The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: food security

That Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal Thing


Today is our “BHAG” day, and, if successful, it could play its own small part in helping our city of London, Ontario to claim its own future.  And if it doesn’t succeed as we had wished, it will still represent a real desire in our community to redefine itself along more equitable principles.

The term “Big Hair Audacious Goal” (BHAG) first appeared in the 1994 book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, written by James Collins and Jerry Porras.  Its premise was to dream big, go for the gold, in ways that would assure long-lasting profits and success.

We at the London Food Bank are attempting to turn that on its head.  Yes, we have a plan – a huge one – and, yes, we are reaching for success, only it’s not for our own future but that of our community. It is the BHAG of taking a publicly supported agency and transcending it for a community win.

The London Food Bank started 28 years ago as a temporary solution to what was believed to be a short-term social situation.  A recession had crippled communities and various governments and companies pulled back from previous commitments, leaving those communities with more hungry people than agencies were able to feed.  London’s food bank was born during those difficult and challenging years, and from the beginning local citizens and companies rallied to the cause and supported highly successful food drives.  

Back then we were helping about 600 families per month, and the belief was that once the recession ended the larger players would reinvest back into their communities.  Except it didn’t happen and growing hunger and poverty became permanent parts of the Canadian landscape, even during our most wealthy years as a nation.  Our food bank numbers grew until they reached their present 3600 families per month.

It’s a repeated phrase in our town that, “It’s too bad we have to have food banks.”  Except we see it as more than just a mere observation; it’s a wish in our community.  Starting today we are going to make it a goal.

You’ll hear lots in the next while about the London Food Bank closing its doors on the poor or how we just made some kind of arbitrary decision.  Neither are true.  We have decided to work with community groups and the City of London to spend the next six months researching the possibility of providing cheaper food in our various neighbourhoods that will be available year-round and will guard against the indignity of a family coming to the food bank for assistance.  It’s been a desire in our city for years, where numerous agencies have expressed a desire for that goal and our own city council recently passed a food charter to open the door to that possibility.  Steps are underway to establish a Food Policy Council in London and one of its key goals is to provide cheaper quality foodstuffs in all parts of our city.  That’s not new; numerous cities have passed and enacted such plans across North America and around the world.

So why not London?  Yes, we’ve been hit hard and, yes, our lingering unemployment numbers have been dispiriting.  But all these initiatives mentioned above have occurred during those difficult times. Citizens and groups have come together to fight for a future that is their own and not someone else’s ill-fitting design.  The board of the London Food Bank wants to be part of that community innovation.

So, we will spend six months undertaking research with our community partners to see if there is a more equitable way we might help those living in poverty by helping them acquire cheaper food on an ongoing basis – something they can purchase themselves and discover personal empowerment in the process.  If that research turns up some clear possibilities, we will seek to enact that model over the next three years to transition those families back into their neighbourhoods in which they live.  If nothing turns up, then we will continue functioning as we do now.

But the other side of our operation, where we warehouse food that the public and companies will continue to donate and that we give out to over 25 other agencies in the city will continue as usual.  In other words, the warehousing portion will remain, but those families coming directly to the food bank for assistance will now be able to afford it in their own neighbourhoods.  That way the public can stay involved, helping all those other emergency agencies through the London Food Bank.  No family will need to go without because the food bank will continue to help those agencies that provide such needed services.

Look, this isn’t an easy thing for us, and we know we’ll be criticized.  But this is about our belief in this city and its good citizens, and their ability to take care of their own in a more equitable and just fashion.  London doesn’t have to do what everyone else does.  We can innovate our way into a new future.  We concur wholeheartedly with the conclusion of Collins and Porras in their book:

A true BHAG is clear and compelling, serves as unifying focal point of effort, and acts as a clear catalyst for team spirit.  It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal; people like to shoot for finish lines.”

The food bank’s goal can serve as a rallying call, a “focal point of effort,” for our robust community spirit, where our “finish line” ends in the dignity of the human family.  It will call our citizens, companies, and governments to a higher level, where we no longer have to say to one another, “It’s too bad we still have food banks.”  It’s the world we want; let’s just create it.


