Breaking Bread


A little while ago, I started compiling a list of Toronto-based food-related projects and people for a friend going to North America on a professional research visit. Some of them are based, like me at the time, at the Centre for Social Innovation – such as Aruna Handa’s Alimentary Initiatives, who mixes art, food and social interaction in her Future Food Salons to “examine and taste what we may be eating in the future”; others are well-known and liked institutions, at the forefront of education, social justice and community engagement, like 30-year-old foodbank The Stop; others still had just sprung up during my time living in the city: surplus urban fruit harvesters Not Far From the Tree (presented in the video below by founder Laura Reinsborough) or ethical catering company (and B CorporationPaintbox Bistro, which employs and trains residents from Regent’s Park, one of Toronto’ so-called “priority neighbourhoods”.

I recently came across a few new food-sharing initiatives in France and the UK that make a great start for a closer-to-home list – so here they are.


Alimentary Upcycling: The Real Junk Food Project

The Real Junk Food Project is a “global, organic network of pay as you feel cafés (that) divert food destined for waste and use it to create delicious and healthy meals”. The first one opened in Leeds in December 2013 – and there are now about 50 affiliated community-led outlets in the UK, Europe and as far as Australia.

As founder Adam Smith (delivering his TEDx Talk above) puts it, “it’s wasted food, not waste food”.

Here’s a look inside the latest Real Junk Food Café in Manchester, entirely furnished and equipped with donated gods:



Digitally-enabled Local Sharing: OLIO

Like FreeCycle for food! “OLIO is a free app which connects neighbours with each other and with local businesses to exchange their edible surplus food. Think food nearing its sell-by date in local stores, spare vegetables from the allotment, cupcakes from an amateur baker, or the groceries in your fridge when you go away.”

First launched in London’s Crouch End neighbourhood in July 2015, OLIO has already expanded to 6 boroughs in London and is planning to expand its offer to Bristol and other UK cities.

App users can upload items they want to donate or sell (at no more than 50% of the original retail price).

OLIO screen grab

Other users can then contact them to arrange a pick up – either at their home, or at a registered Drop Box location.

The app developers have made sure to include a few guidelines to ensure that all exchanges are respectful and responsible – starting by “Only add items that you would be willing to eat yourself”.


Targeted Fundraising: Ernest

It’s not just happening in the UK – in France too, food-related charities – foodbanks, social groceries… – have seen the demand for help increase and public funds decrease in recent years.

Ernest was set up in 2015 to run fundraising campaigns with partner restaurants that contribute to specific needs of identified local charities. For each meal consumed in a partner restaurant during the campaign, a few centimes are added to the bill and redistributed to a selected local charity, generally towards a capacity-building project (the current campaign in Toulouse is raising funds towards buying fridges or renovating the kitchen for three foodbanks).

They aim to create “local solidarity networks” by linking restaurants, their customers, charities and their clients around the notion of sharing.

This week: start of the ERNEST campaign +0.20 € added to your bill on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays

This week: start of the ERNEST campaign +0.20 € added to your bill on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays
Image © Lucky Miam (



Grow Your Own City


Gardening is my graffiti: I grow my art.

– Ron Finley

Ron Finley urban famer

Ron Finley, graffiti-gardener

Urban farming has its new hero: Ron Finley, artist-gardener, on a mission to make kale sexy in South Central Los Angeles, one of America’s food deserts. Since he planted a vegetable garden on a city-owned strip of land outside his house in 2010, then got fined for it and successfully led a campaign to make curbside gardening legal, he’s received a lot of media attention, including a TED Talk in 2013 (from which the quotes above and below are taken).

“Growing your own food is like printing your own money.”

“Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, especially in the inner city. Plus, you get strawberries.”

“If kids grow kale, kids eat kale. If they grow tomatoes, they eat tomatoes.”

“We gotta flip the script on what a gangsta is — if you ain’t a gardener, you ain’t gangsta.”

The video below, featuring Ron pre-TED fame, encapsulates the multiple benefits of urban gardening: healthy eating, communal activity, cultural heritage, sensory stimulation…

From producing fresh food in a brownfield and at the same time beautifying an area to providing a physical activity to local people while creating community links, urban farming is a multi-layered activity that keeps on giving. I’ve looked below at 3 other initiatives with deep roots – transforming a school’s rooftop, re-inventing the city as a public orchard and blowing the seeds of change from a West Yorkshire village to the rest of the world.

