A More Sustainable Food System

Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship

Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship

Guest Post: By Dr. Erin Nelson

Today’s blog post is written by Dr. Erin Nelson. Erin has a PhD in Rural Studies from the University of Guelph, and has worked extensively on issues of food security and rural development in Canada and Latin America. Currently, Erin is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Guelph’s Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship/Research Shop, coordinating its sustainable food system work.

It can sometimes be challenging for a university and its surrounding community to feel connected to each other. The University of Guelph’s Research Shop meets that challenge head on, bringing campus and community together to do research that contributes to positive social change. Research Shop projects cover a wide range of topics related to poverty, social justice, the environment, community health & well-being, and sustainable food systems. Specific research questions are developed in conversation with community partners (such as the Guelph & Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination, Transition Guelph, the Wellington-Guelph Drug Strategy, and the Guelph-Wellington Food Round Table), and projects are carried out collaboratively by graduate student interns (who come from many departments across campus and volunteer for 5 hours/week), Research Shop staff, and partner organizations.

For the past three years, one of the Research Shop’s most active partnerships has been dedicated to the issue of community food security. Working with the Food Round Table’s Food Access Working Group, the Poverty Task Force, and those coalitions’ member agencies, the Research Shop has published reports on emergency food service provision in Guelph-Wellington, eligibility requirements for emergency food access, and service users’ experiences and opinions. Research results have helped clarify some of the food security challenges facing the Guelph-Wellington community, as well as some possible solutions. In particular, results have highlighted the growing momentum for a holistic, social justice-oriented approach to community food security that would include the development of a community food hub.

In the midst of this process of community-based research on food security in Guelph-Wellington, Dr. Dan Gillis and Danny Williamson approached the Research Shop for some advice. They were interested in doing a project that could use Dan’s position as a Computer Science professor and Danny’s marketing expertise to help address a community problem. The trouble was, they weren’t exactly sure what community problems most needed addressing. After a very lively brainstorming session about community priorities with Research Shop Director Linda Hawkins and staff, it was decided that focusing on food security would be a good fit. Specifically, Dan and Danny seemed well-positioned to help tackle one of the shortcomings plaguing local emergency food services – a chronic lack of fresh food in food banks and pantries. The lack of fresh food availability had been identified as an important gap in service by research with emergency food providers. One possible means of reducing that gap had been explored by another Research Shop project, which was done in collaboration with FarmStart and assessed models for increasing connections between farmers and food banks.

Taking that information as a starting point, Dan and Danny decided to focus their efforts on the question of how to get more fresh food to community members who need it by facilitating communication between food growers and emergency food providers. The Research Shop set up a meeting to connect Dan and Danny to the Food Access and Distribution Working Groups of the Guelph-Wellington Food Round Table, who were both eager to play an advisory role on the project. And Farm To Fork was born! In those early days, it would have been almost impossible to predict how much enthusiasm the project would generate. Today, Research Shop staff, students, and community partners who have been involved in food security work in Guelph-Wellington are eagerly anticipating Farm To Fork’s official launch this coming fall, and looking forward to seeing the changes it might bring to the community!