Just Food Ottawa

Just Food Ottawa

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Access to healthy food   |   Creating viable farm income   |
Promotion of local food and regional development   |   Multi-stakeholder   |
Collaborative food systems development   |   Eastern Ontario

Case study written by Sarah M.L. Walker and Patricia Ballamingie

Personal Interview with Moe Garahan, Executive Director, September 6, 2011 (Sarah M.L. Walker and Patricia Ballamingie).

Personal Interview with Erin Krekowski, Food For All Policy Project Coordinator, June 24, 2011; Terri O’Neill, Community Gardening Network Coordinator, July 6, 2011; and Heather Hossie, Savour Ottawa Coordinator, August 17, 2011 (Brynne Sinclair-Waters).

Organization Overview

Just Food Ottawa is a grassroots, community-based, non-profit organization that works with numerous partners to develop an equitable and sustainable food system.  Just Food envisions a vibrant, just and sustainable food system [1] in which:

•      all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, nutritious and culturally-acceptable food for an active and healthy life;

•      the principles of ecological sustainability, sustainable livelihoods for food providers, and social justice for all are upheld;

•      the local population actively participates in the decision-making processes related to food at municipal, regional, and national levels;

•      people have the desire, opportunity, and means to actively engage in all aspects of the food system; and,

•     food is celebrated as central to both culture and community.


While most of Just Food’s work takes place within the City of Ottawa, Executive Director Moe Garahan notes: “It is important to have some fluidity to work across sectors and regions, without losing track of goals and values, as there are so many influences on our local food system that demand work at the regional, provincial and national levels.”

Just Food’s ‘buy local’ initiative involves other partnerships that extend to the surrounding area, including Eastern Ontario, Western Quebec and beyond.  The organization’s definition of “local food” refers strictly to food grown within a defined region, rather than within a specific distance, and includes the counties of Lanark, Renfrew, Leeds-Grenville, Prescott-Russell, Stromont-Dundas-Glengarry, Frontenac, and the Outaouais – all understood as part of the City of Ottawa’s “foodshed.”

Just Food’s mandate is to support and link existing initiatives that help residents throughout the region obtain healthful food, while also determining where gaps exist and initiating new programs to increase access to food that is locally produced using ethical and ecological methods.  Staff work with both existing and new food providers, producers and processors to re-localize Ottawa’s food system.  Just Food seeks to build the capacity of all actors within the food system, and to serve the interests of “eaters, with an emphasis on people marginalized by poverty and/or other factors”[2] as well as supporting viable livelihoods for rural and urban producers.  In order to meet its diverse objectives, Just Food has proposed to develop a Community Food and Urban Agriculture Hub on a National Capital Commission (NCC) farm property and abandoned nursery adjacent to Blackburn Hamlet, as an extension of the ‘hub’ role it has already played in Ottawa.  The project is intended to provide a physical space in which Just Food can set up its headquarters while establishing an incubator farm program, and offering a range of programming that continues to support the development of food-related knowledge and skills within the community.  While many of Just Food’s ongoing initiatives are project-based, the group also engages in research, public education and engagement efforts.  For example, the group promotes participation in the Ontario-wide Put Food in the Budget campaign, which advocates for the implementation of a $100 Healthy Food Supplement for all adults on social assistance in Ontario.  In addition, Just Food engages in community-based research and policy analysis at the municipal level through its Food For All project, at the provincial level through Sustain Ontario and the FarmON Alliance, and at the federal level through the national Peoples Food Policy Project.

Within the National Capital Region’s boundaries lies a significant portion of farmland, including over 120,000 hectares of fertile agricultural land and approximately 1300 farms [3].  Just Food has been in a unique position to effect change.  In this context, the urban/rural binary comes into question, and Garahan notes that the term “urban agriculture” takes on a different significance in Ottawa, since there is so much rural land within the city’s boundaries.  Garahan notes that the city has great potential to become a national leader in establishing sustainable food systems due to its municipal governance structures and natural resources:

… the Rural Affairs Department at the City of Ottawa is quite unique. The Green Belt within the City includes thousands of hectares of agricultural land… As a capital city, a visionary city, over the long-term, I would love to see Ottawa become a model for feeding itself to a greater extent.  We have a unique opportunity to do so.

