Friday, March 8, 2013

As a Social Entrepreneur, are you walking on any backs?

Today is International Women's Day so lettuce take a moment to reflect.

If you are trying to grow a radishly different enterprise then you know about challenges. You'll also recognize opportunities. Some of the opportunities will be challenging and others will seem easy (peas-y). A day honouring women is a day honouring challenges for that is what women, globally, have faced for millennia. Systems of oppression remain firmly esconced throughout much of our globe and there remain many challenges despite a century of ardent feminism. The problems that remain are so pervasive it is hard to know where to start.

As a social entrepreneur you may well know the arduousness of evaluating the moral relevance of each and every decision you make as a business owner. A group of us recently joked about the discussions that likely took place over the Toronto District Beekeepers Association's full glossy flyer. The joke started a brief conversation about why they went with such an expensive (and surely not environmentally sustainable) piece of promotional gear (it is quite durable so could possibly be reused or is meant to be passed around from the original person who picked it up).

These are not trivial matters to the socially conscious entrepreneur. I personally know one social entrepreneur who will never use anything but digital material for promotion due to the environmental costs of anything but even bytes leave an environmental mark.

The posting I wrote about the Cupcake Economy was the first in what I hope to be a series that examines the phenomena of social entrepreneurs and their organizations metaphorically walking on the backs of those forced by circumstance to accept work that does not provide a living wage.  I focused on the wage issue in that first post but now I wish to focus on the living component.

I like what my friend Michael Sacco, founder of Chocosol Traders, has to say about earning a living. As a successful social entrepreneur, he strives for something he and Wayne Roberts are calling "Subsistence Plus". My understanding of their philosophy is this: Make enough to support yourself and your family plus a little extra to have fun with. Fun is a very flexible term which for some might include a vacation and for others an exhaustive classical music collection and yet others it could be simply the means to support charitable work. At it's heart I believe the subsistence plus philosophy means living with as little ego as possible.

How do we reflect that in our decisions as social entrepreneurs? Do we hire interns knowing that they will need to have another source of income (or charity) in order to live independently? Do we import cheap migrant labour that you know have to leave their families and communities so that they are not actually living a full life (as most of us, globally, would agree that living with ones' chosen family is desirable and is what I mean by saying a 'full' life) while earning their (mostly grossly underpaid) wages?

Or do you limit your organization's social responsibilities to issues of environmental sustainability which translates to the question of treading as lightly on Mother Earth's back as possible?

Today, on International Women's Day, it is important to recognize that as Social Entrepreneurs, we can no longer just consider Mother Earth's back. Equally imperative is the question of whether your business is treading, perhaps unwittingly, on the backs of the oppressed and voiceless. Ensuring a living wage is provided for all stakeholders in your organization is a goal that every Social Entrepreneur should be striving towards. So please, take a moment today to ask whether your organization, your suppliers, your customers, and your employees are all providing opportunities for a living wage in all of their business practices.

If the answers are not satisfactory, what will you do about it?  And also, I'd love if you'd share your ideas!

Click through to buy this (first ever) UN song released today.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Amplification: Playing Well With Others

This post has one central thesis:
Social Media:  
Has become much more about Media than Social.

These thoughts come after getting called out on a facebook thread by a prominent left wing activist for using the word sheeple. It is still not clear to me if this person understood what culture jamming is since they did not respond to my suggestion that the culture jamming nature of this currently going viral video inserted the 'on the surface' misogynistic reference to get the 'sheeple' to start to talk about how today's conversations about important ideas quickly degenerate into ridicule about a person's appearance instead of the bigger picture. By not acknowledging that this video is perhaps part of a larger culture jamming effort about environmental racism this person, in fact, has behaved like a sheeple. Irony.

This is what has kept us down. Conflict should end in both people seeing an issue in new - and better - ways. That is the essence of innovation (a subject I'm an academic expert in). Although I originally started out as an expert in innovation in the technological sense, I am increasing concerned with innovation in the moral sense. Progress has been rampant in the former and seems to have stalled on the latter.

The optics of conflict diminish authority. Here at Lettuce Connect we will remain a community of people and enterprises that are working towards a better world in various ways and until someone (or some organization) personally harms me or my family I remain determined to stay non partisan on any issue.

