Food Desert in Bloom

Food Insecurity Meets Self-Sufficiency

Mulgrave Park didn’t stand back and submit when its only local grocery store turned into an NSLC storefront a few years ago. It built garden beds and started growing fresh vegetables, and it hopes to also profit from the produce of a mobile market this spring.

“The most amazing thing is to see the young kids around here walking with a cucumber in their hand,” said Crystal John, the executive director of the Mulgrave Park Caring and Learning Centre, and a lifelong resident of the community. She has plans to expand the community garden and high hopes for the mobile market. “A snack is a cucumber, or a couple of beans out of the garden. That makes a difference nutritionally. That’s money their parents don’t spend on packaged snacks; it eliminates their having to spend money on vegetables that are sometimes the most expensive.”

This ever-resilient residential neighbourhood—also a public housing community of over 250 families, or about 700 people—is in the North End of Halifax, in what’s known as a food desert: an urban area where it is difficult to buy affordable and healthy fresh food.

“To get to the closest grocery store you’re climbing up a very steep hill with no direct bus route from a community where most people can’t really afford, or don’t really have, cars, and even if they do, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have money to do giant grocery trips all the time,” said Paige Farah, the executive director of Communities in Progress Association. She leads Progress in the Park, a community development initiative seeking to empower Mulgrave Park’s residents through entrepreneurial action inspiring inclusiveness and challenging stigma. “To walk a half hour to the nearest grocery store in a city just for fresh produce seems a little ridiculous.”

The largely marginalized community currently faces two options for those without their own set of wheels to find fresh produce on a year-round basis: to take one bus the length of the city to the Barrington Street Superstore, or to take two buses and walk to one of the franchise’s other locations found on the corner of Young and Windsor Streets. Typically, those who do the latter taxi home, spending precious dollars that could have stocked more cupboard shelves.

Food Deserts

“The food desert issue impacts people the most if they’re not able, either economically or physically, to actually get themselves to a place where food is provided,” said Erica Fraser, the community facilitator for the North End Community Circle, who cites correlations between people living in food deserts and having higher rates of diet related diseases, such as obesity or diabetes. However, the health impacts don’t stop here. “There are so many mental illnesses that are related to micronutrient deficiencies. It just so happens that we get a lot of these micronutrients from fresh vegetables,” she said.

Food security, defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, is something that exists when, “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” Household food insecurity is an issue a growing number of Canadians face as the cost of food rises.

A report called “Household Food Insecurity in Canada, 2013,” states, “The majority of food insecure households (61.1%) were reliant on wages or salaries from employment.” Aimee Carson, the EAC’s senior community food coordinator, suggests precarious or low-wage employment is a factor contributing to this statistic.

The community has its own food bank, run voluntarily by its tenants’ association, that is open on Saturday mornings from 10:00 am until noon. “It is always full. We serve 20 to 30 people every week,” said John, who describes a long line up. To combat these food security issues, this North End community has taken a holistic approach. It has turned to capacity building and creating more sustainable methods of self-sufficiency. The geographic area now has close to 60 garden beds—13 of which belong to Mulgrave Park.

Farah, a former resident near the area, established these plots as an initiative of her association. She, along with volunteers, take on development tasks the neighbourhood’s organizations wanted— such as gardens, or a playground—but were unable to build because of their set mandates. Three of these garden beds are specifically for Farah’s programs. She offers food literacy and engagement opportunities, including community dinners or potlucks and cooking programs for youth that entail everything from harvesting the vegetables to eating the final product and eventually taking these recipes home. “It’s not just about putting food on people’s doorsteps and saying, ‘Here you go, you can eat now.’ It’s about creating a culture around the system of getting that food and using it,” she said.

Mobile Food Market

The area is also to be a host of the Halifax Mobile Market: a new pilot project where a public transit bus will travel to the particularly food insecure places of Fairview, North-End Halifax, East Preston, North Preston, and Spryfield. It will have previously purchased fresh produce to be sold at prices similar to those of discountedgrocery stores. The bus will visit each region on a bi-weekly basis, stopping at three locations each Saturday, over a period of 21 weeks. The project’s organizers include Partners for Care, Public Health, the Office of the Mayor, the EAC, Halifax Transit, and other local organizations and businesses, but it will rely on host teams within each community to support the roll out of the market.

“Any kind of project is going to be more successful if it comes from the community rather than being brought to the community from the outside. That’s something we’re really going to be working toward addressing with the mobile market,” said Fraser, who hopes to work with the local teams to ensure a welcoming and familiar environment is provided.

Farah is confident the mobile market will work, where other social enterprise food related businesses have failed, because of its flexible model. “By taking away the full pressure of maintaining a full business—having a continuous influx of customers coming and going and having to really brand yourself as a business constantly offering something,” she said. She is keen to build a relationship with the mobile market so excess garden produce may be sold through the market’s operations during the summer months.

