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Archive for March, 2014

Sunday Snapshot: Winter Wonder

butterfly

Butterfly, Montreal Botanical Gardens

With another few inches of fresh snow falling last night, I could have gone with a ‘shades of white’ photo today. I opted instead for something a little brighter, this butterfly shot, which was taken at the beginning of March in the Montreal Botanical Gardens greenhouse.

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seeds

Yesterday was a quiet day, and I decided I would get my tomato seeds started. I’m not a devoted vegetable gardener, and for the most part, I just direct sow seeds in the garden in the spring, or else purchase started plants at local nurseries. There is usually a good selection available once garden season begins.

Tomatoes are the exception. I like to experiment with unusual or heirloom varieties and therefore start my own tomato seeds. I purchased some at my local Seedy Saturday event, and others I ordered from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. I’ve never ordered from Baker Creek before and thought I’d give them a try this year. They put out an impressive catalogue.

My little seedlings do tend to get more leggy than plants you can purchase at a nursery, but I just plant the stems a little deeper, or in a shallow trough, and they’ve always done okay. This year, I have 8 varieties, representing an assortment of colours from purple to green to orange. Here’s my list:

Green Giant
Kellogg’s Breakfast
Nebraska Wedding
Blue Beauty
Captain Lucky
Pink Brandywine
Cherokee Purple
Ozark Sunrise

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change1

Even though we still have a deep snow cover, and the thermometer reads minus 10 C this morning, Spring is slowly, quietly creeping in. If you stand in a protected spot, out of the wind, the greater warmth of the sun is striking. Even on cold days, puddles form where the sun heats the ground. And the morning chorus is changing.

All winter long, when I step out the door to top up the bird feeders each morning, I am greeted by a raucous cacophony of Blue Jay voices. A few birds seem to watch for me, and upon my entrance, bird seed in hand, they send up a cry that brings a rush of blue as the belligerent diners assemble, each one anxious to be among the first to snatch up the prized peanuts.

change2

But now the jays are quieter, less aggressive, hanging back. In the treetops, a flock of goldfinches assemble each morning. As they preen their feathers, they gossip amongst themselves with cheerful chatter. Their bright conversation is punctuated with an occasional chuck from a Red-winged Blackbird, and this morning I heard a robin call.

When I look at the photograph of the individual below, I think perhaps I can detect a touch of bright yellow just beginning to brighten his face. As winter fades, the goldfinches replace their subdued bronze feathercoat with the iconic brilliant yellow of summer American Goldfinches.

change3

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tracks1

On Saturday, it snowed heavily all morning and another few inches of fresh snow cover accumulated. Sunday dawned bright, sunny and cold. In the morning, we took Pookie out for a walk on the road along the river, and these marks in the fresh snow caught my eye. They exited the culvert and continued down the river in a series of dots and dashes: the tracks of a river otter!

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The dots are the otter’s footprints as it pushes off and inscribes a dash as it coasts along on its belly. It looks like fun! Judging from a distance, the belly dash looks about a foot wide, and about 6 to 8 feet long.

tracks2

This is the first evidence I’ve seen of a river otter on our little section of creek. I was a bit surprised to find it because this is quite an agriculturally intensive area, with plenty of big corn fields emptying their load of fertilizers and pesticides into the river.

I followed these tracks until they disappeared over a stretch of ice. I found a second trail in one of the corn field drainage ditches.

For some cool photographs of otters and more information about these interesting critters, see Seabrooke’s blog, The Marvelous in Nature at L’Otter Fun, linked here.

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spring

Spring on Hold

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Big Oil and the Federal Government would have you believe that Canada’s greatest resource is bitumen. It’s not. Canada’s greatest, most spectacular, irreplaceable resource is fresh water. Life depends on water. And Canada is blessed with approximately 25 percent of the world’s wetlands. Wetlands are fabulous ecosystems, brimming with an amazing diversity of life. In fact, wetlands are as productive as rainforests and coral reefs. And wetlands filter and purify the water we all depend on.

