Feeding the Future

FEED Comox Valley takes the idea of the 100-mile diet to a whole new level

“Change starts with asking good questions, <a href=

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” says Sandra Hamilton, recipe
who started the FEED (Food, Environment and Economic Development) Comox Valley project with the goal of re-localizing our food system. Photo by Paul Hansen” src=”×441.jpg” width=”602″ height=”441″ /> “Change starts with asking good questions,” says Sandra Hamilton, who started the FEED (Food, Environment and Economic Development) Comox Valley project with the goal of re-localizing our food system. Photo by Paul Hansen

Comox resident Sandra Hamilton started out with a simple question: “What would it take to get a local potato into our hospital cafeteria?”

It was not an idle question, perhaps because Hamilton is not an idle sort of person. She went looking for answers, and now, 18 months later, that question has blossomed into a bold local food-security pilot project that is boosting profits for local farms, garnering attention from communities across Vancouver Island, and promoting a revolutionary new approach to spending tax dollars that puts social sustainability front and centre.

And yes, you will now find local potatoes—and carrots, onions, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and cucumbers—being served in the cafeteria at St. Joseph’s Hospital, as well as at the North Island College cafeteria and at Glacier View Lodge.

Hamilton now knows that the answer to “What would it take?” includes, at a minimum, the following: a visionary and skilled project leader (herself), appropriate funding (from the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation), a supportive political climate (the Comox Valley Regional District provided matching funds via the Federal Gas Tax Fund),a well-established organization to take the lead (North Island College’s Centre for Applied Research, Technology and Innovation), and a group of willing farmers, which was not hard to find in the agriculturally-rich Comox Valley.

The project—dubbed FEED (Food, Environment and Economic Development) Comox Valley—takes the idea of the 100-mile diet to a new level. When our individual buying values and choices are matched by those of our public institutions, the potential for change goes up exponentially. The goal, says Hamilton, is to re-localize our food system and revitalize our economy.

To make this happen, institutions need to change the way they structure food procurement contracts, says Hamilton. Current practice lumps contracts into giant bundles that only large corporations have the ability to fulfill. What is needed is an unbundling, so that fresh, local food is allocated its own contract. This will make these contracts accessible to local farmers.

“Why do we need three to seven multi-national food companies to get a potato into a hospital?” asks Hamilton, rhetorically. By going direct from the farm to the hospital and cutting out all the highways, boats, trucks, warehouses and extra administration along the way, the farmer gets the highest price, while the hospital pays the same as always.
Rather than food arriving by refrigerated truck after a multi-day journey, produce now comes to the three participating Comox Valley institutions from just a few miles away, and arrives within 24 hours of picking.

St. Joe’s, NIC and Glacier View reap the benefits in terms of flavor, nutrition and a more vibrant relationship with their community. Famers not only have new clients, but more importantly, clients that are predictable.

“Institutions provide stability of demand. So our farmers can plan ahead,” says Hamilton. They can buy seed in the fall based on their clients’ needs for the next growing season. This is a perfect way to help farmers ramp up production.

“You can’t go from the farmers’ market to Thriftys without some stepping stones. This can offer a nice secure stable step for a farmer wanting to increase volumes.”
FEED Comox Valley also is planning for growth, on several fronts. The program has multiple ways it can expand. “FEED Comox Valley has shown we can increase demand, so we need to increase supply. We are inviting farmers who are interested in increasing volumes to come forward and join us,” says Hamilton.

Increasing local food supply is one of FEED Comox Valley’s ultimate goals. Back in the 1950s, farmers on the Island produced 85 per cent of the Island’s food. These days, however, an estimated 96 per cent comes from the mainland or abroad, siphoning dollars away from our communities, driving up our carbon footprint, driving down the quality of our food, and hacking away at our capacity for self-reliance and resilience.

FEED Comox Valley was intended as a pilot project that is meant to spread—and it looks like that’s working. Saanich, Cowichan and Powell River have contacted Hamilton about replicating the model, and she expects to hear from more and more communities. Another natural next step would be the development of a food hub. This could provide centralised ordering, a single delivery point for farmers, aggregation of orders for customers, cold storage, warehousing, and basic processing capabilities.

“FEED Comox Valley has shown that this can work. There were three main challenges FEED needed to overcome: trade agreements, cost and food safety. These have been the three major barriers to having local food in publicly-funded institutions. We have proved that none of these are insurmountable, and we did it on a cost-neutral basis. I had to challenge some of the trade agreements, which I did. We have to do this within the law.”

The food safety issue was not negligible. “Hospitals and long-term care facilities have the highest standards of food safety, so we could only work with farms that had national certification for Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). Our next step is to facilitate this for more farms,” says Hamilton.

“Think about what it would look like if all the hospitals on Vancouver Island were doing this, all the universities and colleges, long-term care facilities, and other institutions too,” she says. The result would help spur a renaissance of agriculture on Vancouver Island.

Above all, Hamilton is motivated by her love of rural living and her ardent desire to protect and promote rural communities.