It’s set to launch in early May. An evaluation will follow its duration, and the hope is some iteration of the market will be sustained over time. “When I was growing up here in this community, we had a fish man who came in with local fish, fresh vegetables, and fruits. He would come in and say ‘fresh fish, fresh mackerel,’ and people would just come and buy right off his truck,” said John, detailing some nostalgia of simpler times requiring fewer legal restrictions and the notion that this idea is not entirely novel.

“The more self-sufficient the communities are, the more they’ll realize, ‘Oh, I don’t have to use the resources out there that are increasingly increasing in price,’” said John, who hopes residents learn to turn tomatoes to sauce for winter and wishes to install a small green house somewhere to grow food year round. “I think that’s the key to helping people. I just don’t understand why we’ve changed so much, I mean, when I grew up, my grandparents grew everything—they hardly went to the grocery store.”

As originally published in Ecology&Action Spring 2016 

Ballroom dance beneficial for those with neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease

Rob McLaren swayed from side to side as several rows of people all switched their weight from one foot to the other, a simple activity to the unknowing eye.

For these individuals, this was a difficult task.

And though McLaren stands tall at 6 1/2 feet, he can no longer reach his full height without actively persuading his spine to stay straight.

He was attending the Power of Dance, a Parkinson Society Maritime Region education and awareness event in Dartmouth last spring. He was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease 2 1/2 years ago and has used movement to keep up his quality of life.

“For a while there, I couldn’t lift either arm above shoulder height,” said McLaren, whose original symptoms involved a slow deterioration of his usually active lifestyle, as he could no longer do daily tasks the same way.

“It wasn’t a matter of strength, more just immobility.”

His wife had been taking Pilates classes at Interlude Mind Body Fitness in Dartmouth, and he began taking private lessons with Kim Kraushar, one of the business’s owners and instructors, to help improve his range of mobility.

The classes worked, and Kraushar was inspired to extend this particular service.

“We’re offering a special program to people with movement disorder,” said Kraushar, who teaches conscious walking and helps patients improve at everyday things like getting in and out of chairs or bed with ease, control and confidence.

“It’s the people that walk through my door, for me they are my teachers. If they have different challenges, I’ll strategize with them and then I’ll research what it is that their needs are and develop the programs really organically.”

Another benefit from this physical activity is the association with others with a similar condition and the strength that comes from that bond. This was also the idea behind the conference.

“There’s over 6,600 people in the Maritime region that live with Parkinson’s, and at best there’s probably (400) to 500 people that are members of our organization so we’re trying to reach out to a broader audience of people,” said Bob Shaw, CEO of the society.

Eighteen experts, including researchers, physiotherapists, naturopaths, chiropractors and natural nutritionists came out to offer advice.

Though no cure for Parkinson’s has been found, several studies to improve patients’ quality of life are underway.

In the meantime, the option to increase movement and sociability is available through the physical therapy of tango.

Carole Hartzman and her husband, Carl, went round the room, balancing each other’s weight, each body guiding the other in a natural rhythm —forwards then back, turning round all the time. The music slowed to a patient pace as they endearingly shared a gaze, enjoying their embrace.

“I taught Spanish at the university level, and I love Spanish and I love Argentina, and Argentina has this wonderful tango and I used to go to clubs and see it but I never danced it; I never danced tango and never thought I would,” said Hartzman, who has had Parkinson’s for 12 years.

She joined Tea & Tango, a free dance program for ambulatory people with neurological conditions who meet, tango and have tea together, last year.

“I can be walking very slowly, I can be stumbling, there can be all kinds of problems rolling around, and as soon as that music is put on I can dance tango. It’s like you just move into it and everything else falls away. That other movement that you don’t want just goes away.”

Martina Sommer and her husband, Lorne Buick, started the program in 2013, after Sommer’s father phoned to share the news that the dance form that brought the couple together also offered therapeutic benefits to those with his illness.

“I felt all along there’s something to tango because of the embrace; it’s very gentle and it’s improvised and the music is very emotional and so it has all these different channels of reaching your brain and reaching your health; it’s very holistic,” said Sommer.

It’s thought that the influence of the music and dancing with a partner uses a different pathway in the brain, bypassing the damaged part.

“The main features or symptoms of Parkinson’s are either stopping in place or a tremor, so we found that both of those disappear when people are dancing,” said Buick.

At the moment, movement may just be the best medicine.

As originally published in The Chronicle Herald

Whither Canadian documentary films?

Funding cuts, industry changes leave doc makers fearful

By Kelsey Power


John Walker has made a career in documentary filmmaking for the past 38 years. In his Halifax office, he contemplates whether he will be able to continue to do so. (Photo: Kelsey Power)

A young boy with a mop of brown hair sits at a dining room table. On the table’s wooden surface, attracting his stare, rests a heavy stone object: a carving of an Inuk and a polar bear intertwined in a violent embrace.

