Cooperative Governance and a New Narrative on Agrarianism in Calgary, Alberta

May 2019

By Mary Beckie and Elizabeth Bacon

City-regions have become key players in food system governance. As part of the effort to understand how to create more inclusive and democratic governance structures, our chapter, “Catalyzing Change in Local Food Systems Governance in Calgary, Alberta” in Civil Society and Social Movements in Food System Governanceexplores the development of YYC Growers and Distributors Cooperative (YYC). The story of YYC is about a group of urban and rural growers working together to make local food more accessible in Calgary. It is also the story about the innovative governance mechanisms they are using to make this happen.

YYC was founded in 2014 as a not-for-profit society by a small group of urban growers. Over the next two years, they expanded their production base and product range by including both urban and rural growers. As the organization grew and evolved, they recognized the need for a different and more appropriate governance structure and in 2017 became a registered cooperative. Each of the 20 members has equal decision-making power, with a one-member, one-vote policy. Members’ products are collectively marketed and distributed through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and at a small number of farmers’ markets. In addition to making local food more accessible to citizens, YYC is committed to environmental and social justice, educating consumers about the value of local food, and influencing policy changes that better support local food systems. The rationale for YYC is best summed up in the following statement made by a YYC member in a 2016 documentary on food resiliency in Calgary:

“With the declining number of farmers, we’re going to need new people innovating and creating a culture around food…A resilient food system in Calgary is always going to be a complex web of many parts. YYC was formed by a group of young pioneers in Calgary who have made agrarian urbanism happen. We’re on the cusp of major change, as food security is an issue for all of us” (2016 NUFP documentary).

Through our research, we examine how YYC’s adoption of a cooperative governance structure has reinforced democratic values and principles, and allowed them to be innovative and scale up, while being supported by and building strong relationships with consumers, community organizations, and municipal and provincial governments. This research was informed by interviews with growers, board members, customers, and representatives from municipal and provincial government.

View of Calgary, as seen from one of YYC’s urban farms
View of Calgary, as seen from one of YYC’s urban farms

Key findings of the research include:

  1. Connections between producers; rural-urban linkages

A unique feature of YYC is how it has forged new relationships and collaborations between urban and rural farmers. This bridging of urban and rural growers in a regional food system is new in a province where large, export-oriented grain and livestock farms are predominant. Additionally, a significant proportion of YYC’s members are young people with limited farming experience, which is reflective of an emerging trend across Canada, as captured in the 2016 agriculture census. Together, these characteristics contribute to the formation of new narratives on what it means to be a farmer. 

  1. Connections between producers and consumers; education and awareness of local foods

YYC’s members directly interact with consumers at CSA pick-ups, farmers’ markets and through an active presence on social media (Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook). Members see sharing information and developing relationships with customers as a key benefit of being part of YYC. By reconnecting people to food, farmers and land, YYC aims to spread understanding about the potential of local food systems to achieve social, economic and environmental goals. Understanding and regaining control over the ways in which food is produced and sourced enables the development of ‘citizen consumers’, consumers that more informed and engaged.

YYC’s table at the Hillhurst Sunnyside farmers’ market in Calgary
  1. Connections with civil society and government

 YYC has been built upon democratic principles and values of inclusiveness and solidarity that are embedded in the cooperative model. As an extension of this, YYC has built relationships with a variety of governmental and non-governmental actors and organizations. In doing so, they have created greater agency and momentum for change in the food movement.

Bringing diverse actors together and achieving more democratic governance structures for food system transformation is a challenging and ongoing process. The examination of the democratic nature of cooperatives like YYC and its outward collaborations can provide insights for more progressive change.  


Mary Beckie is an Associate Professor and Director of Community Engagement Studies at the University of Alberta and is affiliated with the western (British Columbia/Alberta) node of FLEdGE. Her research on sustainable and localized agri-food systems has taken place in western Canada, the European Union, Cuba, India and Sri Lanka.

Elizabeth Bacon is a research assistant with Dr. Mary Beckie at the University of Alberta, as part of the FLEdGE network. She is currently pursuing an MSc. in geography at the University of Montréal.


Beckie, M. & Bacon, E. (2019). Catalyzing change in local food system governance in Calgary, Alberta. In P. Andrée, J.K. Clark, C. Z. Levkoe, & K. Lowitt (Eds.), Civil Society and Social Movements in Food Systems Governance (81-100). London: Routledge. DOI:

The Civil Society & Social Movements in Food System Governance Blog Series showcases the chapters and themes from the open-access book. Follow along as we explore the governance of contemporary food systems and their ongoing transformation by social movements.