Destroying the planet is definitely something that will harm me and my family so I am willing to make an effort to see how others are contributing to the dialogue to increase awareness on this issue. Culture jamming offers unique opportunities to challenge the messaging we are receiving. In essence, it is taking ownership of the media by bringing the social back into the equation. It is forcing Media to acknowledge the Social adjective technology has thrust upon it.

In a similar vein, fellow Knowledge Professional and newly christened Faculty Member of the Academy of the Impossible, Seb FoxAllen, wrote an excellent piece on how to better connect the dots between Social and Media on the web. In it, he sagely advises:
So troll power, not struggle; troll patriarchy, not feminism; troll hypocrisy, not disagreement; troll structure, not station: troll upwards, not downwards. But resist the rush to concede the perch of the troll; it’s all many of us have left.

If we continue to divide amongst ourselves we will be conquered. Division amongst progressives leads to rants like this one (unintentionally?) exemplifying activism fatigue (written by another fellow Knowledge Professional cityslkr).

If we want to get our messaging out i.e. Amplify it, we need to learn to play well with others online. We have to make an effort to not have a knee jerk response and take things personally. We need to learn to stop and ask questions, nicely (unless you are trolling up!). Like that book from now long ago advised us: everything we needed to learn we learned in kindergarten. In the online world, and in the context of operating and messaging for a Social Enterprise, we will move mountains together if we play well with others.  Remember this the next time you read something you don't agree with and want to jump in and criticize immediately. Step back. Breath. Make your new online mantra:  Troll Up, Not Down and the playground will get friendlier.

And now, most importantly, like that Art Attack guy used to say - go out and try it yourself!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Cupcake Economy

Aiding and abetting the flourishment and nourishment of social enterprises should not rely on what I've coined the 'cupcake economy' yet I see a lot of examples of it.  On my personal blog awhile back I ranted on the issue. And just the other day I saw a posting for a part time job in Toronto for a sales representative to do promotion talks for a non-profit urban agriculture garden set up and maintainance service.  The advertisement indicated only that is was part time and didn't say how many hours were to be expected.  That alone was irritating.  After a demanding list of qualifications (previous sales experience being the really relevant bit) I got to the juicy cupcake-y bit:

So let's get this straight, in a city that has up to an 81 minute commute time (one way) I would be the lucky recipient of $20 if I spend a possible 162 minutes in my car and then 60 minutes presenting (or more, especially since you are itching for the $10 bonus that might cover half your gas).  Let's do the hourly wage math on that:  162 minutes + 60 minutes = 222 minutes or approximately 3.7 hours.  If we divide $20  by 3.7 that works out to a whopping $5.41/hour that will help fund the gas/insurance/capital costs of getting to these gigs. If you close the deal you'll bump that to a whopping $8.11/hr which is still 79% of Ontario's minimum wage. Benefits you ask?  We've got publicly funded health care, right? [Click here for the pdf of a thorough 2009 report that debunks the myth that the working poor having adequate health care.]

But long as your 'passionate about local food' that should make standing in the food bank line up easier and you'll have lots to talk about at the homeless shelter you sometimes shack up in because with those wages you sure aren't gonna be able to have a car, a home, AND food. The job description is pretty clear that the car is your priority if you sign up with these guys.

On a more serious note, the reality of the cupcake economy is large in a world where unemployed youth are scrambling to find meaningful work. The world wide crisis in youth unemployment and a move towards a secular western society (here's a recent American study on the growth of 'unaffiliated') are leaving large societal gaps that struggling new social enterprises are taking advantage of in droves.  If you're passionate about something it is all well and fine to volunteer some time towards the cause but be wary of enterprises that insult you with 'jobs' that are really volunteer positions that offer little to no honorarium (like most internships).

If a job doesn't at least meet a living wage, or if you are not clear about your own non-monetary benefits (as in, it would be good to do this abysmally or non paying job aka internship so I can learn how to promote my own similar social enterprise) - why would you take it? Be very wary. Cupcakes might be delicious but they are basically empty calories.