“What gets me out of bed in the morning, what drives me, is my desire to see more children raised rurally, in healthy communities, close to nature,” she says. Although the Comox Valley might seem the ideal place for this, the statistics are discouraging. Between 2006 and 2011, the number of children living in the Valley dropped by 525. In 2014 alone, families with 240 children of school age left the Valley.

“What is Vancouver Island without farmers? BC has the highest percentage of old farmers and the lowest percentage of young farmers; 61 per cent of BC farmers are older than 60. This is a problem,” she says.

Hamilton is also well aware of the trend to increased urbanization all over the world. According to United Nations statistics, 54 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas—up from 30 per cent in 1950. Projections tell us that by 2050, 66 per cent of the world’s population will be urban. And North America leads the world in urbanization, with 82 per cent of the population living in urban areas. There are countless cultural, environmental and economic impacts of this shift.

Hamilton’s passion for rural communities goes back to her childhood growing up in rural North Wales. The countryside of her youth is also responsible for her move to the Comox Valley.

“I came to Canada in ’89 and lived in Vancouver, where I was marketing director of the Vancouver Sun and publisher of BC Woman Magazine. When the time came to have children I knew I wanted to raise them in a rural community so in ’94 I moved to Pender Island and set up a business and marketing consulting company. Pender was a great place to live and raise kids, but as they got older we didn’t want them going off to school on the boat each day.

“I was raised with the beach in front of me and the mountains behind me, and I wanted this for my kids. My husband’s one requirement was that he wouldn’t have to shovel snow. It was clear we had one option—we had to go to the Comox Valley,” she explains. She moved to the Valley in August, 2008, and has continued to run her consultancy while getting to know her new home.

Along the way she developed an interest in a new(ish) field called social enterprise, which she defines as “a mission-driven business model that seeks to blend—and create—social and financial value by trading for the common good.” She has become a sought-after speaker, teacher and consultant in this area. She’s currently in the final stages of completing an MBA in Social Enterprise Leadership at the University of Fredericton. This is Canada’s first Social Enterprise MBA program and Hamilton is poised to be its very first graduate.

Another focus in her consultancy work is a connection to the Olympics. She has helped a number of former Olympians transition from sports into business and non-profit work, and was the business manager for John Furlong, CEO of the Vancouver Olympic Committee.

The genesis of FEED Comox Valley could be traced to one particular experience with the Vancouver Olympic Committee—her encounter with something called social procurement, also known as social impact purchasing, which, she says, was a “life-changing discovery.”

Social procurement, she explains, means that our institutions consider social impacts as they decide how they purchase goods and services.

“It doesn’t sound life-changing, but it really was!” she says, laughing. “It’s a powerful concept. Shouldn’t our tax dollar have a greater social responsibility than a private dollar? Shouldn’t it have to work harder? If it can do more than provide goods and services—if it can also provide a social good—it should.

“The very first social procurement contract I heard about was for the Olympic bouquets. A Request for Proposals was issued and the bids were evaluated on price, quality and community benefit. The woman who won the bid did so because she was an experienced florist who could meet the requirements beautifully, but also because she would train and employ women from the Downtown Eastside to put the bouquets together.

“I saw that we can change a few words in a contract and change lives,” says Hamilton.

Social Procurement knowledge spread from the Vancouver Olympic Games to the next Commonwealth Games. Scotland further advanced the practice by making it law. In January, 2013, the United Kingdom passed a similar law, and the idea kept spreading: in February 2014, the European Parliament passed a directive stating that by the end of 2016, every country in the EU must have a law in place to ensure that anyone spending tax money must always consider ways to add social value through the procurement process.

Hamilton has been following all this closely and has become an advocate for social procurement. As well as initiating the FEED initiative, she is also talking up the idea to local governments.

“I’ve been working with the Village of Cumberland, which just passed a social framework that I wrote for them. On September 24, I’ll be speaking to municipal government representatives from all over BC at the Union of BC Municipalities Convention in Vancouver. I’ll be there with the Village of Cumberland and the City of Vancouver, which just passed their Healthy Cities for All Strategy which includes social procurement. This tells us that social procurement is important for small communities and big cities alike,” says Hamilton.

Hamilton will be speaking locally about social procurement and social enterprise at an upcoming event called Localizing Prosperity, taking place September 28 and 29 in the Comox Valley. The event, co-hosted by #WeAreYQQ and The Comox Valley Chamber of Commerce, aims to engage the Valley’s entrepreneurs, community leaders, decision-makers and thought leaders in developing new approaches to local economic development, and to help advance and connect community interest projects.

Hamilton, alongside social venture innovator Joel Solomon, will be helping lead a three-hour design lab which will use FEED Comox Valley as a case study to inspire participants to create an action plan for local prosperity in their communities.

“How we spend and how we invest our money matters. It shapes our economy, which shapes our community,” says Hamilton. “This event will be a chance to ask ourselves, how can we be more conscious about how we buy and invest? That’s a good question.

“Change starts with asking good questions,” she concludes. And she should know—look what happened when she asked one simple question about a potato.

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For details about the Localizing Prosperity event in the Comox Valley at the end of September visit