Previous posts in the series:

Searching for Fit? Institution Building and Local Action for Food System Change in Dunedin, New Zealand

May 2019

 By Philippa Mackay and Sean Connelly

Food system change is complex and multifaceted. From the global to the local, concerns about health, the environment, social justice and economic development reflect diverse priorities for food system change.  While this diversity provides multiple opportunities to draw on a range of expertise and resources, it also highlights the critical role of governance in navigating competing priorities and resolving tensions. Food governance is about processes and structures of power and control around decision-making. Decisions made will influence the allocation of resources, prioritization of values, and the approaches that are taken to achieve particular outcomes. The chapter “Searching for Fit? Institution Building and Local Action for Food System Change” in, Civil Society and Social Movements in Food System Governance, discusses the evolving process of local food governance. In doing so, we highlight an example of how diverse stakeholders are involved in shaping priorities and processes of food system change.

The case study in this chapter is set in the small city of Dunedin, located on the South Island of New Zealand (NZ). In Dunedin, two co-evolving food system networks (one derived from civil society, the other from local government) have emerged. Concerns about the food system has resulted in multiple food initiatives to address environmental issues, food poverty, and community building. These responses have brought diverse efforts together in a systemic way.  

Timeline of activities leading to the development of Our Food Network Dunedin and Good Food Dunedin.

Our Food Network Dunedin (OFN) is a self-described grassroots organisation dedicated to stimulating the production, distribution, and consumption of local food, and in that way, contribute to building a resilience and prosperous community. The local government network, Good Food Dunedin (GFD) was initiated following the successful lobbying by OFN and others, to create a part-time position within the Dunedin City Council (DCC) dedicated to addressing issues of food resilience . The council-led food network became a formal platform to bring together diverse stakeholder who share a vision of transforming Dunedin into a thriving and sustainable food city.

The emergence of these two food networks reflect different perspectives and illustrate the challenge of attempting to collectively frame issues and advocate for solutions. For example, GFD focused on framing the problem and solutions of food through an economic and resilience lens, as this was the only way Council involvement could be justified. OFN was concerned about this overly economic focus since their primary motivation and core values are rooted in local food as a driver for bringing people and groups together to enhance local food production and consumption. Compromises were necessary by both network groups to determine the way that food system issues were framed, and various initiative supported in response. Additionally, other food system actors held the perception that these networks offered limited room to discuss food values outside of local or resilient food systems, such as food-related social justice issues. Despite these differences, local food governance has been legitimized both within local government and in the broader community as a result of the process to formally introduce alternative food initiatives into the Council’s agenda.

Food system governance in Dunedin has evolved from what was once a relatively small collection of diverse food initiatives to a more formalized network of food system actors that have firmly placed food on the public agenda through the formation of GFD. Civil society and local government relationships have been reshaped, and the creation of the formal platform for decision-making has led to positive relationships that have increased access to resources and empowered local communities to make decisions on food system change. The potential of linking these efforts to broader social movements in the city, or to reflect other framings of food system problems, such as social justice or providing for cultural food system practises, has not yet materialized. It is clear however, that the process and newly formed structures of power that have been institutionalised in local governance mechanisms, are now set up to address complex and multi-faceted food system issues more formally into the future.

Chapter Contributors

Philippa Mackay is an Environmental Consultant who works on strategic and community development projects.  Her passion lies with the implementation of sustainable practice more generally, but she has a keen interest in sustainable food system change.  She completed her Master of Planning in the Department of Geography at the University of Otago.


Sean Connelly is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography at the University of Otago. He teaches courses on environmental management and his research interests are in the broad area of sustainable communities, with particular focus on alternative food systems and rural and regional development.


Chapter Citation

Mackay, P., & Connelly, S. (2019). Searching for fit? Institution building and local action for food system change in Dunedin, New Zealand. In P. Andrée, J. K. Clark, C. Z. Levkoe, & K. Lowitt (Eds.), Civil Society and Social Movements in Food Systems Governance(63-80). London: Routledge. DOI:

The Civil Society & Social Movements in Food System Governance Blog Series showcases the chapters and themes from the open-access book. Follow along as we explore the governance of contemporary food systems and their ongoing transformation by social movements.

Previous posts in the series:

Traversing Theory & Practice and the Governance Engagement Continuum

April 2019

By Kristen Lowitt, Jill Clark, and Peter Andrée 

Food systems are in crisis. For social movements and organizations working at the front lines to build more sustainable and just food systems, this crisis also represents an opportunity. Civil Society & Social Movements in Food System Governance provides an array of examples from the Global North of how members of food movements are attempting to make change by getting involved in food system decision-making, or ‘governance’, both inside and outside governments. Local government engagement is exemplified in the case of Correns, France, where organic food advocates have harnessed municipal government to further sustainable community development in their rural community. Formal government engagement at the national level is examined in a case study of participation in the national food policy consultation process in Canada. While another chapter highlights the case of social movement engagement in the World Committee on Food Security. 