But Canadians have not been good stewards. Seventy percent of Ontario’s wetlands have been drained. Sixty-five percent of Atlantic Canada’s coastal marshes are gone. Seventy-one percent of prairie wetlands have been lost. Eighty percent of the Fraser River delta has been developed. Canada is losing its most vital ecosystems.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada works to preserve some of Canada’s most threatened wetlands. You can read more about their work at the Campbell River Estuary, BC; the Minesing Wetlands, ON; Tabusintac Estuary, NB; and Musquash Estuary, NB by following this link to their website. On this, World Water Day, please consider making a donation to the Nature Conservancy of Canada at www.natureconservancy.ca. Help save Canada’s wetlands.

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snow

Spring arrived today with the vernal equinox, officially March 20, 2014 at 12:57 PM in Ottawa. The first spring day was gray and overcast, and the landscape is still decidedly white. The temperature hovered around 0 Celsius, but a bitingly cold wind left no doubt that we will have to wait a bit longer for soft spring zephyrs.

I hadn’t seen another Red-winged Blackbird since my first sighting on the 15th, but this morning I heard several giving their chuck call in the treetops. Still no oak-a-lees. And then, this afternoon, as if they had been reading the calendar too, I spotted three robins.

robin

Robins can occasionally be seen in cities or suburbia throughout the winter, but it would be unusual to spot one in our rural neighbourhood. They usually return a few days to a week after the first Red-winged Blackbirds.

These three were hanging out in the hedgerow beside the river, and may have been attracted by the buckthorn berries still available there.

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The wind was so cold, I felt a little sorry for them, but they didn’t seem bothered. And in spite of the wind, puddles of melt water had formed on the surface of the river. Maybe warmer days really are ahead.

river

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Senator Hugh Segal on fighting poverty in Canada, a TVOBigIdeas video:

In a lecture entitled “Fighting Poverty”, Senator Hugh Segal explains why we need a new national approach to tackling poverty arguing that the costs and consequences of poverty are much larger than direct spending on social programs. Segal has been a long-time proponent of establishing a Guaranteed Annual Income. This lecture was produced in collaboration with the Literary Review of Canada.

A short answer to hunger and the need for food banks is to increase government support payments for food. In The Stop, author Nick Saul suggests providing social assistance recipients with a food allowance of several hundred dollars a month. But a food supplement doesn’t get at the root cause of hunger. Although poverty may have many faces, the basic cause is not hard to understand: too little money.

The simplest solution to poverty is to give the poorest members of society more money, top up their incomes to a minimum living standard. In short, institute a Guaranteed Annual Income.

Suggesting such a plan in polite company generally provokes a few predictable reactions:

But that’s a communist/socialist/fascist/bleedingheartliberal/etc idea! We can’t do that!

Actually, it is not. The idea of a Guaranteed Annual Income has been around since the 1970s. It has proponents across the political spectrum. These have included economist Milton Friedman, Winston Churchill and Richard Nixon. In a 1968 speech, Progressive Conservative Party Leader Robert Stanfield stated that he would consider a Guaranteed Annual Income.

A Guaranteed Annual Income is a good fit with avowed Conservative goals. A GAI reduces government bureaucracy. A GAI is tough on crime, as the poor are disproportionately represented in prisons. And a GAI reduces strain on the health care system. And raising the income of our poorest citizens allows them to participate as consumers in the market economy beloved by Conservatives.

But why should hard-working tax-payers look after people who don’t work?

We’re already paying a heavy price for poverty. In fact, poverty is hugely expensive. There is a major network of programs designed to address poverty and its implications, from welfare programs to those designed to reduce school dropout rates, curb substance abuse, provide safe houses for victims of family violence, divert young people who have run-ins with the law, subsidise housing, and more. Poverty is closely linked to poor health and an increased incidence of chronic disease, which in turn strains health care resources. And none of these programs end poverty. When you get right down to it, we really can’t afford poverty.

But people would just sit around drinking beer and watching TV all day!

This speaks to the stereotype of poor people as lazy and undeserving and child-like, with no facility for handling their own money or making life decisions. In fact, evidence suggests that the working poor continue to work and improve their lives when their income is supplemented.

