FeedBack is a reflections blog authored by the Arrell Scholars and Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance – Food from Thought HQP Scholars on their experiences in the program. Regan Zink is an MSc student in Rural Planning and Development and Guilherme Madureira is studying for his PhD in the Department of Animal Bioscience.
There’s something about homegrown produce that just tastes better. Every year, Ontarians eagerly await spring, for its warmth, longer daylight hours, and access to locally grown fruits and veggies. But as most home gardeners know local produce seems to exist in two extremes, absence or abundance. Home gardeners must be savvy – freezing, canning, and drying their plentiful harvest that seemed to ripen all at once. But what if there was a way to share your produce among neighbours and strengthen the connections that people make through food – connections to one another, to their ancestors, to their culture, to the earth, and to their communities?
Introducing Seed Voyage, a digital platform created to share the bounty of backyard gardens. Started by Dushan Batrovic in 2017, Seed Voyage was one of five community partners paired with a group of graduate students at the University of Guelph. This partnership, which involves community organizations and grad students, occurs every year as part of a course for OMAFRA HQP and Arrell Food Institute scholars. The course requires students work on a “challenge” assigned by a community partner over the course of the year and provides the opportunity to develop knowledge and competencies beyond their typical area of study.
Beginning in the Fall of 2020, our team started working with Dushan and the Seed Voyage platform. Our challenge? To find food growers and eaters in Southwestern Ontario who will regularly use the Seed Voyage platform. “Initially, we were confused about how the platform works but we got used to it with time and we believe in the potential of this initiative, especially inside communities,” says Hiral Jariwala who is a student participating in the challenge.
After our first few meetings as a team, and some very insightful discussions with Dushan, we came up with a plan. Around the same time as our challenge commenced, Dushan had confirmed a partnership with the Junction, a neighbourhood in Guelph, who were looking to establish the first of many neighbourhood food networks in the City of Guelph. Our team would partner with the Junction Food Network to achieve a common goal: to build a network of people who were growing and sharing food within the same neighbourhood. According to Guilherme, “We were aiming to show everyone how the Seed Voyage works. That is why we focused on partnerships and tasks that could strengthen the first food network facilitated by the platform.”
Our approach was split into three overarching goals: sowing engagement, growing a network, and cultivating feedback. From these goals we chose a diverse set of activities, including:
- a promotional video about the partnership,
- community workshops about producing your own food,
- a pilot of the Seed Voyage platform for community members to test out buying and selling produce,
- networking with neighbouring community gardens, and
- a series of surveys to collect feedback about why people were interested in participating, what food was already being produced within the community (what people are growing in their backyards), and how the Seed Voyage website could better meet the community’s needs.
We also hope to create grower profiles and award prizes for the most active growers and eaters, to help Seed Voyage and Junction Food Network members transition to the 2021 growing season. Our project is now in the final stages, but we can confidently say that there was a lot of fun and learning that went into this project.
Like everything in life, this project was not without challenges. Our team’s diverse backgrounds and multi-disciplinary expertise were important to overcoming barriers and generating creative solutions. From animal biosciences, environmental engineering, plant agriculture, and rural planning and development, we are an unlikely team. But once we got started on the project it became clear we had many complimentary skills and experience and there was often a natural fit for which part of the project each of us would take on. “If it weren’t for this course, it’s highly unlikely we would have the chance to work together,” says Jake Gregory who is a student member of the team.
I think we would all agree that this project was an excellent experience but for each of us it meant something slightly different. For Regan, “It was really exciting to work with so many community partners. Hearing about their interest and passion for food futures was a really rewarding part of this project. For some it’s the taste of homegrown food, others were concerned about building community and resilience, or sharing knowledge and skills.” According to Guilherme, “Working together as a team was the most challenging aspect of the project because of the variety of backgrounds inside the group. We came from different regions and countries and each one of us has degrees in distinct topics. While this is a challenge, it also made our project stronger and more complete.”
Beside all the personal and professional growth for members of the team, this project also represents important innovation and growth in the agri-food sector. Through this project we were able to raise the profile of community-based food systems here in Guelph, clarifying the role of hyper-local food systems in strengthening community resilience and improving food-literacy. As COVID-19 recently taught us, there is a lot we’re not aware of about our food: where it’s grown, how it’s processed, the different actors involved, and the journey it takes from field to fork. Through growing, learning, and – someday – eating together we can start to address this knowledge gap and strengthen the myriad of connections that people make through food.