Food governance is about more than simply working with governments. Governance refers to all of the relationships, processes, rules, practices, and structures through which power and control are exercised and decisions are made, whether by companies, organizations, governments, Indigenous authorities or international institutions. The case of the YYC Growers and Distributors, a new food producer’s cooperative in Alberta, exemplifies the creation of collaborative food system governance mechanisms outside of government, though the chapter on YYC also shows how local and provincial governments had to be engaged to ensure success. 

These are examples from just four of the ten chapters covered in this new book, which can be thought of as a primer for food system activists working to strengthen alliances and governance around their own innovations. Published in February 2019, Civil Society & Social Movements in Food System Governance includes chapters featuring case studies from Canada, the US, Europe and New Zealand. Most chapters are grounded in research supported through the FLEdGE project, and were discussed at a project workshop in September 2017. 

To set the scene for the on-the-ground case examples that follow, the book begins by introducing the concept of neoliberalism, or the predominance of the private sector and markets as prime concerns, as a defining feature of contemporary food systems. We also review the range of ways that social movements characterize the food system and seek to make change – from food security, to right to food, to food sovereignty. 

In addition, we present an original framework for thinking about the variety of forms that social movements engage in food system governance. We suggest these forms may be situated along a continuum, emphasizing how social movements experience and work with power. 

Governance Engagement Continuum: The role of food movements

This collection illustrates four main ideas:

  1. Food movements are increasingly engaging in governance to have a wider, systemic, impact.
  2. Food movements engage in governance at a variety of scales, though there is an emphasis on the local scale.
  3. The variety of forms that governance engagement takes can be placed along a continuum when considering the power that social movement actors wield.
  4. Building relationships with other actors based on mutual trust and commitment is central to achieving change. This volume highlights how many of the relationships built through local food  initiatives  may become the foundation for broader collaborations.

By examining and comparing a variety of ways social movements engage in decision-making, at a range of scales, the book offers insights for those considering contemporary food systems and their ongoing transformation by social movements. Alongside the cases featured in this book, we hope that the framework presented in Chapter 1 will be helpful for other communities and researchers to examine what is happening with food in their own backyards.

Civil Society and Social Movements in Food System Governance is an open-access book. You can read it online or download for free here.

Chapter Contributors

Peter Andrée is Associate Professor and Associate Chair in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University. His research focuses on the politics of food systems and the environment. He practices, and teaches, community-based participatory research methods.  Prof. Andrée is co-editor of Globalization and Food Sovereignty: Global and Local Change in the New Politics of Food (2014) and author of Genetically Modified Diplomacy (2007).


Jill K. Clark is an Associate Professor in the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University. Her research interests include food policy and practice, centering on community and state governance of food systems, the policy process, and public participation.



Charles Z. Levkoe is the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems in the Department of Health Sciences at Lakehead University. Charles’ community-engaged research uses a food systems lens to explore connections between social justice, ecological regeneration, regional economies, and democratic engagement.



Kristen Lowitt is at the Department of Geography, Brandon University, Canada. Her research looks at the interactions among food security, communities, and natural resource management in rural and remote regions.



Carla Johnston is a Ph.D.  Candidate and a Doctoral Fellow at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. Her research interests include the governance of sustainable food systems in northern Canada as well as using Participatory Action Research (PAR) methodology to work directly with civil society groups to create meaningful actions that help them reach their goals.


Chapter Citations

Andrée, P., Clark, J., Levkoe, C., & Lowitt, K. (2019). Introduction – Traversing theory and practice. In P. Andrée, J.K. Clark, C. Z. Levkoe, & K. Lowitt (Eds.), Civil Society and Social Movements in Food Systems Governance (1-18). London: Routledge. DOI:

Andrée, P., Clark, J., Levkoe, C., Lowitt, K., & Johnston, C. (2019). The governance engagment continuum: Food movement mobilization and the execution of power through governance arrangements. In P. Andrée, J.K. Clark, C. Z. Levkoe, & K. Lowitt (Eds.), Civil Society and Social Movements in Food Systems Governance (19-42). London: Routledge. DOI:

The Civil Society & Social Movements in Food System Governance Blog Series showcases the chapters and themes from this open-access book. Follow along as we explore the governance of contemporary food systems and their ongoing transformation by social movements.