Why ‘potatoes for the people’ is still a dream 10 years after the Calgary Food Action Plan

Ten years ago, Calgary City Council adopted an ambitious plan to ensure healthy food for all residents.

It was the culmination of years of advocacy and guerrilla warfare or illegal gardening by people facing food insecurity themselves. But this approach – “potatoes for the people” – remains mostly a dream.

Instead of collective farms, the city got a lively craft brewery scene, more farmers markets and indoor hydroponic farms—a win for food security and an economic boost that many appreciated, but not the vision these early advocates were fighting for.

It has left some advocates scorned and disappointed, says John Bailey, a gardener turned academic whose 2021 master’s thesis for the University of Calgary focused on understanding what happened to the food-related business plan, Calgary Eats!

“Early on, there was a lot of skepticism and some backtracking from management and the board,” Bailey said. “So it has been her pattern: Ask a little, build on your winnings, and ask a little.”

“(City employees) have done their best with the resources they have. …But there may be a much larger movement to address accessibility to help food-insecure people so they don’t have to do urban guerrilla movements and these prohibited things.”

Today, supply chain issues linked to the pandemic and drought are driving up food prices, prompting many to reconsider the security of Calgary’s food system. Families and individuals have to budget and cut back on healthy food choices, sometimes for the first time.

As part of the CBC Calgary High Cost of Food project, many Calgary residents asked about group gardening and access to the land. This day is limited because Calgary Eats! But of course the future has yet to be written, and city officials say progress is being made.

Potato for the people

Donna Clark remembers 2012. That was the year she looked at her new rented apartment and swore the adjoining plot of land wouldn’t be empty for long.

The idea was simple. She painted the sign, “Potatoes for the people,” and then invited neighbors to grow tubers in old tires together, to make friends with the plan to donate extra vegetables to the food bank. It will give residents control to help address their own food insecurity.

But they had only just sowed when Alderman at the time John Marr walked in and called the police.

Volunteers paint tires, preparing to convert a vacant residential plot of land into a community park in 2012. The effort was dubbed “Potato for the People” and caused an uproar when a local council member called the police to stop it. (Provided by Donna Clark)

In Calgary, a developer is allowed to leave the property vacant; Neighbors are not allowed to grow on it. Clark forced to dig everything up.

However, I thought all the media coverage and discussion would make a difference.

“I thought it was something that wouldn’t die that fast,” she said. “I haven’t seen anything the city hasn’t done and I’m a very knowledgeable person.”

A shift in focus leaves some behind

There have been other such efforts, including some ongoing, such as Grow Calgary and Land of Dreams for the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society.

Bailey, who interviewed 18 restaurants, community leaders and city officials for his analysis, says what happened follows a typical pattern. The movement started with community advocates enthusiastic about the cause because they saw an urgent and pressing need. When restaurant, corporate, and government officials got involved, they naturally brought a different perspective—one focused on risk, zoning, and economic development.

Ideally, both parties find common ground and mutual benefit – bringing legitimacy and resources to the process.

Donna Clark shows off her filthy hands after planting potatoes on an empty plot of land next to her new rented apartment in 2012. (Provided by Donna Clark)

But in this case, Bailey said, “When the city came along, the transformation was so profound that some of the early members couldn’t come to terms with that change.”

Farm and chicken stalls and farming test case

Kristi Peters leads the Calgary Eats! for the city. It wasn’t until 2016 that she was hired and was the first to dedicate full time to this job.

Much of the city’s efforts focus on changing bylaws to cut down barriers to business such as craft breweries, intensive commercial farms in residential backyards, and indoor hydroponic farms. There are six urban farms in those two categories now and several companies have told city officials that they are working on the plans.

Through Peters’ work, the city also supports regional agriculture with 21 farms in the city. And this spring, after more than a decade of lobbying, the city will allow backyard chickens.

The Grow Calgary site is north of the city near Balzac. (Terry Trumpath/CBC)

When it comes to growing food collectively on a large scale — the communal urban farming or farm that some other North American cities have embraced — in the past, politicians have worried about chaos, noise, and disruption, Peters says.

“We need a great success story,” she said, describing the exact process city officials went through to find a suitable non-residential area for the test case.

They now have a database of unused land, and in 2019, the Canadian and city compost board partnered with local advocates to create Highfield Regenerative Farm in south-central Calgary. She has a temporary lease of the transport reserve land.

Peters hopes to be able to guide bylaw changes in the future.

Calgary residents have been pushing for the right to own backyard poultry for more than a decade and will finally get that right this spring. This chicken was part of an illegal flock kept in a central Calgary neighborhood. (CBC)

Covid has set Highfield back. But one paid employee, Heather Ramshaw, says they had nearly 20 regular assistants last summer and hope to expand. Volunteers get their hands dirty, learn about farming and stay away from fresh produce.

“Food security is a giant issue,” Ramshaw said. “Just our repetition won’t solve the problem, but it can have a huge impact.” “Knowing we’ll be there permanently would really open things up for us.”

Daybreak Alberta12:09Hear the full interview with Calgary Mayor Jyoti Jundyk on food security.

Mayor says ‘marginalized priority’

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gundyk spoke at length with CBC Daybreak Alberta this week. She said the last two years of COVID have shown the folly of letting food security issues slide.

“It was a marginalized priority,” Gundyk said, and pledged to call for greater efforts on the issue. “We need to start looking at how we can use city-owned space and assets to encourage more urban agriculture that is easily accessible to people who need food.”

Gundyk said that if she could accomplish one thing in this file with this term, it would be to allow people to start cultivating unused land like the one along the future Green Line. It would like to work with land owners within the city limits but it has not yet been developed.

“I know a lot of these landowners are going to be incredibly interested in partnering with people who want to do some kind of agricultural initiative.”

CBC Calgary: High cost of food

CBC Calgary concludes with a focus on the high cost of food. Since November 1, we’ve been sharing tips and taking suggestions from Albertans on a tight budget with the help of a texting app.

Read the full series at cbc.ca/costoffood.

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