The Teachers: School Grown

If there is one constant with urban farming, it’s that it can happen anywhere and everywhere: on the side of the road in LA, 33 metres below the busy streets of Clapham, or at the back of a truck, anywhere. By comparison, a rooftop farm is perhaps quite banal, but the one transformed by Food Share in Toronto – that can be seen from scratch to end in the timelapse video above – is rather special, because it doubles up as a “food literacy education centre, large market garden and vibrant event space all wrapped into one”.

The 16,000 square foot rooftop currently includes over 450 garden planters, 100 shiitake mushroom logs, a dwarf fruiting orchard, seating for over 200 people, a covered area and an indoor classroom – and has plans to add a rooftop teaching kitchen, a small greenhouse, a composting area and an open air cafe.

Students sell their ‘school grown’ produce at three local farmers’ markets and also supply several Toronto restaurants.


The Gleaners: Not Far From The Tree

Founder and director Laura Reinsborough got the idea for Not Far From The Tree when she was working as a Community Arts Facilitator for the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) and was asked to pick apples from an urban orchard and put them to good use.

From this first experience was born Not Far From the Tree, an initiative that picks unwanted or surplus fruit from residential properties, sharing the harvest 3 ways: ⅓ to the fruit owner, ⅓ to the the volunteers and ⅓ to social agencies. In 2008, their first full season, 150 volunteers picked a total of 3,003 pounds of fruit, and the concept has now grown into a fully-fledged, city-wide, award-winning charitably constituted organisation with permanent staff.

In 5 years, they have:

  • harvested over 70,000 pounds of fruit;
  • donated more than 22,000 pounds to social service agencies;
  • registered over 1,500 trees to be picked in our operating area;
  • registered more than 1,600 volunteer pickers.

They have also produced a pretty 5-year annual report available to view online, listing these achievements and more, and also regularly commission artists – such as the one below – for their event and campaign visuals.


Apple by Zeesy Powers (2012)


The Planters: Incredible Edible

This is the extraordinary journey of a small market town in the North of England, now a hotspot of the local food revolution. With just a handful of people and seeds to start with, Todmorden has transformed itself into a place where fruit and vegetables are grown everywhere – outside the police station, in the cemetery, along the canal – and for everyone. Pam Warhurst, one of the instigators, calls it “propaganda gardening”: a way of ensuring resilience by creating deep links between community, learning and business. It’s even created a brand new genre of tourism, with “vegetable tourists” coming to the 15,000-strong town to visit the Incredible Edible Green Route.

The Todmorden experiment has inspired over 200 local groups in several countries that form the Incredible Edible Network and are typically involved in “setting up community growing plots, reaching out to schools and children, and backing local food suppliers”.


Incredible Edibles, outside Todmorden Police Station


Food to Share – Incredible Edibles Todmorden


The Art of Food


Food & Drink Festivals are popular fixtures of the social calendar, and in the course of my travels, I have partaken in events such as La Fête du vin (Bordeaux), Vijazz (Vilafranca del Penèdes), Manchester Food and Drink Festival, Toronto’s Winterlicious and Summerlicious – and possibly a few more that I don’t remember.

These are mostly business-led festivities, offering opportunities to sample wine, beer or food at reduced prices. Food (and drink) being the quintessential social binder, this type of festival is likely to be pleasant and convivial, as well as leaning towards the commercial and touristy side.

Food can also get eventful in large-scale gatherings, such as le Dîner en Blanc™ or celebrations organised by the French “fooding” movement. The convivial factor is also high up there, and the crowd is as much a part of the spectacle as what they consume.

If the art of food can be the subjet of a festival, what can an arts festival do with food? I’m not going to foray into Food Art for now, although for some interesting examples, I recommend a visit to La Milk Factory, a French dairy industry-sponsored creative lab run by a distant cousin of mine, or the work of Polish artist Milena Korolczuk, who carves out of bread small heads in the image of Marina Abramovic, Lenin, Jay-Z or Sartre, or else the dreamy Edible Vistas of Canadian-Hungarian artist Eszter Burghardt.

Instead, I want to feature three very different projects that have in common a playful yet experimental attitude to food. Two of them were recently presented by multidisciplinary arts festivals, and the third one is prime material to be expanded to a wider scope.

1. Future Chefs

Toronto-based Luminato Festival has offered a food-focused weekend for several years now, creating a street food market atmosphere by inviting local chefs to set up stalls and offer $5 portions to visitors. In 2013, they partnered with Mammalian Diving Reflex to revamp this traditional model and throw a few kids into the mix.