Historical Context

In the 1990s, Ottawa community-based networks began discussing food security issues, emphasized in 1999 with the Task Force on Poverty from the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton (RMOC), highlighting the importance of alternative food initiatives, such as community gardening and community economic development projects, in promoting an equitable and sustainable future for the city.  Garahan notes that at that time, Ottawa community organizers and city staff were very much influenced by the food security discourse of the late 1990s, which shifted toward directed intervention, community development and systems thinking.  They were also influenced by the health departments of Toronto and Waterloo, whose representatives gave presentations to Ottawa municipal staff.  In the spring of 2000, the task force released a report recommending that the Region develop a food security policy in collaboration with community partners.  That autumn, the Ottawa Food Security Group (OFSG) formed, and consequently received funding from the Health Department of the RMOC to conduct an inventory of food programs in the region.  After publicizing their findings in the spring of 2001, the OFSG hosted a multi-stakeholder food security meeting, with a call for the creation of a multi-sectoral Food Council in Ottawa, and emhasized that the key to addressing food insecurity was to use cross-sectoral and holistic approaches to develop an equitable and sustainable food system.  These recommendations culminated in the formation of the Ottawa Food Security Council (OFSC) through a Community-City partnership, and in February of 2003, the City awarded $20,000 core funding to the OFSC.  The OFSC held its inaugural meeting on March 25, 2003, and hired its first coordinator in April of that year.

In 2004, the organization began to focus increasingly on project development, and launched the Ottawa Buy Local Food Guide and farmer-to-farmer training workshops in 2005.  In 2006, the OFSC changed its name to Just Food.  As Garahan notes: “the double entendre encapsulates food justice” and better reflects the group’s values.  In addition, the new name was meant to be more accessible than the previous name—Ottawa Food Security Council—which, according to Garahan, could be “perceived as a regulatory body by farmers” and was potentially off-putting to people who were concerned about food issues but unfamiliar with food security concepts and terminology.  It was also the year that Just Food began coordinating the Ottawa Community Gardening Network, launched their website, produced the second Ottawa Buy Local Food Guide, and worked with the City’s Health Department to produce Food Link: A Directory of Community Programs and Services Promoting Access to Food in Ottawa.  In 2008, Just Food launched Savour Ottawa in partnership with Ottawa Tourism and the City of Ottawa in order to connect local producers with Ottawa’s supportive local restaurants and retailers.  In 2009, Just Food partnered with the University of Ottawa to lead the community-based municipal policy project Food For All.  One year later, Just Food began to develop a proposal for a Community Food and Urban Agriculture Hub and explored the possibility of locating it at a former NCC nursery in Blackburn Hamlet.  Throughout 2010, and the winter of 2011, Just Food met with key stakeholders and engaged in community consultations to discuss the project proposal.  In June of 2011, Just Food signed a 1-year lease with the NCC, established their office at a farmhouse adjacent to the proposed larger site, and began assessing the property to determine next steps in establishing the Food Hub.



Just Food coordinates a number of interrelated projects.  First, the Community Gardening Network (CGN) of Ottawa provides information through workshops (on topics such as how to start a community garden, organic gardening, seed saving, and pest control), and resources through the Community Garden Development Fund ($76,000 per year), to support the sustainable development of community gardens within the City.  The CGN also runs the Plant-a-Row, Donate-a-Row program, to encourage donations of fresh food to local food banks.  Second, Savour Ottawa is a membership-based economic development initiative that provides brand recognition (and verification) for local food in the region.  In order to use the Savour Ottawa logo, restaurants must commit to purchasing either 15% or $25,000 per year of their food content directly from at least five Savour Ottawa farmers.  Micro-processors must ensure that either the first ingredient or 51% of their products before processing are sourced from a Savour Ottawa producer.  Program manager Heather Hossie explains the project’s significance as an economic development driver: “farmers need to make a living at what they are doing or we are not going to have any farmers left.”  Third, Food For All is a joint community research, engagement and policy initiative between Just Food and the University of Ottawa, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.  This 3-year project brings together a broad range of stakeholders to develop an Ottawa food action plan and community food toolkit.  Fourth, the Community Food and Urban Agriculture Hub Project aims to create a physical and cultural space to build upon these projects, animate new projects, provide farmer training supports (using an “incubator farm” model in partnership with FarmStart in Guelph) along with other community-based programming and workshops, and create infrastructure needed for ongoing projects such as the Ottawa Buy-Local Food Guide (available in print, and online at http://www.justfood.ca/buylocal/index.php), a community seed bank, a food distribution hub, a commercial kitchen, youth entreprise opportunties, etc.


