Alison Blay-Palmer, Wendi Campbell, and Kathy Absalon sitting in a row of chairs on a stage laughing and Mary D'Alton stand at a podium facing the panelists

Women Building Thriving Communities: Food, Nutrition, and Sustainable Practice

Dr. Alison Blay-Palmer speaks at Laurier’s IWD2020 Luncheon

On Thursday, March 5th, Alison Blay-Palmer, Director of the Laurier Centre for Sustainable Food Systems and UNESCO Chair in Food, Biodiversity and Sustainability Studies, participated in Wilfrid Laurier University’s annual International Women’s Day Luncheon. The event, “Women Building Thriving Communities: Food, Nutrition and Sustainable Practice,” focused on the role of food in addressing poverty, health and sustainability at the community level. The panel also included Kathy Absolon, Director of the Laurier Centre for Indigegogy, Wendi Campbell, CEO of The Food Bank of Waterloo Region, and moderator Mary D’Alton, Director of Strategic Initiative, Nutrition for Learning.

Panelists were asked to reflect on their experiences as women leaders working on community-focused research and advocacy and to talk about why food is central to that work. An edited version of Alison’s remarks and the moderated Q&A that followed has been reproduced below. 

Alison’s Opening Remarks

I am passionate about work that helps build sustainable food systems—food systems that are fair, green, healthy, localized, and inclusive—and my steadfast commitment to that work is what led me to work at Laurier and my appointment as the UNESCO Chair in Food, Biodiversity and Sustainability Studies. Circling back to this vision and looking for ways to enable more sustainable food systems through research, network, capacity building and teaching is key to my work. The UNESCO Chair is a platform to further enable sustainable food systems research with partners across Canada and in Brazil, France, Kenya, and Zimbabwe.

It’s important to remember that impactful work must be built incrementally and that that work can take a long time. The Food: Locally Embedded, Globally Engaged (FLEdGE) project, one of the Laurier Centre for Sustainable Food System’s main projects, started with a workshop and conference grant from SSHRC in 2008. Now we’re wrapping up a $2.5 million research partnership that includes more than 80 research partners and has attracted more than $3.5 million in matching funds from community partners, private sector and government. Through the UNESCO Chair in Food, Biodiversity and Sustainability Studies—which is a direct result of the networks we’ve built through FLEdGE—we’re now working on an opportunity to develop new graduate and professional certificate programme in food and sustainability here at Laurier.

One of the reasons that so much innovative work is being done through The Laurier Centre for Sustainable Food Systems is the supportive team environment that we’ve cultivated. We all agree on what we are doing and work hard to make sure we understand how we’ll get there.

But this collective vision requires flexibility, especially in the research we do where the most effective solutions to the biggest challenges in the food system are most often place-specific. We need to make sure we are learning from what we’ve already done and figuring out new ways to make connections between people and resources. For instance, we recently developed a City Region Food toolkit that can be used by advocates and policy makers to increase capacity at the local level for real change. In response to community needs, we’re now working on a climate resilience version of that toolkit that will include online training materials.

The collective vision of the LCSFS is also built on strong personal and professional connections with our research associates, partners, staff and students. I like to find out what people are good at and what they are passionate about, and get out of their way. For example, we launched a podcast series this fall called Handpicked: Stories From the Field, which helps us to profile the excellent researchers here at Laurier and across our networks who are working to make food systems more sustainable. Handpicked builds on the strengths and interests of Amanda Di Battista, the LCSFS Project Coordinator, and Laine Young, one of our amazing grad students. Laine and Amanda work directly with research partners to help them tell their research stories in their own voices.

We also know that in the Waterloo Region there are already many people doing really incredible work at the individual and community level to address climate change. In the very near future, we will be launching a web site called “Climate Change Champions” where people from the Waterloo Region can go to tell their stories and inspire others. You will also be able to send along your story to local councillors and MPs. We are getting this into shape now for a late summer launch, so stay tuned for information on how to sign up and participate in the project.

Alison Blay-Palmer speaking at a podium in front of a purple Laurier banner


Mary D’Alton (MD): What/who has really inspired you in your leadership journey?

Alison (ABP): My grandmother has been a big influence in my life. She was born in 1902 and worked as a chemist in a dairy in Wales. She grew up during two world wars and had a very grounded approach to food and food access. Imagine the challenges of growing up during that time of scarcity. She also married late in life and carved out her own pathway.

MD: What are some common misconceptions that people have about food security, holistic approach to food? What impact does that have on the community?

ABP: The most common misconception that people have about food security is that there isn’t enough food to feed everyone on the planet. So, there is a myth that we need to produce more food which diverts attention from the real issues which are lack of income and the inability of communities to produce their own food.

MD: What does food security mean to you, and how does food security empower our community to thrive both locally and globally?

ABP: Food security is about being having access to enough healthy, culturally appropriate food. We need food to live and work, but we also need food to celebrate life, to break bread with friends and family, and to have healthy, thriving communities.

MD: What do you consider your greatest advancement in your research and what it’s contributing in the world?

ABP: Capturing robust case studies about how people are living and working in sustainable food systems in many parts of the world and sharing those out so people can learn from one another. This work resulted in the UNESCO Chair in Food, Biodiversity and Sustainability Studies, and the amazing team that supports this initiative.

I am also honoured that I get to work with fantastic graduate students and help them develop in their careers. I get a lot of joy from my students.

MD: We have a great mix of people in the room today including students. If you think back on your years of experience, what is one piece of inspiring advice you would give a younger version of yourself.

ABP: I would tell her to find her passion and follow it, and to make sure that she’s strategic in doing that. It is so important to always have a plan B and C that will help you get to where you will be happy working, but the first and most important thing is to do what you are passionate about.

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