From 1974 to 1978, the town of Dauphin, Manitoba was the site of an experiment called Mincome. Over those years, every family in the rural town was eligible to participate. After this period, the program was discontinued and the data that had been collected was filed away as new governments with new priorities let the experiment lapse. The data languished until a University of Winnipeg professor in the department of Community Health Sciences, Evelyn Forget, set about examining the results of the study. Forget concludes in a paper linked here:

We see a larger impact of a GAI on Dauphin than expected, because even though not all families qualified for a supplement, the impacts of the GAI extended beyond qualifying families. This is due to social interaction: changes in behaviour of those who receive the supplement influence those who do not, reinforcing the direct effects of the GAI. A good example of this effect is the influence of grade 11 students on their peers to continue education.

The most suggestive result of this study is the fall of hospitalization rates by 8.5 percent in Dauphin relative to the comparison group, specifically, a reduction in hospitalization rates for accidents, injuries, and mental health problems. Considering that in 2010, Canada spent $55 billion on hospital costs–8.5 percent of which is about $4.6 billion– these potentially immense savings make a GAI worthy of policy consideration.

Below is a youtube link to a CBC interview with Evelyn Forget. A transcript of the interview is available here.

A Guaranteed Annual Income offers the potential to allow a diverse range of human endeavours to bloom and enrich society, from starving artists and struggling writers to creative entrepreneurs. These days, not only artists are at risk. As Harper Conservatives close down environmental protection and scientific research, intrepid scientists and naturalists are cast adrift to fill the void just when the need to study the effects of climate change and biodiversity loss is escalating.

There is no more eloquent speaker on behalf of a Guaranteed Annual Income than Senator Hugh Segal. This hour long presentation is well worth listening to in full. Segal addresses the Mincome experiment at the 14 minute mark.

For decades, neoliberal policies have promoted a ‘trickle down’ approach to government budgeting. It’s time to turn neoliberal politics on its head and employ a ‘bottom up’ strategy to end poverty in Canada.

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foodbank

These days, there’s scarcely a retail store you can enter without being confronted with a collection bin for a local food bank. Even the LCBO has one! (The liquor store. Are they hoping for donations of beer? The poor could probably use one.) And every time I see a collection bin, I wince. It’s embarrassing. I feel so ashamed of us Canadians. Here we are, one of the most fortunate of nations, and yet we expect our poorest citizens to beg for food from strangers.

The biggest problem with food banks is that they simply can’t meet the needs of the hungry. Many food banks are so overwhelmed that they must limit households to one hamper per month. The supplies they are able to provide do not insure users will have nutritious diets. Food banks can only supply what is donated, often canned and boxed goods, with few fresh items.

Further, food banks only reach a minority of those in need. A survey by Human Resources Development Canada showed that only one in four “hungry” Canadians used food banks. Others would rather go hungry than accept charity, or they choose to leave what is available for those who they believe ‘really’ need it. See It’s Time to Close Canada’s Foodbanks by Elaine Power)

Beyond feeding the hungry, food banks serve less conspicuous functions. Food banks unintentionally divide citizens into ‘Haves’, those who make donations, volunteer or participate in food drives, who can feel good about helping out, and the ‘Have Nots’, who may be demoralized at having to accept handouts. This reinforces an old charitable model, where one group of privileged people helps the underprivileged, perpetuating an us-and-them atmosphere.

Food banks are good for corporations, especially food corporations, who may use food banks to offload edible food they can’t sell while advertising themselves as caring businesses. Grocery stores invite shoppers to buy extra supplies to donate in their collection bins. Some even offer pre-packaged bundles you can purchase for donation. Corporations may thus be content with the status quo.

In providing a band-aid solution, food banks allow governments to sidestep their obligation to look after the well-being and security of all citizens. The failure of governments to deal with poverty has been a growing problem in Canada, with income inequality, the gap between the rich and the poor, increasing every year.

In Ontario, 375,814 people were assisted by a food bank in March of 2013. Of those 35% were children. That compares to 314,258 in March of 2008, an increase of 19.6%. This is not a problem that is going away. (Numbers from Food Banks Canada’s report Hunger Count 2013, linked here.