The art ignited the boy’s imagination.

“I was inspired by art and culture to go north,” says John Walker. “If that piece of carving hadn’t landed on my dining room table would I have gone north? I’m sure I wouldn’t have.”

Walker, a Canadian documentary filmmaker, has worked in the industry for 38 years. This scene is from his latest feature-length film Arctic Defenders, which premiered at the Atlantic Film Festival in September 2013.

Addressing arctic sovereignty issues, the film aims to defend and conserve Inuit culture. Ironically, the documentary form itself – another integral part of Canadian culture – also needs defending. Documentary is struggling to survive.

The growth of the Internet and its global reach has set a time bomb for television. One way this can be seen is in the decline of the traditional documentary.

Documentary filmmakers in Canada face a turbulent time, as funding from television broadcasters continues to decrease. Currently, television broadcasters trigger documentary productions in Canada. All filmmakers need a broadcast licence fee from a broadcast distributor in order for their films to find funding from the private and public sector. Without the licence – or personal wealth – an idea can’t be brought to life.

These fees are steadily decreasing as fewer broadcasters have slots to host documentaries. This is partially the result of consolidation in the sector and a reliance on reality television’s more popular ratings. Trying to integrate itself onto the Internet is a transition for an industry reliant on its television roots.

“Right now, every film I make, I think it might be my last, and that’s the way I operate,” says Walker from his home office in Halifax. Awards and posters from past productions line its walls. “We’re facing the extinction of the feature-length documentary.”

Funding for documentary production decreased by more than $105 million (21 per cent) from 2008 to 2011, according to studies from the Documentary Organization of Canada’s (DOC) June 2013 report Getting Real: An Economic Profile of the Canadian Documentary Production Industry. The projection for feature length films is worse. Over a three-year period, the genre faced an 83 per cent decline in production volume after a loss of $19 million in funding.

“(Documentary) has a bleak future on our television screens,” says Lisa Fitzgibbons, the executive director of the DOC and the commissioner of the report. “The financing is extremely difficult to cobble together, and my view is that something’s got to give.”

Currently 98 per cent of all English-language documentary production, and 87 per cent of all French, is produced for television.

“We have a financing system that speaks to a different era, because it’s predicated on a broadcaster,” says Fitzgibbons. “People are consuming content in so many different ways now that we have to readjust how we fund content in light of how people are consuming it.”

By looking at festival attendance numbers, it’s clear Canadians are still avidly interested in documentary. Toronto’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival is the largest of its kind in North America. It is continually coming up with record audiences. In the spring of 2013, it had 180,000 attendees – 15,000 more than the previous year. In 2012, the Montreal International Documentary Festival increased its audience by 33 per cent, doubling its number of paid admissions from the year before.

“There’s sort of a disconnect between our financing system and audience demand,” says Fitzgibbons. “Our financing system is currently based on the broadcast model, and audiences outside of the broadcast model are thirsting for documentary.”

This divide could be seen when waiting in the rush ticket line for Jennifer Baichwal’s newest work Watermark, also part of the Atlantic Film Festival.

At 10:15 p.m. on a Tuesday night, a lineup of dehydrated fans sat, or stood, outside the admission area, hoping they could still get a ticket to see Baichwal’s film on the big screen.

Known for expertly composed cinematography ­­– by her husband and partner Nick de Pencier – this film is comprised of stunning aerial shots and an alluring essay concerning how we affect and are affected by water from all over the world. The production cost $1.7 million, and not a cent was financed through the traditional broadcaster model.

Their most expensive production yet is an anomaly, because it was financed mainly by private investors. In co-production with Edward Burtynsky, one of Canada’s best-known photographers, collectors of his work helped fund Watermark. This type of funding is one that traditional documentary filmmakers may consider in the future.

Though this method may have helped them make this film, the filmmakers themselves are still struggling financially.


“You’re no longer just a filmmaker, you are now somebody who has to be a community builder.”

– Velcrow Ripper, Canadian filmmaker

“It’s always an ‘Is there a cheque in the mail?’ sort of situation,” says Baichwal from her home in Toronto. “The reason we’re able to do these films is because Nick goes out and is sought after as a cinematographer on other projects. We can’t afford to live on what we make from the films that we do together.”

Regardless of the financial pressure, Baichwal will pursue her passion. “For me, documentary is a vocation,” she says. “I found the thing that I feel really engaged by.”

Engaging an audience and stimulating conversation is one of the ways documentary adds to Canadian democracy. John Grierson conceived the genre in the 1930s when asked to interpret Canada to Canadians and other nations. The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) was born, with Grierson in charge. Documentaries of that time were purely propagandistic, aimed at fighting fascism.

