Plate, Planet and Society

Professors at the University of Alberta are expected to make substantive contributions to society through teaching, research and service. For me, serving on the Edmonton Food Council is a great way to synergize these three areas of my work.

My class, entitled Plate, Planet and Society, trains students to understand and think critically about the choices that individuals, firms and governments make about food, agriculture, technology and environment. I emphasize, and students quickly appreciate, that these choices begin in our homes and local communities. Through projects that students have done as community-services learning, I’ve met many of the key people in the local food scene over the last 5+ years that I’ve lived in Edmonton. I’ve also become particularly interested in the geography and impacts of agriculture, food retail and food choices in and around Edmonton. With colleagues and students at the UofA, we are studying the phenomena of “food deserts” – places where it is relatively costly and difficult to access affordable, nutritious food. Our results show that Edmonton’s food deserts are not centrally located or clustered as in many eastern U.S. cities, but instead are scattered across both newer and older suburbs. Surveys and personal interviews show that people who lack easy access to cars are most vulnerable and that many Edmonton residents are concerned about the costs of healthy eating and the decline of supermarkets in older suburbs.

We are also in the midst of a study of farmland conversion in the Edmonton-Calgary corridor, and the multiple values that people associate with conserving different types of farmland in the Capital Region of Edmonton and surrounds. The Edmonton area definitely suffers from suburban sprawl; Edmonton is much less densely populated than Calgary. We are also looking at individual food choices. For example, this summer a small student project is investigating the Sprouts program implemented at the Southwest Edmonton Farmers Market.

There are strong two-way relationships between this research and the Edmonton Food Council. City employees and Council members have contributed motivation, guidance, data and contacts for the studies; these are the same people who are best-situated to act upon and disseminate results and outputs such as maps and GIS data layers. Fresh, the City’s Food and Agriculture Strategy, defines the work of the Council, is a helpful teaching resource, and sets the context for research.

– Brent Swallow, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Alberta

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