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Destination: Sitopia…? – SELRS Update December 5, 2011

Posted by gfsa in Community Stories.
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With harvest season behind us and Thanksgiving suppers well digested, hibernation and slumber sound like a natural next step. But alas, Christmas supper and New Year’s cheers are just around the corner. AND… seed catalogues are almost in the mail!

It’s a little known fact that Growing Food Security in Alberta (GFSA) is coming up on a milestone. That milestone is its 10 year anniversary as a network of food security-aficionados in Alberta. Over the years, GFSA has been supporting the development of community food systems across Alberta’s rural communities; now totaling 19… and growing! To mark this occasion, the network members are gathering in Sylvan Lake December 11th and 12th to take a walk down memory lane, forecast the next ten years, and then get right to work by planning the next steps for the SELRS project and the progress of community food systems. (see previous blog posts for more info on SELRS)

Community food systems are one of the most important ways we can lead a connected life. These systems connect us to our food, to our local area, to the producers of our food, and other people in the community who belong to the same community food system. Throughout the SELRS conversations – some 50+ to date – the term ‘food system’ has referred to all processes involved in providing us with food. For example, growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consuming and disposing of food. From a ‘system’ perspective our food network does not operate in isolation but functions within and is influenced by the social, economic and natural environments. But, in light of the converging crises around the world, how does our current food system measure up to this reality?

Carolyn Steel, architect, lecturer and writer of the book Hungry City – How Food Shapes Our Lives explains that food is not only a shared necessity – but also a shared way of thinking. Looking at food systems offers an unusual and illuminating way to explore how cities (and society) evolved. Steel’s chief interest is in exploring the inner lives of cities, and her work has focused on developing a lateral approach to urban design that looks at the everyday routines that shape cities and the way we inhabit them. She explains that the historical design of communities subscribes to a “utopian” vision, a term that means ‘good place’ or ‘no place’; used since Plato to describe an ideal – and therefore unattainable – community. Laudable as the utopian desire may be, Steel recommends a more practical “sitopian” approach, a term she coined from the Greek sitos, meaning food, and topos, place, meaning ‘food-place’. Pointing to Ebenezer Howard’s legendary Garden City Movement as a realistic example, she points out that the world is already shaped by food, so we may as well start using food to shape the world more positively.

Could ‘sitopia’ be the obvious answer that has been staring at us all along, only it was too big to see?

Returning to the global food system diagram from our last blog post, where does community fit into the picture? Through the lens of food security, community is promoted as an ideal – a network of relationships in which all processes in the food system occur in a spatial area and in which all processes have positive benefits to the environmental, economic, social and nutritional health of that area. It appears now that “spatial area” is the question. Can we have a community food system at the global level? Perhaps. The issue is the expertise needed at that level is so enormous, the utopian dream so intangible, and the experience of operating at that capacity so undeveloped, we may not be ready for it – if ever.

Alternatively, local systems are simplified, tangibly sitopian, and we have tens of thousands of years of practice. Why then are local systems struggling for support? Why are they increasingly unfamiliar to us? Why do our institutions insist on global markets being the only way? Tough questions. But so is trying to create a utopia. We would argue that a good place IS a food place. Perhaps we’re closer to a utopia than we realize.

Going into the SELRS workshop in Sylvan Lake, we have some tough questions to explore. Among them, “What will a ‘sustainable, equitable, local, and regenerative system for food’ framework create?”, “Can we do it at the local level?”, “If we commit to create it together, will a “good place” be the result?”

We’re hungry to find out.

Submitted by Rene Michalak and Brenda Schroeder

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