For an assignment, I have been asked to identify a “source of vigour”, or what Niko Roorda calls “opportunities that tackle complex sustainability issues”. I have chosen to present an organisation here in Gaspésie that is approaching education, health, and sustainable agriculture through its innovative programs and approach.
In the not-so-distant past (as recently as the 1960s) (Produire La Santé Ensemble, 2010), agriculture and fishing were mainstays of the Gaspesian livelihood. The region of Rocher-Percé (St-Georges-de-Malbaie to Port-Daniel-Gascons, see fig. 1) was particularly productive with its fertile soils and generous climate. There was even an agricultural school in Val-d’Espoir (Valley of Hope) that cultivated 225 hectares of fertile land and kept cattle, horses, chickens and turkeys (Produire La Santé Ensemble, 2010). All of the food grown or raised there was for regional use, and people came from all over the region to procure the fresh vegetables and meat products that were proudly produced locally.
Figure 1: Map of Gaspésie
These days, population decline is seriously affecting small rural communities in Quebec. With that decline come many problems which I’ll discuss further on.
Food Autonomy (Autonomie alimentaire)
According to Produire la Santé Ensemble (2010), food autonomy (free translation):
- is long-term and perpetual access to a sufficient daily supply of food, at a reasonable cost;
- Is the power to choose, with dignity and through access to clear and reliable information, healthy, clean and varied food;
- Is achieved through taking control individually and collectively, for the benefit of a community, in a spirit of sustainable development;
- Promotes respect for the environment, fair trade, and responsible consumption, and aims for a sustainable balance between the satisfaction of today’s needs and those of future generations.”
This concept seems to be a more locally or regionally applicable version of food sovereignty which has been defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” (Wikipedia, 2016). The Declaration of Nyéléni on Food Sovereignty goes on to explain:
“It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation. […] directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems [are] determined by local producers. Food sovereignty prioritizes local and national economies and markets and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and food production, distribution and consumption based on environmental, social and economic sustainability.” (Wikipedia, 2016)
In the past 50 to 60 years, food production on the Gaspe Peninsula has declined immensely. There is still a significant amount of fishing, but agriculture and farming has been replaced by grocery stores. In such a remote region, this means that all food comes from very far away.
The Gaspésie region of Quebec, like many rural regions in Canada and around the world, is suffering from a generalized population decline (Gouvernement du Québec, 2016). This exodus towards the cities is both a result of, and a cause of, diminished services to residents such as health care, education, public transport, entertainment, social programs and more (Government of Netherlands), creating a vicious cycle that drains the regions of their younger generations. These younger generations are disconnected from their regions, their heritage and their families. Many seek to return but can’t find jobs or find the services lacking (Higgins, 2008).
Population decline has far-reaching consequences that also include a loss of traditional skills such as fishing and farming. As these skills decline, and the number of people available to work the land decreases, a region becomes dependent on importing food, where it once was self-sufficient. The environmental impacts of this include increased carbon emissions due to transport of food, and larger-scale production of food causing increased use of pesticides and fertilizers. The food that is imported is less fresh, less nutritious and less tasty, and may even be harmful to our health (Bert, 2014).
There is, however, a bit of a movement toward the region, by young professionals who are looking for an open, clean environment, access to nature, job opportunities and challenges, and a healthy place to raise kids. While there is still a net population decrease, we can’t say that people are only moving away. There are publicity campaigns touting the region’s beautiful landscapes, its lack of traffic, and its unique career challenges for those willing to make the leap.
One such young professional, Isabelle Boisvert, had a vision for connecting local food producers with local consumers and thought that the village of Val d’Espoir was the perfect area to pitch her idea. When she came to the region and started talking to people, it was suggested that she go and speak to a Isabelle Garcia at the municipal health and social services centre (CSSS). The meeting between the two Isabelles was to prove fruitful! Garcia helped Boisvert to make the link between food production/consumption and public health, and from that meeting, PSE was born.
“To be able to meet people, have a job, be appreciated; to be healthy, in one’s mind and in one’s body: it’s all that. You know, a project like this, in which we would grow local food, eat more local food, work together, and stimulate the local economy – all that allows us to “produire de la santé ensemble” (grow health together).” (free translation) – Isabelle Boisvert (from the documentary Produire la Santé Ensemble, 2014)
Health is related to so many factors; the more we find out the more we realize that our health is not just connected to what we eat and what we do but also to our environments, our interpersonal connections, and our sense of self-worth. In small, isolated communities with declining populations, there are fewer opportunities to connect, fewer services, and usually an aging population. Learning about food, growing food, appreciating healthy food is one thing. Connecting with others, feeling pride about what you’ve produced, and learning to cook with local products all contribute to public health. From elementary school students to the elderly, all can benefit from spending time outdoors, connecting with their food and with each other. The public health aspect of this project therefore ended up being a huge part of its mission.
Many public health and social issues exist in the municipality of Rocher-Percé, which has relatively high rates of unemployment, high dropout rates, low household income, an aging population, significant proportion of single-parent families, and a population loss of 39% since 1971 (Produire la Santé Ensemble, 2014).
Produire la Santé Ensemble (PSE) (Growing Health Together)
Produire la Santé Ensemble is a not-for-profit organisation. Its name refers to growing / producing food (produire), for public health (la santé) and community development (ensemble).