No one wants people to go hungry. That’s what prompted the establishment of food banks in the first place. But they were only ever intended as a strategy to hold things together until better solutions were found. Now here we are, decades later, and things haven’t improved. Food banks represent our failure as a just society. It’s time for governments to start tackling the real issue behind food banks: poverty.

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thestop

The Stop: How the fight for good food transformed a community and inspired a movement by Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis. Random House Canada 2013.

When Nick Saul was hired in 1998 as the new executive director of The Stop, a food bank in Toronto’s low-income neighbourhood of Davenport West, the organization was in trouble. He settled into a tiny office in the cramped, run-down space alloted to The Stop on the ground-floor of the Symington Place public housing building. A single staffer and a handful of dedicated but tired volunteers were barely keeping The Stop afloat. A decade later, in 2009, the transformed Stop opened a satellite location called the Green Barn. It was visited by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who declared The Stop to be “Toronto’s food mecca”. This success story didn’t happen overnight, and in The Stop, Saul relates the sometimes rocky road that led from his early days at a struggling food bank to a new community food model.

Food banks are a relatively recent phenomenon. They were originally developed in Arizona in the 1980s. Food Banks were designed to be a temporary measure to help people during a 1980s economic recession. But they have become a permanent fixture in communities all across North America. The first official food bank in Canada was opened in Edmonton in 1981, where incoming people looking for work in the oil fields were sometimes left unemployed and hungry.

In Ontario, hunger took an upswing with the Mike Harris government’s “Common Sense Revolution” (1995-2002), which, with a lot of rhetoric about lazy poor people, set about slashing and burning the social welfare system, chopping welfare rates by 21.6 percern and cancelling new affordable housing projects.

The Davenport neighbourhood, long an area settled by new immigrants, was once known for its factories, including General Electric, American Standard and a baked goods plant. But as the factories shut down, many people in the area struggled to find stable employment. With most of the factory jobs gone, the jobs that remain are often poorly paid service sector positions. Residents, already struggling, were hard-hit by the government’s common sense.

Food banks can never be more than a stop-gap measure. Saul began moving The Stop away from the old charitable model to one that sought to bring dignity and support to needy area residents through an integrated systems approach. A first step began in that spring of 1998, when a local parks supervisor proposed using an overgrown bocce court in a local park for a vegetable plot. That fall, the food bank was enriched by a truckload of fresh garden produce. The garden didn’t just produce food. It inspired community interest and the participation of local citizens.

Gradually, The Stop became a centre for programs that helped expectant and new moms make healthy food choices, brought people together over shared meals, taught singles how to prepare nutritional food, and introduced children to the fun of cooking. At The Stop, people can find help with dealing with government bureaucracies or other issues.

In another innovative, mutually helpful program, The Stop forged bonds with The New Farm, a family-run organic acreage near Creemore, Ontario. The Stop is now The New Farm’s single biggest customer, supporting local, sustainable food production while providing top-quality food to the centre.

You can get a better idea of the vitality of The Stop by visiting the website: http://www.thestop.org/ As The Stop has grown, so has its budget. In 1998, the budget was $250,000. Today it is around $4.5 million, no small enterprise.

IN 2011, The Stop model expanded to two new locations. The first of two pilot projects was launched in Perth, Ontario, where it is named The Table Community Food Centre, linked here. A second was started in Stratford, Ontario. Both are very different communities than Davenport West, and face different challenges, such as providing food programming for seniors and serving a wider rural community.

After nearly fifteen years at The Stop, Nick Saul has moved on to developing Community Food Centres on a national scale. In 2014, Community Food Centres Canada, linked here, plans to open new centres in Winnipeg and Dartmouth, NS and another in Toronto.

In this book, Saul not only tells the story of The Stop, but provides plenty of food for thought on food issues and poverty. His story is enlivened by the introduction of some of the many people his work has brought him in contact with at The Stop, and he takes us with him as he travels to Brazil for conferences, farm fundraisers, TTC barns and much more. For anyone with an interest in community and the future of food, The Stop is a great read.

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