Food for Thought

It’s a paradox: There’s soaring interest in how food is produced – but the number of people who actually know how to grow it is plunging.

It was the latter factor that prompted Grant Wood to create his Urban Food Production course, but it’s the former that has him excited about where the local food movement may take us.

The idea for the course came to Wood five years ago when a child of visiting friends was examining his garden and asked, ‘Why do you keep your carrots in the ground?’

“And he’s not the only one,” says Wood. “At a garden show, we put up a sign that said ‘vegetables need a minimum of eight hours of direct sunlight a day’ and I was amazed at the number of young people who were saying things like, ‘Oh, that’s why the garden didn’t grow under the spruce tree.’”

Of course, grandma didn’t need a university course to learn how to garden, and Wood has a more ambitious goal for his multi-disciplinary course, which attracts students from four colleges – agriculture and bioresources, pharmacy and nutrition, kinesiology, and arts & sciences.

It’s a “challenging mix of students,” says the exuberant plant sciences professor. For example, the agbio students “are bored silly” when he covers basic soil science. But when a dietitian gives a guest lecture, those same students have to step out of their biosciences/production mindset and think about food in a very different way.

The course is a deliberate mash-up of ideas drawn from many disciplines. The production part ranges from the nutritional needs of crops and integrated pest management to proper storage of the harvest and how that affects nutrient levels. The section on finding suitable plots of land in the city leads into a look at how food production can influence urban design and why community building is critical to growing food in a city.

There’s even a guest lecturer from Cuba, where financial woes fuelled a drive to reduce food imports and eventually made that country a global leader in urban agriculture. (Havana gets 60 to 90 per cent of its fresh produce from small plots in or near the city.)

Those economics aren’t at play in Canada, but there are other forces driving our local food movement.

“We can always get cheap food, but there’s a new group of youth concerned about where their food comes from,” says Wood. “They want more control over the quality of their food and how it is produced.” 

While concerns over ‘factory farming’ gave birth to the local food movement, the increasing availability of fresh, high-quality farm produce has also played into Canadians’ increasingly adventurous culinary tastes. People on this side of the Atlantic are adopting a European attitude towards food, says Wood.

“The attitude is shifting from food as sustenance to something we celebrate,” he says. “I tell my students, ‘I don’t want you to just eat. I want you to dine.’ You eat with salt and pepper. You dine with basil, oregano and other herbs. You impart flavour to enjoy the food you eat.

“So it’s not just about local, but about taking fresh food and making something exciting and new with it.”

Wood initially considered calling his course ‘urban agriculture.’ But after talking to his kids and their friends, he realized most young urbanites associate the words agriculture and farming with tractors and the like. Wood says he wants his students to be open-minded and create their own vision of what urban food production might look like in the future.

Those with an entrepreneurial bent are encouraged to think about how they might build a business around urban food production – would you partner with restaurants, use a smartphone app to match customers with what’s available this week, or maybe combine your urban farm with a gourmet food truck? Those heading back to the family farm, says Wood, will be better positioned to capitalize on niche opportunities if they learn to think of food from the end- user’s point of view. And instead of just telling their clients to “eat your veggies,” those who become nutritionists or dietitians might find ways to use gardening to get them to embrace healthier diets, he says.

That’s something Wood does, too. The self-confessed “vegetable hoarder” regularly dips into his pantry and brings dishes to class.

“I make chana masala for my students and I tell them the curried chickpeas are part of my one-mile diet,” says Wood. “The spices are imported, but the chickpeas, tomatoes, garlic, and onions are grown on a plot within one mile of campus.” 

And as any of his students can tell you, Wood always slips some fresh (and local) kale into the traditional Indian dish because, along with spinach, “it’s one of the two biggies when it comes to nutrients per unit area.”

Urban Food Production Pl Sc 235 itself is an unusual concoction, but a popular one. His first class in 2011 attracted 25 students, that number grew to 40 last year, and will have 90 students enrolled this year now that it’s offered in both the fall and winter terms.

It’s hard to know how students will put this learning experience to use, as urban food production is still in its infancy, says Wood. At this point, it’s all about planting seeds in creative minds.

“It’s a different way of looking at education,” he says. “But it’s also a tasty way of education, too.”

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