The Carrot Common Rooftop Garden on the Big Carrot

Building Toronto’s food infrastructure: a spotlight on Agent of Change Emma Tamlin

Today’s youth are the leaders of tomorrow. They’re filled with passion, drive, and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty to create a more sustainable, prosperous, and equitable world for all.

We’re profiling five participants from Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals — an 8-week, impact-driven course that taught 100 youth how to use the tools and tactics of social entrepreneurship to work towards the achievement of the SDGs. Emma’s work touches on a number of Sustainable Development Goals, namely SDG 9: Industry, Innovation, & Infrastructure, SDG 11: Sustainable Cities & Communities, SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production, and SDG 13: Climate Action.

Emma Tamlin at Avling Brewery’s Rooftop Garden in Toronto’s east-end.
Emma Tamlin at Avling Brewery’s Rooftop Garden in Toronto’s east-end

Emma Tamlin’s passion for food systems began in childhood. Growing up on a farm, where ingredients for meals could be found 100 metres away from the house, she recognized the importance of healthy, accessible food.

As she grew older, Emma became a fierce advocate for food justice, taking on leadership roles with the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council as the Co-Chair for two years and at Green Roofs for Healthy Cities where she leads green infrastructure policy and rooftop urban agriculture initiatives.

Most recently, she took part in CSI’s Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals program. It’s designed for young changemakers who want to make an impact, supporting them as they identify their purpose, map out an idea, and build the foundation so they can grow their venture.

When the program started, Emma knew she wanted to create something that combined her passion for sustainable cities and food justice. As a result, Emma started Raised Roots, an urban agriculture operations and consulting company, with two co-founders: Rav Singh, an urban farmer and educator with a passion for food policy and food justice, and Amanda Klarer, a sustainable food systems specialist.

“Our mission is to support property owners in integrating food production into projects but also work to change policy to make it easier for everyone in the city to have access to fresh, nutritious and culturally appropriate food.”

When we look at the impacts of our existing food systems and the impacts they have on the world, Emma explained, there are three driving factors pointing us in the direction of urban agriculture:

  1. In Canada, the average age of farmers is nearing 60 years old, and there aren’t enough young people joining the profession to replace them. Statistics Canada found that there are more farmers over the age of 70 than under the age of 35, meaning we have under 10 years to figure out who will be producing food when these farmers retire.
  2. The global food system is responsible for up to one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, mostly derived from the harvest and transportation process.
  3. If you look more locally, the Toronto Resilience Strategy shows that we only have three days of fresh food in case of an emergency. When you consider the panic buying that occurred at the beginning of the pandemic, we want to have local food infrastructure in place.

Urban agriculture can strengthen our food supply chain, reduce food miles, make fresh food more accessible and increase our local resilience in the event of an emergency. But food and the power of food systems to facilitate solutions to urban challenges is not being fully realized in Toronto.

In October 2019, Toronto City Council adopted a food lens framework which sought to mandate city departments to approach their projects and programs with food in mind. Unfortunately, due to COVID19 the food lens framework has yet to be fully implemented.

Part of Emma’s work through Raised Roots has been advocating for the role of food in various city departments and in development projects. One of her favourite examples of a food systems approach is trees, specifically fruit trees:

“Fruit trees manage stormwater, purify air, reduce the urban heat island, provide shade. They do all the things regular trees do but they also produce food! And this food can create jobs. A great example of this is in Toronto. There is an organization called Not Far From The Tree (NFFTT). They pick the fruit from the trees around the city on both public and private property and then share the bounty with community partners. In 2020, NFFTT picked over 10,000 lbs of fruits and nuts!”

Emma notes how compared to regular trees, fruit trees provide more services to our city but they are not incentivized in policy.

“It has been incredibly frustrating talking to people who work at the city who tell me that ‘food security isn’t in their department mandate.’ There is a lack of incentive for policy makers to go out of their way and create new policies without public pressure but as cities work to become more resilient given what we saw happening during COVID-19, trees are an easy place to start. Of course, they are not a silver bullet but most cities have tree programs in place already.”

During the Agents of Change program, Emma learned about challenging biases and testing ideas. At the end of the day, understanding different perspectives, contexts, and viewpoints will help her overcome objections and strengthen her work.

“When you are surrounded by people who also believe the same things [as you], I think it’s really easy to assume that you are right. Sometimes I need to remind myself that not everyone sees things the same way. The program offered me an opportunity to reflect on my own values, biases and reinforced what I already knew which is that it is important to listen to everyone including those with different perspectives to ensure my work actually solves problems”

Looking to the future, Emma is excited to continue building Raised Roots and advocating for edible green infrastructure in municipal policy and land-use planning. “It does not have to be elaborate, it just needs to be supported. There is massive potential for food production in our urban environments that we urgently need to support to increase Toronto’s resilience and equity.”

Our Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals program is designed to equip the next generation of changemakers with the skills, resources, and coaching they need to make an impact. Check out other stories from program participants here!

Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals is made possible with the support of the Government of Canada.