Our reliance on low paid or non paid work in the social enterprise 'industry' belittles the authority of the social enterprise movement in the long run. So, just like our bodies need good quality calories, our economy needs good quality jobs to move forward.  And just like good food costs more, good jobs do too.  Plan accordingly when mapping out your social enterprise. Ensure that employees receive a living wage from the start. Why should they invest social capital in your social enterprise otherwise?

(As an aside, I personally know the people who posted this job which is why I didn't publicly out them.  I believe they are earnest young social entrepreneurs but I am appalled at their lack of professionalism in the posting and the remuneration scheme.)

Friday, September 28, 2012

Dill-iciously Decadent Newfoundlander Style

Can you keep a secret?  Good. Neither can I. This post is about a secret Newfoundland gem.  And I want you to think of this particular secret during those lulls in cocktail/dinner party conversations when a well timed secret is likely to strike a big enough spark to ignite a truly wonderful foodie conversation.  And of course, this Food Warrior literally lives for foodie conversations as she hopes you do too.

The secret has two parts.  The first part is to do with the location of this secret.  It is in Newfoundland.  This is a must visit province of Canada that has lately received notable awards and press in the foodie world.  One of the more notable awards is to Raymond's, a non-descript (from the outside) downtown St. John's restaurant that won the best new restaurant in Canada award from Enroute in 2011.  This upscale wharfside restaurant takes local fare to the french cuisine level.  Another example is award winning chef and Newfoundlander Roary MacPherson taking on the world stage and expanding Canada's food reputation to include a born and raised Newfoundlander's unique culinary experience. Chef Roary is the youngest of over a dozen children and credits this experience and the food he was brought up with as informing a lot of his culinary creations.

The second part of the secret is the actual restaurant.  From the outside you might not think much of the cheery but low key signage of the Rocky Harbour Newfoundland restaurant called Java Jack's.  Rocky Harbour is adjacent to Gros Morne and it is a thriving tourist and conference destination from May thru October annually.

If you read the small print on this sign you might take a moment to pause and reconsider what this restaurant might offer your palate.  "Recommended by Frommer's, The Lonely Planet, Fodor's, and Where to Eat in Canada."  Not too shabby a recommendation list eh?

The restaurant prides itself by using many locally grown ingredients.  In fact, some of the ingredients are more than just local, they are grown right outside the actual restaurant and the garden is what you first take note of when you pull into the parking area.  There is a beautiful organic vegetable and flower garden immediately in front of the restaurant.  When I first pulled into Java Jack's one of the cooks, Monica, was snipping lettuce greens for the evening's dinner salads.  She is pictured below amongst the colourful bounty.

Owner Jacqui Hunter had all the time in the world for a chat with this food warrior the morning I went in for breakfast (the restaurant is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day except Tuesday's..they offer breakfast and a tasty and delicious packed lunch service for the hiker's that abound in these parts during the tourist season).

Jacqui had catered a 60 person conference event the previous night and hadn't got home until 11:30 p.m. and was taking a morning coffee breather before planning her attack on the brand new day.  She told me that when she arrived in Rocky Harbour in the 1990s she nearly starved as a vegetarian.  Back then she was a newly placed park interpreter that had lived throughout Canada (her father was an RCMP officer so between her childhood and her park interpreter career she has lived everywhere in Canada).  As a hat tip to her sentiments regarding typical Newfoundland restaurant food, her restaurant has a large chalkboard sign stating that it is a "Deep Fryer Free Zone".  This sign gave me a huge chuckle at the entrance way since it is well known regionally that the typical Newfoundland eatery is notorious for featuring a huge vat of boiling 'crisco' as the starting point for every meal throughout the province.  This makes healthy eating out virtually impossible whilst travelling in the province. The downstairs portion of the restaurant has cafe type seating and a small deli counter where baked goods and prepared lunches are on display.  The upstairs part is fancier with seating for over 40 people.  Spectacular Atlantic based artisan work is liberally sprinkled throughout the facility and is available for purchase.