The NFB, a public film and media producer, is still financed by Parliament and still producing Canadian content. It’s also suffering from a few punches. In April 2012 the NFB had to eliminate 61 jobs when 10 per cent, $6.7 million, of its budget was cut.

“It makes it harder,” says Michelle van Beusekom, NFB assistant director general of the English program, from her office in Montreal.  Job cuts for the NFB meant offices were closed across the country. Part of the board’s mandate is to tell stories that reflect all of Canada. “The more we’re cut, the harder it becomes to maintain that national structure.”

“We become a little bastion or bubble that is still really committed to documentary filmmaking, but we’re small,” says van Beusekom.

According to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), it is the role of Canadian broadcasters to provide citizens with Canadian content in exchange for having access to the airwaves – an agreement Fitzgibbons currently abhors. “Broadcasters have stepped back from their obligations to provide a wide range of programming for their audiences,” she says.

It hasn’t always been this way.

“Five or six years ago,” says Walker, “you would go to Hot Docs and you would have four or five broadcasters asking you what are you going to do next; competing for your attention. That’s no longer the case,” says Walker.

With a little ingenuity and new communication methods, persistence, patience and passion can still pay off.

After 13 years of trying to finance her film Better Living Through Chemistry, Connie Littlefield of Halifax left for California in October 2013 to begin shooting with Passion Pictures.

“I’m probably the luckiest person in the world,” she says.


Connie Littlefield used crowdfunding to finance her new film. (Photo: Kelsey Power)

When private and public broadcasters weren’t working out, Littlefield decided to turn to people’s pockets, and started a crowdfunding campaign.

Using Kickstarter, the world’s largest crowdfunding platform, Littlefield started a fundraising campaign in 2010. The private, U.S., for-profit website enabled her to get in touch with the people who eventually ended up paying for the film.

Since its inception, Kickstarter has raised more than $100 million U.S. to support the creation of independent films. More than 100 of its funded films have been released in North America. It collects a five per cent fee for successful campaigns. If a campaign doesn’t meet its goal, neither party gets paid.

Velcrow Ripper is another Canadian filmmaker who has gone the creative route of crowdfunding. Real events taking place in Egypt, Spain and New York City could not wait to be captured. Born in B.C. and raised in the Baha’i faith, Ripper’s religious studies and films have taken him around the world. In the fall of 2013, he was in New York working on two productions.

“We had an idea, we wanted to proceed and we didn’t want to wait to get a yes from somebody, so we created our own yes by doing a crowdfunding campaign,” he says.

His film Occupy Love used Indiegogo, another crowdfunding platform, to be financed. Indiegogo allows users to keep the money they raise, regardless of whether they reach their goal. The website keeps four per cent of the proceeds from a successful campaign, and nine per cent from unsuccessful ones that don’t opt to return proceeds to contributors.

“It’s not like you hold out your hat and it fills up with money,” says Ripper. Indiegogo requires users to have social media pages to promote their fundraising efforts. Ripper ensures his Facebook page for Occupy Love stays alive by posting engaging messages for his project’s audience.

“You’re no longer just a filmmaker, you are now somebody who has to be a community builder,” he says.

This is how Mandy Leith sees herself. She believes the documentary industry might need community building to successfully move into the Internet age.

Leith is the creator of Open Cinema. Based in Vancouver, Open Cinema is a non-profit that screens thought-provoking films in café style venues in order to stimulate conversation.

She took a Volkswagen van across Canada in summer 2013 as part of an initiative called Get on the Doc Bus. Her aim was to help figure out a future for Canadian documentary filmmakers, and she was inspired to start a nationwide community cinema network. “Everywhere I went the vast majority of responses involved some understanding of the way in which community building is contributing to their success,” says Leith.

Walker’s Arctic Defenders shares this message. Community can be built in many ways. Inuit culture traditionally explores community through storytelling and songs; neither commodity can be bought or sold.

“Maybe we’re returning to a more tribal root of exchanging culture,” says Walker. “It’s a transition.”

In 1983 Walker was a founding member of DOC, then called the Canadian Independent Film Caucus. “That was the beginning of the realization that documentary was potentially threatened with a lack of funding,” he says. The newly organized group fought back, and convinced broadcasters to create a space for cultural content that could inspire conversation. They won.

“Young Inuit in their twenties wanted to make a change, they wanted to protect their language and culture and maintain control and governance of their territory: Nunavut. They were able to pull off the largest land claim in the history of Western civilization,” says Walker. “They started off with a handful of individuals with a vision… that’s the message (of Arctic Defenders). We have to believe in ourselves, stick together, and have a vision.”

Edit/Layout by Nicole Halloran
Spring 2014

As published in the King’s Journalism Review