Mammalian Diving Reflex is self-described as “a culture production workshop that creates site and social-specific performance events, theatre-based productions, gallery-based participatory installations, video products, art objects and theoretical texts”.  They often work with children – such as in previous projects Haircuts by Children and These are the People in your Neighbourhood – to reverse social hierarchies and disrupt stereotypes.

Future Tastes of Toronto – At the Kids’ Table involved over 20 Toronto chefs and six classes of grades 4-6 students, meeting for workshops in the weeks leading up to the Festival. During the 2-day ‘performance’, kids promoted “their” chef to the public in attendance and animated the Kids’ Table, a large communal eating space.

2. Future Communities

In 2011, Manchester International Festival started Alpha Farm, an experiment to transform a disused 1960s office building into a vertical farm, with the help and for the benefit of the local community. This project was located in Wythenshawe,  Manchester, ironically one of the original “garden city” planned housing estates which would now probably qualify as a food desert. Hopes for a forthcoming urban harvest were high, and this 2011 video produced by ethical communications agency Creative Concern features experts from different fields drumming up the excitement about the project.

As the building proved too challenging to convert, MIF has taken the lessons learned to start the Biospheric Project in a derelict mill in Salford, right next to Manchester. The focus has now switched from vertical farm to agricultural lab, and the community engagement is even deeper, with many school visits, workshops, talks and open tours to introduce local residents to the innovative growing systems developed by the research team. The project is described as “part farm, part laboratory and part research centre, all embedded in the heart of an existing community”. According to this 2013 Guardian article, it is also intended to be a “legacy commission that will continue its work for at least ten years.” Salford’s Mayor describes the socio-agricultural experiment as a “flagship project” for the city, which is hoping to lead the way in new food growing systems.

The project is supported by Urban Splash, a developer that has led the urban regeneration in Manchester with its iconic warehouse conversions, and is meant to be a resource for the local community, with a wholefood shop that will eventually sell the Biosphere produce. Outside the mill, 70 fruit trees have already been planted, and a worm farm provides another bond to the local community, as worms are sold to fishermen at a low price in exchange for their compost. Inside, diverse growing experiments are ongoing, such as aquaponics (combining fish farming and hydroponics), and the roof top features beehives and chicken.

Project Director Vincent Walsh introduces the Biospheric Project (as part of an interview series):

And here is a quick rooftop tour by local journalist and tour guide Jonathan Schofield, with city views:

3. Future Tastes

It is anticipated that in 2050 the world’s population will exceed 9 billion people. The expansion of the world’s foodprint that is expected to accompany this population increase may exceed the tolerances of our planet’s ecosystems, activating unknown environmental and economic tipping points, and result in extreme food shortages. HOW WILL WE FEED EVERYONE WHEN THE TIME COMES?

By eating bugs, of course.

In 2011, Mammalian Diving Reflex and a host of collaborators presented a Toronto Nuit Blanche installation entitled Farmers’ Market 2050 offering the food of the future: micro-crops and micro-livestock, or, in plain English, algae and bugs. This vision of the future is based on the work of Third Millenium Farming, who are conducting research into cricket farming.

3MF has now partnered with Alimentary Initiatives to disseminate this research in a series of events called Future Food Salon, featuring live music and art installations, cricket-based food (such as burgers made out of chick pea and cricket flours) and a lively presentation by lead researcher Jakub Dzamba exploring urban and home-based cricket farming as a future alternative to current intensive agricultural practices.

This 3-minute video introduction does a good job of presenting problems and potential solutions:

And here is a video trailer for Future Food Salon, presented by Alimentary Initiatives’ founder Aruna Handa:

Finally, here are 5 reasons to eat crickets taken from Alimentary Initiatives’ blog:

  1. Nutrition. Crickets are nutritious. Cooked weight protein rates, gram for gram, are comparable to chicken and beef. They are also rich in omega-3 fats and high in iron.
  2. Sustainability. Cricket farming is more sustainable than 20th-century-style livestock rearing. Cricket rearing is less taxing on water resources, land resources, and produces less methane. Because insects do not produce fur, bones or hair, their ratio of feed to protein produced is excellent.
  3. Distribution. Cricket farming can be managed in a decentralized way. With Dzamba’s farms, which sit on a single square metre of land, and with his new counter-top prototypes, every household could become a producer, feeding their crickets kitchen scraps.
  4. Environment. Crickets are found throughout the planet, so the risk of an environmental disaster through the escape of crickets represents little threat to existing eco-systems.
  5. Ethics. Crickets can be euthanized in a humane manner by freezing them, which causes their metabolism to slow down, so that when they are cooked, they are asleep.