The mission of PSE is (free translation) “to accompany [producers and consumers], develop, and experiment with collective solutions in order to improve public health through food autonomy” (Produire la Santé Ensemble, 2014). This video (in French) explains what they do.
PSE takes a three-pronged approach to their mission and programming.
- Market-oriented or trade approach (Marchand): in order to make it easier for producers to sell their products and for consumers to obtain those products;
- Educational (éducatif): allowing for awareness-building around healthy eating habits, for parents and children. Also allowing for intergenerational community-building;
- Nutritive (nourricier): encouraging people to grow and cook healthy food together in a positive environment.
The programs are varied and target young and old alike. One of the biggest achievements has been the Café-Grocery and now, also, flour mill (Le Moulin). This space is where local producers can sell their products, where folks can gather for a good coffee, corn roast, or a local beer, and also where locally produced grain is milled into flour. Recently, an outdoor, wood-fired bread oven was also built by the community. The infrastructure also includes a greenhouse where plants are started in the spring, for many of the community gardens.
A group purchasing program enabled a beef producer to sell 2 of his cows directly to 10 families in the area. A local butcher produced the cuts and the families filled their freezers with locally-raised beef. Another local egg producer sells her eggs at Le Moulin. All of this enables the community to become increasingly self-sufficient.
The educative programs include a “Petits cuistots” (little chefs) school program where parents and grandparents along with facilitators from PSE come in and help young kids cook healthy meals. There are educational gardens where schoolchildren are bused in for day trips, and guided visits to the grocery. All of these programs aim to increase awareness of healthy eating and allow young people to make a connection between the food on their plates and the land around their homes.
More recently, PSE has teamed up with a local mental health centre as well as a home for developmentally disabled adults. They’ve helped these centres put in place therapeutic gardens which are used in gardening and cooking workshops. Some of these gardens are in the ground, while others are in containers (Dumouchel, 2016).
PSE has been very successful in implementing its programs and in continuing to develop over the years. Val d’Espoir is a small community, with not many services. According to Élise Dumouchel, a board member at PSE, it would previously have been considered a “food desert” in the sense that there were no grocery stores, café, restaurant: people always had to drive away to buy food. This is certainly not very attractive to those wishing to settle in a rural area. However, since PSE has been implementing its programs and building community, people are choosing to live and build their lives there. One example is my children’s favourite babysitter: she moved from the relatively bustling metropolis of Gaspé to establish a daycare in Val d’Espoir, largely attracted by the growing sense of community and the availability of local food.
The Moulin Café and store attracts tourists in the summer season with its local products as well as with its more gourmet selection.
According to Dumouchel, financing is a challenge. Like all not-for-profits, PSE struggles with maintaining financing through grants, governmental programs, and their own initiatives. A major source of their financing over the past years has been Québec En Forme, which promotes health and wellness in the province. As well the municipality (MRC) provided funding through a program aimed at regional approaches to development. However as these two sources dry up, PSE is looking for more sustainable, long-term alternatives. They are trying to become more autonomous in their financing and less dependent on grants. This will mainly be done through the Moulin and the educational gardens.
An example of sustainable development
Produire la Santé Ensemble, for me, is an example of sustainable development that wholly encompasses the 3 pillars. The personal, social and environmental pillars are all addressed though the various initiatives and thought the mission of the organization. While development is on a small scale, and is happening slowly, it is happening, and is having a positive effect on its residents. I believe that in large part, its success is due to the concerted effort of its founders and the importance they saw in consulting the community. This was not a program imposed by a government, “for the good of the residents”; rather, an idea developed in concert with the local population. Key actors were identified and different perspectives were harmonized in order to make this a holistic project that responds to the needs of the community.
Bert, M. (Director). (2014). Produire la Santé Ensemble [Motion Picture]. from http://pseobnl.com/docu.html.
Bert, M. (Director). (2014). PSE – C’est Quoi? [Motion Picture]. https://vimeo.com/93259248.
Dumouchel, E. (2016, 04 15). Board Member. (H. McIntyre, Interviewer, & H. McIntyre, Translator)
GoGaspe. (n.d.). Map of Gaspe – Static. Retrieved 04 10, 2016 from Gogaspe.com: http://www.gogaspe.com
Gouvernement du Québec. (2016, 02 10). Estimation de la population des MRC, 1er juillet des années 1996, 2001, 2006 et 2011 à 2015. Retrieved 04 10, 2016 from Institut de la statistique du Québec: http://www.stat.gouv.qc.ca/statistiques/population-demographie/structure/mrc_total.htm
Government of Netherlands. (n.d.). Causes and Effects of Population Decline. Retrieved 04 10, 2016 from Government of Netherlands: https://www.government.nl/topics/population-decline/contents/causes-and-effects-of-population-decline
Higgins, J. (2008). Depopulation Impacts. Retrieved 04 10, 2016 from Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site: http://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/society/depopulation-impacts.php
Produire la Santé Ensemble. (2014). Bilan complet d’un laboratoire rural. MRC du Rocher-Percé: Produire la Santé Ensemble.
Produire La Santé Ensemble. (2010). Produire et consommer chez nous: Un guide vers une plus grande autonomie alimentaire. Produire La Santé Ensemble.
Wikipedia. (2016, 03 23). Food Sovereignty. Retrieved 04 10, 2016 from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_sovereignty