIR was looking for diverse ways to engage the community around food. “In the initial planning stages, folks had mentioned that storytelling was something of interest. Everybody has a story about food it seems,” says Bellinger. “We thought it would be a fun and engaging way to reach a broader audience than those interested in the conference day.”

Savoury Stories was just one part of the Good Food Summit, which took place on November 22 and 23 and sold out for the second year in a row. The 175 attendees included young farmers, funders, local government and policy-makers, health workers, community organizations, and other members of the public keen to learn, to get updated on the Good Food Strategy, and to make connections with those working on local food in the region and beyond.

While Bellinger was the lead organizer for the conference, she is quick to shout out her collaborators: CRFAIR executive director Linda Geggie and operations manager Ally Candy; UVic student Megan Chan, who planned the Show and Share fair; and Aaren Topley, co-chair of the Victoria Urban Food Table, who organized the urban food tour. This is the third year as the Good Food Summit, although the conference ran for two decades under a different title.

Photo: Mariah Carter

This year’s conference happened to fall on a Pro-D day, which allowed teachers to attend—one even brought a handful of middle school students along—so Bellinger says they might intentionally schedule it that way again.

Highlights for Geggie included attendees’ growing appetite for sessions about oceans, including a “Fish in our Food System” panel. “We often refer to food-growing and farming as the basis for local food,” she says. “We need to recognize the importance of fish and, in particular, salmon to coastal communities.”

The summit’s keynote and call to action came from Stephanie Lim, a community developer, feminist scholar, and food justice organizer from Vancouver. In her talk, Lim took a food justice and anti-oppression lens that addressed whiteness, racism, and diversity—or, often, a lack thereof—in the food movement and mentioned the importance of anti-oppression training.

“Another important aspect of this year’s gathering was a significant focus on equity considering power and privilege, not only in our food system, but also in our network and leadership,” says Geggie. “The network members had important discussions and made recommendations on how we might work to address that going forward.”

The conference aimed to have or beat 25 percent of local food, which matches the goal in the Good Food Strategy of 25 percent local food production by 2025. But when Elisabeth Bond and Amanda Smith of the Get Fresh Guide, a physical brochure and online resource put out by the two sisters that connects residents with local producers on the south Island, approached CRFAIR to beat that target, Bellinger took them up on their challenge.

Bond and Smith used their connections with local suppliers and worked with staff at UVSS (University of Victoria Student Services) Catering and Conferences to achieve 85 percent locally sourced, made, and grown food products. “The whole exercise of working one on one with a catering company to adjust a menu to feature locally sourced foods was very interesting,” says Bond. Some suppliers who donated products or provided them at a wholesale price include Island Farmhouse Poultry, Longview Farms, Saanich Organics, Paradise Island Cheese, 10 Acres Farm, Green Cuisine, and Babe’s Honey Farm.

Attendees got excited by the food tours, organized by Aaren Topley with help from UVic student Rachael Barton-Bridges “The tour aimed to tell the stories about urban growing projects before they broke ground,” says Topley. “A lot of time we romanticize these projects and think a group of people or a person ask for land, the city or school district gives it to them and they start their project. In reality some of these projects take one to four years to create.”

The three-and-a-half hour tour started with a presentation from Topley about the institutions groups must deal with to start an urban farming project and the steps to move them forward. The tour then explored the school farm at Vic High, Mason Street Farm, Yates Street Community Garden, the Urban Learning Garden at the downtown public library, and the Fort Commons section of the Food Eco District. The tour ended with lunch at Fishhook and Yalla to show how restaurants play a role in supporting local food.

“As we move forward as a region, trying to create an equitable and strong local food system, we need to ensure that we create easy to access pathways to allow more citizens to grow and source healthy fresh local food,” says Topley.

Photo: Mariah Carter

Events like Savoury Stories connect people across sectors to build a strong regional food network, says Bellinger. “One person at the end of the day remarked that their highlight was meeting new people, and that each person they started chatting with would say, ‘Oh but you have to go meet Person X if you want to connect on that topic,’ and then Person X would say, ‘Oh I’ve got to introduce you to person Y,’ and so on and so forth.”

The summit allowed those working in the field to get input and address challenges, while celebrating successes in what can be a difficult industry. Organizers will need to manage the event’s growing popularity.

“We sold out quite quickly,” says Bellinger, “which came as quite a surprise to many folks who ended up on the waitlist.”

Feedback about Savoury Stories has been positive, so something similar may become a fixture of future summits. “I don’t know if storytelling will be the focus, but I’d love to see more alternative ways to connect on the topics of food sovereignty, equity, and justice,” says Bellinger. “I’d love to see different ways to be involved in the summit other than just the main conference day. Maybe this is a meal, a cooking class, other arts based-events—who knows?”

Savoury Stories definitely made an impact on community members such as LifeCycles’ Leah Seltzer and her students. “This event has inspired me to weave more storytelling opportunities into our schoolyard gardening and apprenticeship programs,” she said, “and to create more platforms for aspiring youth food leaders to have their voices heard.”

A diversity of voices sharing tales from their experiences can highlight the promise of the local food movement—and the peril of food security on the Island if we don’t take collective action. Land and language are intimately linked at every stage of our food system, from farm to table. The Good Food Summit is helping our community build a better food network, one story at a time. ♦