Jacqui talked openly about her success and the fact that sales were up 14% over last year. This is her thirteenth year of operation and she is now being called on across Canada to participate in best practice consultations. She remarked that she considers her restaurant venture a social enterprise because of the transformative nature that her food and her workplace has brought to the region. She has educated an entire region about not only the nature and composition of good food but also put this learning into cold hard practice by putting an organic food garden right on the property itself where customers and Rocky Harbour residents can directly observe the source of some of their food. The dinner and lunch menu contains as much local food as feasible and that means including plenty of fish courses and, of course, a few tasty vegetarian/vegan options too.

For my breakfast I had a delicious arctic char scramble with fresh onions and red pepper.  It was scrumptious and reminded me that eggs do mix nicely with fish for a tasty protein dish.  The coffee that accompanied it was well deserving of the Java Jack's moniker and I could have had an espresso if the mood had struck me. Yes, you read that correctly. Espresso.

I had met up with a high school friend that morning at the restaurant who also happens to be the owner of the only upscale Inn in the area (her king sized bed suites each have balconies overlooking the harbour in Norris Point!).  I especially enjoyed listening to the two of them sharing shop talk about the season and the intricacies of operating a seasonally based business in the Gros Morne area.  My high school friend is in her fourth year of operation and she told Jacqui that most people that arrived to stay at her inn already knew of Java Jack's as a go-to restaurant in the area.

It is heartening to know that Gros Morne National Park is not only a world heritage site with 20 well marked day trails, but is also the location of a trail blazing eatery that the rest of Newfoundland and the world is taking note of.  

Pretty good secret eh? Go ahead. Share it. You know you want to.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Little Urban Farm on the Prairie

"I'm so glad you are doing this, somebody should be."

That's what Pat said when she heard of Lettuce Connect's Inaugural (Food Warrior) HarvestTrek2012.  She, along with her co-gardener Dennis, is pictured below in the picture I took at the South Zone Community Garden.

Pat & Dennis taking a break from tending their community garden plot in Regina.

There I was, barreling through the Bread Basket of Canada, and not expecting to see much other than wheat and cattle (and other large cash crops like canola).  Bread Basket is the name I learned in grade school for this region of Canada. The prairie provinces of Alberta/Sasketchewan/Manitoba grow wheat and other grains/pulses that are exported around the world,  This adds a huge amount of export dollars to the Canadian economy and I could safely state that this vast resource is one of the pillars that helped to construct this country and continues to form the economic foundation of two of these provinces. (Alberta now has an economy centred on oil).

I was heading through the capital of Sasketchewan, Regina, and contemplating the fact that the soil in this region could grow all sorts of crops but economically it makes a lot of sense for these farmers to concentrate on solid cash crops like wheat.  I was approaching an exit marked for the University of Regina when all of a sudden my food warrior whiskers started twitching. Out of the corner of my eye I had spied a rather large urban park that had stakes and vines and all sorts of interesting looking growing activity.  I missed that exit but set about winding my way back to what I suspected was a University testing farm since it was so large and was adjacent to the University.

I parked my car across from the largest urban community garden I've ever seen in person. I took this short panoramic video of the garden to try and capture the size of it:

Contest worthy pumpkin:  over 300 pounds!
I could not see any signage but I could see quite a few people working their plots so I set off towards the fruit trees at the corner and then started following ripe produce which made it like a hopscotch game...jumping from one impressively ripened vegetable to another until I happened upon an enormous pumpkin (pictured).  I marvelled over the enormity of it and the complexity of the growing system supporting it (complete with solar panels, irrigation system and a frost blanket that gets put on nightly).  Nearby, I spied Pat and Dennis independently working on their own plots and asked Dennis if he minded if I asked him a few questions.  Pat was brought into our conversation when Dennis hollered over to ask her to help clarify one of my questions.  Because I had more than a few questions once I found out that this enormous community garden was not, as I had thought, a demonstration garden that was part of the university.

Dennis told me that the South Zone Community Garden site was maintained by the city in the department of Community Services.  There was approximately 320 plots available for a $35-50/annual fee (depending on size of plot) and yes, there was a waiting list.  The fee included access to water that was easily reachable by the many hoses and water taps placed throughout the site and in the fall the fields were plowed so that each plot was ready to go for the spring.  There was some concern expressed by Dennis about the permanence of these plots since the university owned land was supported by the Wascana Centre Authority and the city but what with this large parcel of land adjacent to the university, there was pressure to use the land for housing or expansion purposes.

