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One big idea: make fresh food free for the picking

Free food!

That's the One Big Idea of Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon, authors of The 100-Mile Diet - A Year of Local Eating, the noted 2007 book about the couple's adventures trying to sustain themselves on food grown within the titular distance of their Vancouver apartment.

The couple says there could be a bounty within Vancouver's cityscape and is advocating that the city aggressively grow fruit trees for anyone to harvest and mandate garden space in new condominium buildings. And that's just the beginning of their revolutionary plan to make fresh food a routine for Vancouverites.

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Is the point of this to feed hungry people or change attitudes about nature?

MacKinnon: The main point is to re-create a connection between ourselves and the natural world. Too many of us have this idea that food is something that comes from a store. This would reconnect us to the idea that food comes from a living world. It would also have the benefit of being an option if you didn't have a lot of money. You'd be able to supplement your ordinary diet by going out and actually harvesting food in the city. Right now, a big problem for people at the lowest end of the income scale is food that's available to them at that price is some of the worst food you could possibly eat.

Smith: The food would definitely be better quality because it would be so fresh. That's important - for low-income people to have access to fresh food, not just the kind of canned food more typical at a food bank. A food bank has a charitable feeling not everyone feels good about if they have to use that service whereas if you're the one taking the initiative and picking the food yourself, I think that would help restore people's sense of self-esteem, especially if it was normalized so that everyone was doing it.

You mentioned two small experiments to test this idea - fruit trees and mandated gardens at condos. Are they the two ideas most within reach?

MacKinnon: There are all kinds of other smaller-scale ones. A friend of mine and I went on to Craigslist and asked if anybody had fruit trees they just weren't using. We were contacted by somebody who had a plum tree. We went out and we harvested all the plums we could take. We didn't have to pay anything. Then we canned those plums and turned them into jam. And that was all the jam we needed for two households for more than a year. That, to me, was indicative of the kind of power this has.

There's a possibility of those sorts of things - networks that connect people who have fruit they're not using to people who might want to use it, community canning kitchens, all of these sorts of things are possible. For me, one that's really interesting would be looking at how do we rebuild the seashore and the bays and harbours around Vancouver to such an extent that people are able to eat from them again.

You mean so they could fish?

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MacKinnon: Or harvest clams, eat oysters, eat mussels or things like that. If we look at the history of Vancouver, this city was built on what were once teeming waters and, to me, that's the biggest this idea can go.

How would free fruit trees work in Vancouver?

MacKinnon: You would have neighbourhoods really rich in fruit in such a way that you would be able to walk down the street in various seasons and harvest the fruit you want. It would be straight, simple hunter-gatherer activity in the city. We already see that, to some extent, with blackberries. There's a subculture in Vancouver absolutely dedicated to blackberry picking. You could see that expanding to all the other kinds of fruit available in the city if it were not only planted and available but part of the public consciousness.

We gave a talk in Vancouver not too long ago and one guy was telling us about the things he had found in the city - kiwi fruit and walnuts. I've seen cherries and pears and Pacific crab apples. For the most part those things go to waste because they're not on the radar.

What would city hall have to do to make this kind of free food possibility you're describing happen?

Smith: There would need to be classes to teach people some of the more unusual wild foods and when and how to harvest them. Right now, most of us barely even know how to plant a carrot let alone what a nettle looks like and when you can eat it.

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What would Vancouver be like after free food has been built into the landscape?

Smith: If it had been embraced in a truly utopian fashion, people might get afternoons off work on certain days when certain kinds of food are [available]so they don't miss them, and have time to [harvest]them during daylight. Right now, people could look at a brushy area and - if it's in a somewhat wild state - have no idea there was food in there. There would have to be a lot of classes to educate people and if it got really heated, you would have to put in a permit system just to make sure people didn't overexploit the landscape. If you lived in a certain neighbourhood, it would be like a parking permit that you could gather food in your neighbourhood, but maybe not other neighbourhoods.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Vancouver mayor gives a green-thumb's up

Mayor Gregor Robertson says he supports the idea of accessible city-planted produce and it's one of the measures in his plan to have Vancouver become the greenest city in the world by 2020.

"We're lucky to live in a city where apples, plums, raspberries, blueberries and veggies can thrive in our parks, schools, boulevards and backyards. It makes good sense to expand local food production to strengthen food security and awareness," Mr. Robertson said, responding to this week's One Big Idea proposal in The Globe and Mail.

He said that one of the pieces of the "Greenest City" initiative is to plant food-producing plants and trees throughout Vancouver.

"We're experiencing a renaissance for local food - from the rapid expansion of farmers' markets to the long waiting lists for new community gardens. Edible landscaping is another tasty opportunity for boosting community health."

There have been a few efforts so far. Last month, for example, 25 fruit trees were planted in Falaise Park.

Although the city is a long way from the possibilities outlined by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, there are measures in place to help residents generate their own food, including more than 2,200 community garden plots and policies, adopted earlier this year, to allow residents to keep up to four chickens in their backyard for eggs.

One big series

The Globe has been gathering Big Ideas, bold concepts to make Vancouver

a better city. The series concludes Monday:

1. Demolish the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts and allow development that reconnects Chinatown with Strathcona

-Professor Anthony Perl, director of the urban studies program at Simon Fraser University

2. Deal with drug-related disorder at the city's most troubled intersection, Main and Hastings, by making illicit drugs available to anyone who wants them under controlled, safe conditions

-Sci-fi author Spider Robinson

3. Take death out of hospitals and bring it back to the community by creating at least four neighbourhood hospices across Vancouver

-Gay Klietzke, executive director of the Vancouver Hospice Society

4. Have Vancouver secede from the province of British Columbia and become a city state

-Chris Haddock, creator of the TV series Da Vinci's Inquest, Da Vinci's City Hall and Intelligence

5. Ensure all government capital-spending projects are looked at from a business perspective

-Former NDP premier Glen Clark

6. Establish a city-run website that connects people in need - enabling them to barter favours and services

-Meeru Dhalwala, co-owner of Vancouver's internationally acclaimed restaurant, Vij's

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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