Human Resources

Executive Director Moe Garahan has been active on food security issues in Ottawa since 1995, and originally worked as a community developer at Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, where she was part of the founding teams for the Good Food Box, the Community Gardening Network and the Ottawa Food Security Council.  In 2004, Garahan joined Just Food in the role of Executive Director, and brought with her a commitment to build community partnerships, to “see food as a system, and to work towards interventions that take that into consideration.”  Garahan has been a leader in organizing on food and farming issues at regional, provincial and national levels, and is presently an advisor to Sustain Ontario.  Just Food currently has four other staff: Community Economic Development Coordinator, Heather Hossie, who has worked in the non-profit sector for over a decade, works full-time and organizes both Savour Ottawa and the annual Reel Food Film Festival; Community Gardening Network Coordinator; Terri O’Neill, who is a graduate of Ryerson University’s Food and Nutrition Program and works 4 days per week; Erin Krekoski, Food For All Policy Project Coordinator, who has a farming background, as well as a Master’s Degree from Carleton University, and experience working on community-based research, social justice, and food security projects works 4 days per week; and Erin O’Manique, Operation Manager, working on establishing infrastructure for the Community Food and Urban Agriculture Hub project, who has 25 years of experience in international development, specializing in biodiversity and sustainable agriculture policy and is working 4 days per week.  Just Food additonally works with students (through field placements), interns and other volunteers to accomplish its mandate.

Just Food’s Board of Directors includes members with a diverse range of skills.  Cliff Gazee, Co-Chair from 2004-present, possesses expertise in community development, community health, race relations, anti-poverty advocacy, and journalism.  Cathleen Kneen, Co-Chair from 2008 to the present, is also the Chair of Food Secure Canada and has a farming background.  Other Board members include: Jason Garlough, who has served since 2007, and has a farming background, as well as computer expertise and marketing experience; Dr. Patricia Ballamingie, who is a professor at Carleton University, cross-appointed in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies & the Institute of Political Economy; and Elodie Mantha, who is a policy analyst, with knowledge of Aboriginal and stakeholder affairs, and community consultations on sustainability issues.  Garahan emphasizes that Just Food uses a unique partnership-based approach where each of Just Food’s projects have their own advisory committees that steer the work and budgets of those projects.  In addition, Just Food relies on community members who volunteer their time, energy and expertise to help carry forward Just Food’s many projects.


Physical Infrastructure

Until recently, Just Food shared office space with its organizational sponsor, the Social Planning Council of Ottawa (SPCO).  Currently, Just Food’s offices are located in an NCC farmhouse at 2389 Pepin Court.  Just Food has signed a one-year lease with the NCC for the farm property, which includes a house, garage, and working barn, which they plan to use as a base of operations while conducting a feasibility study for the adjoining NCC property at 16 Tauvette St.  The Tauvette site was once a tree nursery but existing infrastructure is in disrepair, and would require significant investment in order to make it serviceable for the Food Hub.  Just Food must conduct an assessment of on-site facilities and equipment, including 3 glass greenhouses, 4 hoop houses, 1 commercial building (with offices, warehouse space and walk-in coolers), as well as irrigation infrastructure on the land.  It is yet to be determined how much of the existing infrastructure is in working condition, or could potentially be repaired.


Natural Resources

Just Food is currently conducting a feasibility study for the NCC property at 16 Tauvette St. in Blackburn Hamlet, including soil and water testing.  The property includes over 100 acres of land, and shows great potential as a possible site for Just Food’s proposed Food Hub.



Financial Resources

Just Food’s current key funders include, at the municipal level: the City of Ottawa; at the provincial level: the Trillium Foundation, and Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA); and at the federal level: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).  Just Food’s core funding comes from the City of Ottawa, which provides $26,000 annually for the group from the City’s Community Funding Envelope.  In addition, the City supports the Community Gardening Network (CGN), providing $40,000 annually, which serves as core funding for the CGN coordinator’s salary, along with $76,000 annually for the Community Garden Development Fund.  Much of Just Food’s funding is project-based and non-continuous, for example, in collaboration with Farm Start (an organization based out of Guelph), Just Food received a three-year grant from the Trillium Foundation to act as the eastern hub for the FarmON Alliance, in order to initiate new farmer training in the region.  The Food For All Policy Project has received three years of funding from the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), valued at approximately $100,000 per year.  Savour Ottawa, received two years of funding through Ontario Market Investment Fund (OMIF) grants, each year approximately $100,000, with matching funds offered through farmers, farmers’ markets, City of Ottawa and Ottawa Tourism.


