York student aids the circle of life

Danielle Schami (left) began her master’s in environmental studies at York with high ideals to find ways of planning for sustainable urban food systems and build healthy communities. Now an alumna (MES ’03), her ideals have begun to translate into reality.

One of Schami’s aims was to produce a documentary video that can be used as a training tool for urban agriculture and other forms of sustainable urban food systems. Her aim has now met its mark, with help from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). 

“I want to work to inform others in my profession about the importance of considering food systems within the planning field,” said Schami in the outline of her goals and objectives on the Faculty of Environmental Studies Web site, when she began her MES at York. 

“I will be advocating urban agriculture, community gardening, rooftop gardening and permaculture, community-supported agrculture and producer-consumer networks.”

While in Toronto, Schami focused her research on initiatives such as FoodShare’s Field to Table programs in Toronto (http://www.foodshare.net) and the City’s Food and Hunger Action Committee Reference Group to study how organizing alternative food systems might fit into the municipal planning structures.

In 2002 Schami travelled to Mexico to further her research in a Latin American context, and that is when she produced her video about the Círculo de producción y de consumo responsable (Circle of Responsible Production and Consumption), a community-based project. She offers to present the video, entitled Full Circle: from rural fields to urban tables, at workshops to initiate discussion and reflection about global and local food systems.

“FES provided me with a space to creatively explore the intersection of the three areas that shaped my research framework: food systems, alternative approaches to planning and popular education,” said Schami.

“Nowhere else in Canada would I have had the opportunity to draw on my background in agriculture, anthropology, environmental studies and international development, and come out with a specialization that clearly reflects my interests.”

In June 2003, Schami joined the Federation of Canadian Municipalities International Centre for Municipal Development as a project officer, where she supports partnerships between Canadian and Latin American municipalities.

The following is an article about Schami’s field studies by Keane J. Shore, a freelance writer based in Ottawa. The article is on the Web site of the Ottawa-based IDRC (http://www.idrc.ca), a public corporation created by the Canadian government to help communities in the developing world find solutions to social, economic and environmental problems through research.

Circle of Life: Organic Farming in Mexico

Every two weeks in Guadalajara, in Jalisco State, Mexico, perhaps half a dozen farm producers sell organic foods and household cleaners at a tiny community market, in a friendly participant’s yard.

The market is really peddling ideas, according to Danielle Schami, producer and director of a 30-minute English/Spanish documentary video, Full Circle: From Rural Fields to Urban Tables.

“It’s not primarily about buying and selling. It’s really about raising awareness and educating people about where they fit into the food system,” she says. “By choosing to buy organic or choosing to buy local, they are in effect deciding to stay out of a global food system…. It’s starting with food to understand how we fit into a global economic system.”

The market, El Círculo de producción y consumo responsable [Circle of responsible production and consumption] is a community project of the 15-year-old Jalisco Ecological Collective. The Círculo is based on old Mexico’s tíanguis, indigenous marketplaces where people exchanged food and ideas. It’s a way to create a direct link between farmers who produce organic vegetables, milk, meat and eggs, and their buyers.

The market is founded on the principles of fair trade, ecologically sound agriculture and responsible consumption.

Widening a small circle

When Schami shot the video in 2002, the market had about 40 regular buyers, and perhaps 100 more people directly involved in the Círculo’s education programs. The education program’s showpiece is a booklet written by local campesino [farmer] Ezequiel Macias, explaining why he began promoting organic farming alternatives and using them on his own farm.

Right: Organic farmer Ezequiel Macias leads a workshop in his fields for visitors from the city. (Photo: Danielle Schami)

Schami says the Círculo’s ultimate reach probably runs into the hundreds, through workshops, bimonthly newsletters, videos, local university co-op studies, a radio program and farm tours. The tíanguis includes a sign-up table for people interested in further involvement in the Círculo.

Schami is a neophyte videographer. Her expertise is in alternative food systems planning and education, and the video was done for her master’s thesis for York University’s environmental studies program.

In 2001 the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) supported her work with an AGROPOLIS international graduate research award for urban agriculture research.

The risk of farming without pesticides

Schami believes small-scale farmers in Mexico and elsewhere are victims of an industrial farming system that values uniformity over diversity, and environmentally suspect inputs and short-term profits over land stewardship and long-term sustainability.

Farmers in the Círculo take a financial risk, because state subsidies and incentives are unavailable to producers who don’t use chemical inputs.

The farmers had realized, though, that the fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides they needed to grow commodities for big food processors’ buyers were sickening their families and the surrounding environment. Old staple corn varieties were falling by the wayside in favour of standardized hybrids.

For Círculo consumers, the taste and quality of pre-packaged tortilla mixes were issues. So was nutrition. The limestone used to process old-style tortilla corn is an important calcium supplement, missing in the new mixes. Both buyers and producers sought something better.

Aiming for the mainstream

Educating more mainstream Mexican consumers about advantages of responsible consumption and production may be a long process. Tortillas from heritage corn varieties taste better, but buyers wonder why the ingredients take more work, yet cost more, than the bags of mix they’ve bought in chain groceries for two or three decades.

While the circle is small so far, Schami says members have worked on it for years, and are willing to work years more. They’re always refining their ideas using bridges with organizations in Brazil, Germany, Scandinavia, and Canada. She thinks the Círculo’s long-term success depends on its ability to work increasingly with other institutions in Mexico, especially governments, without becoming co-opted. From there she believes its ideas could become mainstream.

Schami sees her video as her contribution to the education process, targeting any community group anywhere that will watch it.

“I really want the story to get out there,” she says. She adds that so often information flows from North to South, but this is a case where, “we [in the North] have a lot to learn.”