Identity – If You Eat, You’re In

jpp1168bCommon vernacular says we are “what” we eat. There’s truth in that, but it’s actually how we organize ourselves in the pursuit of food, which all of us require, that can surely set us apart as a community with a unique identity. This isn’t about supporting your local food bank. Instead, it’s about how we’ve permitted our collective identity to be decided for us by a modern food system that is inefficient, dangerous to our health, expensive, and ultimately alienating. How we change that paradigm as a community will largely determine who we are as a people. For if we are citizens blithely transporting ourselves to food stores on the periphery of our city, buying the same products, looking at the endless array of packaging, then ultimately transporting all that packaging to our landfills, we have become automatons – following where we are led.

This seems to be the standard pattern in my city of London, Ontario, but actually it isn’t. Citizens are realizing that how we eat is of equal importance to what we digest. They are figuring out that community gardens are a means of acquiring needed and healthy foodstuffs. Local farmers permit citizens to use land to grow produce for those in need. Londoners are using their influence as consumers to begin supporting local markets that sell local products. And what they are all discovering in the process is that this new food system is actually bringing them together, just as food always has from the beginning.

Consider the town of Tadmorden, England. It had many concerns about the modern food system, just as we do, but they also understood that their community was growing apart, vulnerable to global forces that seemed like a juggernaut. Some citizens got together, traveled through the town, and made plans to turn it into a moveable feast. They used parkways beside streets to plant produce gardens. They even turned the land in front of their police station into part of the local food supply chain. They altered the curriculum of the local high school to include new ideas of food sourcing and school land to make it work.

You can see all this in the video below, but what is so remarkable about it is that local citizens didn’t ask for a study plan, research project, or city funds – they just did it. They didn’t ask for permission; instead, they got local institutions onside and today the village of Tadmorden looks more like a living, breathing orchard than a concrete or asphalt jungle.

This is what citizens do when they grow weary of others telling them how they must order their lives. They live in communities for a reason, visit with neighbours for a reason, and adjust their kids to their environs for a reason.  Our communities are ours to grow and develop, or waste and neglect – it’s up to us.

In the last few weeks I have met some remarkable people who are attempting to bring the miracles of places like Tadmorden about in London, Ontario.  There is only one problem: the establishment isn’t interested – not really. We are surrounded by some of the richest farmland in the world but have somehow permitted cement to become our land of choice. We are asphalting over farmland at the same time as our citizens are breaking up parking lots to make room for community growing plots. It’s all a kind of insanity that reflects poorly on all of us.

Jim Rutten is a new friend of mine. He not only designed a sustainable food security system for a community, he built it and made it work in Cape Breton. Now back on the family farm outside of London, he is attempting to find new ways to bring citizens back into the natural food chain.  Hundreds of other engaged citizens are involved in similar efforts around whole food systems.  I have met apartment dwellers growing produce on their balconies, and building owners growing gardens on their roofs. I have discovered farmers desirous of bring healthier food into the city and citizens willing to travel to those farms to help with the effort. I have enjoyed breakfast at a local market on Saturday mornings with my daughter only to discover hundreds of families doing the same thing in fresh food markets throughout the city.

London, Ontario has a food charter, a food network, and a fertile food base. But the components remain largely separate from one another. Many have waited for the City to bring it all together, giving it resources and profile. They wait in vain. This isn’t about funding; it’s about food. It’s about healthy produce and meats and their ability to draw communities back together in ways that are not only meaningful but which help us to define a new generation of citizens.

Throughout the city I have found people standing at the ready – already leaps ahead of established leaders in innovating around a local food system. It’s time we just started by supporting these champions. Should we coordinate our efforts of how we eat, we will discover that food is the great gatherer, the great empowerer of any community in transition. Look at the video below and tell me it can’t be done. You can’t. It doesn’t require City Hall or government funding. It only needs us, and our ability to remake ourselves, and our identity, as a community.

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