Community and Program Resources

The Social Planning Council of Ottawa (SPCO) has sponsored Just Food since 2003, subsidized its infrastructure by providing office space until 2010, offered financial management and acted as a specific sponsor on charitable applications.  Just Food has a wide range of local partners, including many departments within the City of Ottawa (Community Funding, Rural Affairs, Economic Development and Sustainability Markets Management, Public Health, Parks and Recreation, Public Works), Ottawa-area farmers and restaurants, Ottawa Tourism, University d’Ottawa, Carleton University, the Ottawa Good Food Box, Ottawa Food Bank, Coalition of Community Health and Resource Centres, USC, Canadian Organic Growers Ottawa Chapter, and many other community based organizations.  (As an example, each of the 30 community gardens has a host of its own local partners.)  Regional Partners include EcoPerth, Ottawa Valley Food Co-op, Kingston New Farm Project, OMAFRA Rural Economic Development Advisor, Farms at Work.  At the provincial level, Just Food works with the farmers’ unions, FarmStart, Farmers’ Markets Ontario (FMO), Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance (OCTA), Table de Concertation AgroAlimentaire de l’Outaouis (TCAO), Organic Council of Ontario, Ecological Farmers of Ontario, and Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training in Ontario (CRAFT).  Just Food is an advising member of Sustain Ontario, and helped found the FarmON Alliance – both provincial initiatives.  Just Food’s national partners include Food Secure Canada (Just Food was a founding member of this organization), the Canadian Cooperative Association, and the National Capital Commission (sponsor of the Ottawa Buy Local Food Guide).  Furthermore, Just Food has developed positive relationships with many government representatives and staff, including bureaucrats at all levels, city councillors, MPs, and MPPs.

Just Food has an extensive network through which they disseminate information via farmer-based and community-based newsletters that are sent to over 2,500 people each month.  In addition, the group engages in extensive outreach to local farmers and community members through their farming and gardening training programs, the Ottawa Buy Local Food Guide, the Community Gardening Network, Savour Ottawa promotions, the Community Shared Agriculture network, work tied to FarmON Alliance, and through community presentations/media. The Food Hub project in Blackburn Hamlet has generated considerable interest amongst various stakeholders, including NCC officials, local Councillor Rainer Bloess, the Blackburn Hamlet Community Association, local businesses and farmers, as well as many community members.  Meanwhile, the Community Gardening Network has helped to establish 30 gardens in Ottawa.  The Food For All Policy Project includes over 200 community-based researchers and has more than 15 partners including community groups and agencies such as Ottawa-based health centres, social service organizations and non-profits.


Desired Assets

While it is clear that Just Food is already connected to an extensive network of groups and individuals, Garahan notes that for the Food Hub to move forward, it would be helpful to strengthen the group’s connections to the strategic arm of the National Capital Commission.

When it comes to Just Food’s policy work, the group would also benefit from relationships with more powerful decision-makers at all three levels of government.  Just Food hopes to make a successful recommendation to OMAFRA to continue funding the provincial local farmer verification program, which the Savour Ottawa program relies on for integrity of the local food brand.  Garahan expressed that food-related groups across the province might benefit by coordinating policy requests, and that such an alliance could potentially be coordinated by Sustain Ontario.  Just Food would also benefit from the presence of additional board members, specifically with fundraising, financial, and accounting experience.