It has been my experience that people that grow their own food tend to be very food aware and Pat and Dennis were no exceptions.  They both shared stories of the personal impact these garden plots had on their lives. Dennis also maintained another plot in a different area of the city so his retirement springs and summers were spent happily planting, weeding and harvesting.  The bucket around his neck in the picture was to hold the 'September' raspberries he was growing. He had obtained this raspberry plant years ago from the University who had thought it might be a great variety to grow in the prairies due to the late fruit but Dennis said they gave up on it due to the 'problems' including double budding fruits and wastage at the end of the very short growing season available in the prairies.  Pat told me that her grandchildren really enjoyed coming with her to the plot and yes, they enjoyed the pumpkins that she was growing but that monitoring the progress of the large contest worthy pumpkin was the main attraction by far.

The talk of food security took a sombre twist when Dennis asked Pat if she had heard about the largest Saskatchewan pork producer filing for bankruptcy that very day (September 13th, 2012).  He told us that the meat producers were on the front line for feeling the effects of the American mid-west drought of 2012.  The price of animal feed had skyrocketed.  Dennis' own farmer brother was a beneficiary of this very same drought since he was getting over $8 a bushel for the wheat he grew. This year other feed like oats and barley have seen similar increases and this is the stuff that feeds the animals in our food chain. We all contemplated this and I pointed out that this is why having large urban community gardens was important. Every urban dweller should have the chance to grow at least a small amount of food because that gives an individual or a family some small measure of food security. I also mentioned that allowing urban hens gives people a similar opportunity and as our food systems become controlled by just a few corporations, small actions like urban farming will become increasingly important to the continuity of our collective knowledge base about how to feed ourselves at the most fundamental level.

As we talked the sun took a noticeable dip in the horizon and I was reminded that I had interrupted their work with my questions. I thanked them both for their time and as they hurried back to their harvesting and digging tasks I informed them that I would try and get their story up soon. Pat was especially excited at the opportunity to have her moment of 'fame' on my fledgling blog even though I assured her that the readership was currently in the dozens rather than hundreds (or thousands).

But I totally get her enthusiasm.  Us food warriors, we use weapons of mass instruction to disseminate and educate. And hopefully, after reading this, she will carrot a modicum of pride at the plot of land she maintains on the Little Urban Farm on the Prairie.  She and her grandkids.  And their kids.  And so on.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Hey Vancouver, kale me maybe?

On the left and on the right. 
Up a hill and down a street. 
On the corner and behind the wall.
One for her and one for him. 
It's 'cause they care and 'cause they share.
Community gardens are everywhere!
That was how this food warrior felt while traipsing through the streets of downtown Vancouver. Everywhere I turned there was yet another large community garden with well organized plots and extremely bountiful produce. Each of these gardens had a sign informing people that they were welcome to walk around but to please not pick the produce since it belonged to individual plot owners.  And from what I saw, the signage was observed since there was plentiful ripe harvest throughout the many gardens I walked through last week.
Some of the plots were haphazard and some were meticulously planned out.  Some plots had garden gnomes or other accoutrements of a regular front or backyard garden.  In a city where most people live in apartments or condos due to the highest real estate values in Canada, these plots offer the only access to getting their hands dirty in soil that is attached to the planet (as opposed to container gardening).
This is exactly the case for Mike (pictured below) and his partner Lisa.  This young couple finally got a plot in a community garden operated by Evergreen Canada across from Vancouver's City Hall after a two or three year wait.  They pay a nominal annual fee for a small plot that allows them to grow a variety of vegetables including the very successful purple kale pictured with Mike.
Mike and Lisa are from the Okanagan Valley region of British Columbia which is prime farmland nestled within the Rockies north east of Vancouver. They both miss access to land and are considering leaving the city.  In the meantime they are enjoying the fruits of their first year's harvest but won't grow quite so much kale next year since they had such an abundance. 
Mike said that Evergreen Canada provided loads of workshops to help them and also said that Vancouver's mayor was extremely supportive towards urban agriculture initiatives.  When I asked him if he knew anyone with urban chickens (legal in Vancouver) he said that they didn't know anyone with a house since they are so expensive but they had friends of friends that kept hens. 
Perhaps community chicken coops are next on the scene in forward thinking Vancouver? (There is already a chicken co-op that allows Vancouver hen owners to share costs and info about maintaining city chickens.)