Overcoming Constraints

Securing stable core funding is an ongoing challenge for Just Food, as with most other groups in the non-profit sector.  It is a constant struggle to fund the staff who coordinate Just Food’s many projects.  For example, it would be tremendously beneficial if funding were available to cover the salary for a volunteer coordinator, since that in turn would allow the group to better leverage community skills and participation in order to more effectively achieve goals.  Garahan points out: “so many people want to be involved, and we just don’t have the capacity to respond.”    Other staff positions are dependent on finding new funding in one- to three-year cycles, which means that a great deal of time and energy must be directed toward grant writing in order to provide stability to successful programs.  Chronic job insecurity and underfunding also means that it can be difficult to attract and retain experienced staff.  Garahan emphasizes: “long-term issues require long-term funding—with accountability.  Give us core funds, and we’ll leverage those funds to optimize the impacts.” Current funding trends that prohibit administrative costs are problematic, since they leave non-profit organizations financially and legally vulnerable.  Inflexible and heavily bureaucratic funding requirements can also threaten to undermine non-profit groups’ ability to remain focused on their goals, as they sometimes face mandate drift as they attempt to meet the imperatives of funders.  According to Garahan, the Trillium Foundation’s approach to funding has been extremely helpful.  Specifically, they offer longer term funding, do not demand unnecesary or burdensome conditions, and afford flexibility within funds to allow for the evolution of projects.  In addition, Just Food’s wide range of programs and huge network of partners has at times helped them overcome funding difficulties, since it allows them to tap into a wider range of resources (both financial and in-kind).  Furthermore, by establishing strong relationships of trust with their partners, they have been able to develop an excellent reputation that in turn has helped them to gain further support.

Garahan notes that general attitudes towards the non-profit sector can be a challenge, and argues that the research and work of volunteer organizations such as Just Food can be scrutinized much more intensely than commercial and government sectors.  While she acknowledges the importance of accountability, she also points out that there needs to be a greater level of appreciation for the work being done by the non-profit sector to meet longer-term goals.  For example, with Savour Ottawa, Just Food leaves itself open to criticism for having an overly economic and élitist focus, however, Garahan argues:

Our goal is not to sell high-priced food to higher-end restaurants for higher-income earners, but the reality is that we have to start there because those restaurants have the most expendable budgets to purchase food, and we need to build supply and infrastructure in the area.  We need to know what our long-term goal is and understand the steps needed for a successful, albeit slow transition into the mainstream.



In spite of financial and staff constraints, Just Food has grown steadily from an organization with one part-time staff, and $20,000 of funding in 2003, to their current size of five staff managing a dozen projects using approximately $600,000 funding.  Their extensive networks have permitted them to undertake their own highly successful programs, while continuing to engage in policy work, and support the efforts of other food-based organizations at the local, regional, provincial, and national levels.  Just Food has helped to draw attention to the importance of establishing a sustainable and equitable local food system for the Ottawa area, and through their producer-oriented projects, such as Savour Ottawa, Buy Local Food Guide, farmer-to-farmer training and the FarmON Alliance, they have helped increase the economic viability of local, small-scale farmers in the region.  Hossie notes that at one Savour Ottawa event she heard a local farmer say: “Now I can do this, and send my kids to university, and we’re going to be OK.”  Since the Community Gardening Network has been established, the number of community gardens in Ottawa has grown from a total of 4 in 1997 to a total of 30 in 2011.  Garahan notes that in response to the local food movement, retailers have begun to include local food sections in their stores; she remains determined that one day local food will also be widely available in hospitals, schools, and households.


Just Food is committed to a collaborative relationship with other food-related organizations, both in Ottawa, and in other communities.  Garahan points out that she was trained at the Intervale Center in Burlington, Vermont, and at FarmStart in Guelph for the incubator farm project: “In the same way that we have benefitted from other initiatives, our goal is to disseminate our learning to other communities.”  For example, Just Food plans to make its How to Start a Community Garden document available online, and would like to establish a Community Reading Room at their Community Food and Urban Agriculture Hub.  Other resources, such as its Co-op Community Business Plancan be shared with organizations on a case-by-case basis, to support specific projects.

[1]            The food system consists of all processes and infrastructure involved in feeding a population: growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consuming, and disposing of food and food-related items.  It also includes the inputs needed and outputs generated at each of these steps.

[2]            These might include gender, race, class, ethnicity, age, ability, sexual orientation, etc., and the unique ways in which they combine.

[3]            City of Ottawa.  (2011).  Ottawa 20/20 Official Plan>  Volume 1- Official Plan> Section 3- Designations and Land Use> 3.7 Rural Designations> 3.7.3- Agricultural Resources.  Accessed on June 5, 2011 at: http://www.ottawa.ca/city_hall/ottawa2020/official_plan/vol_1/03_design_land_use/index_en-07.html

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