Mike beside his purple kale.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Inaugural Harvest Trek 2012 Part I

Installment 1 of Harvest Trek 2012 occurs in Vancouver, BC where our Food Warrior, Orla.Hegarty, is preparing to embark on a cross Canada drive along the Trans Canada Highway. She hopes to explore this years harvest and collect deliciously radish-al Food Stories across Canada. She will be driving from sea to sea in the next few weeks and sharing some of these stories here. Lettuce Connect hopes to publish an anthology of these stories as a collection within a few months of the tour ending (and in time for a similar Scattered Spring Planting trek around Canada in the spring of 2013. Her first story is below. Please leaf feedback since it's nice to know if you give a shitake :)


This food warrior seems to have a magnet attached that attracts similarly minded folk. Case in point: I got on a crowded double length bus to visit a friend at UBC (University of British Columbia) yesterday and immediately my food warrior ears started twitching. 

Two young lads were discussing their programs: one of them was a land and food systems faculty student  from Sasketchewan and the other was (ready for it?) a young farmer (and UBC student) from Richmond, BC.  My food warrior ears started twitching when I heard the two making introductions and discussing farming and food issues.  The land and food systems student had wanted to be a vet so that he could work on farms (he was not a farmer but wanted towork in the industry).  The young farmer was living on the family farm and was basically just taking interest courses after two years of college and was hoping to major in Cultural Anthropology and Astronomy.

I navigated my way through the crowded bus until I was close enough to introduce myself to these young men.  The lad from Saskechewan wanted to end up in marketing in the farm or agricultural industry.  He got off well before UBC so that allowed me and the young farmer to talk for quite a length of time.

His family's farm was 200 acres and they owned 65 acres of that and leased the rest.  The land is protected by British Columbia legislation in order to ensure that the land remains agrigulturally zoned in perpetuity.  The young farmer (Lucas) told me that no one sells their agriculture land in Richmond due to the fact that everyone recognizes the possibility that the legislation may one day be repealed and then it will be like the lottery since land values anywhere near Vancouver are easily recognized as the most valuable in all of Canada.  I am sitting here typing on a computer in a cafe on a piece of property probably worth more than I can even fathom.

Lucas also told me that medium scale farmers like his family are concerned about new farming endeavours such as urban farming and new immigrant farms.  He said that as a regulated traditional type farmer they have to meet stringent criteria that is set by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.  He had concerns that food safety regulations were not being met.  He gave an example of a new immigrant family in Richmond that is farming pea sprouts on leased land.  He told me that this farm had had eight harvests so far in this season! Even I, as a non-farmer, know that this kind of intensive farming is in no way sustainable and destroys the soil very quickly.  And as a Management Scientist, I also recognized immediately that this intensive farming allowed these farmers to undersell any other pea sprout farmer. This all too familiar imbalance cascades down the supply system and directly into consumer's pocketbooks.  Consumers are not paying the true value of the food if there is even just one farmer managing to harvest 8 times whilst regular farmers harvest much less and with a mind to conserve the value of their soil.

So Lucas' family and other land owners like him have a right to be concerned and frustrated at these new food iniatives springing up like wildflowers across the continent.  The more quickly they sprout the more bureacratic agencies like the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have to run to catch up in order to ensure the safety of the food on our marketplace shelves.

So, after a nice visit with my friend, I was strolling through the demonstration garden/orchard beside the Land and Food System faculty building (pictured below). As I walked and observed this unprotected garden, I was thinking of Lucas and how wise he was about the whole food system thing.  At 20 or 21 years of age, his multigenerational farming family and others like his feel the effects of any changes in the system that allow shysters to take advantage of regulatory loopholes.  At the end of the day, Farmers Feed Cities, but they also have to feed themselves.

UBC's Land and Food System demonstration garden