Tuesday, April 26, 2016

FruitShare and Good Food Box cross-pollinate a Trillium

As spring belatedly arrives, thoughts turn to the fruits of nature: vegetables from our gardens, berries from the bushes, the wonderful bounty growing all around us. But for many, access to fresh fruit and veggies is precarious at best. Luckily, some local programs address food insecurity: the Barrie Food Bank (more on this in a future column), the Barrie Good Food Box, and FruitShare Barrie. The latter two will be joining forces this year in a new collaborative venture, named (for now) the Urban Pantry Project, supported by new funds from the Ontario Trillium Foundation.
I have written of FruitShare before, so you’ll recall it sends teams of volunteer pickers to glean the fruit from homeowners’ backyard trees and share it between the owner, the pickers, and social agencies like the Food Bank. The Good Food Box is a bulk-buy cooperative, allowing many people to pool their money for fresh produce at wholesale prices. People sign up for the $12 small box or $17 large box and then each month, the program shops and fills the boxes with fresh fruit and vegetables at a significant discount from retail cost. Both programs make a healthy diet more affordable and accessible for families struggling to put food on the table among other bills and expenses, but are open to anyone who wants to hook into the local food movement, regardless of income. Participation from across the community makes it work, and nothing brings your family more joy than fresh, local, healthy food!
While these programs have been successful, they were both in need of a boost. You see, both the Good Food Box and FruitShare are run mainly by volunteers, with minimal paid staff. Yet both need significant oversight, a secure location for storing equipment and distributing food, and access to a truck for site visits and collecting and distributing food. However, neither was large enough to provide any of these for itself, and neither needed any of these full-time. But what if they were to share?
Out of that idea came the Urban Pantry Project, a proposal that has now received a first-year “seed money” grant of $66,800 from the Ontario Trillium Foundation. Announced this Tuesday by Barrie MPP Ann Hoggarth and Michael Coteau, Ontario’s Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport (and Trillium), this grant will put both projects on solid footing with a shared coordinator, truck, and depot, hopefully expanding over time to several depots bringing food resources, and hope, directly into more Barrie neighbourhoods.
This stable funding and staffing means both programs will be able to expand in scope. FruitShare will provide seminars and discounts on care for fruit trees, including pruning, and continue to plant Barrie’s “Food Forest”, fruit-bearing trees in parks or other public spaces. Together, the projects will offer workshops on food preparation and preserving, where people can re-learn the lost arts of cooking from scratch or canning jams and sauces.  
This grant will also bring greater visibility. FruitShare is still seeking local business sponsors to help with program costs, and now is the perfect opportunity for enterprising businesspeople to get their brand a prominent position in our media and promotional materials. (Yes, that’s a big hint). The public, the media, and the government all love projects like FruitShare and the Good Food Box, so this is your chance to get in on the ground floor and show the community that your business cares about food security. Contact FruitShare.Barrie@gmail.com to find out more about sponsorship, volunteering, or having your fruit picked for you; to sign up for the Good Food Box email BarrieGoodFoodBox@gmail.com.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Food security given a boost"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is the vice-president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation and a founder of FruitShare Barrie.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

My Two Cents on Political Finance

The latest political scandal is high-priced political fundraisers held by Ontario’s premier Kathleen Wynne and her Liberal Party, where deep-pocketed investors and cash-flush companies pay thousands of dollars to spend an evening with the top decision-makers. Most other parties haven’t said much about this, either, since they, too, depend on multi-thousand-dollar contributions from the usual suspects: the rich, corporations, and unions. Only the Green Party has notably stood apart, having advocated for years for a total ban on corporate & union contributions and a reduction in the individual maximum contribution limit.
So saith Uncle Pennybags!
This goes for the municipal level, too, where studies show corporations and developers provide the lion’s share of campaign contributions, while mayors and councillors are mainly funded with money from outside their own jurisdictions. Although some cities have ruled out some classes of contributions, and some candidates (like our own Mayor Jeff Lehman) pledge not to accept developer money, what is truly needed is a comprehensive reform, not just a patchwork of local or personal measures. Otherwise, nothing contradicts a clear picture of democracy for sale to the highest bidder.
But getting the big money interests out of politics solves one problem at the risk of creating another. If parties can’t accept big cheques, they will need to get a lot of little ones instead. Yet with fewer than one in 500 people willing to give more than $100 to a political candidate, there are limits to this revenue. Starving parties of money isn’t a good idea, either, because presenting a clear, researched platform to the public in a way they will take notice isn’t cheap.
Inexpensive tools like email or social media are handy, but they work by connecting to contacts you already have, or to people willing to pay attention to political posts (if their ad blockers aren’t engaged). They can’t reach those who aren’t already engaged. Distributing literature and putting up signs are still crucial elements of campaigning. In their absence, as those with a small budget and ecological conscience have found with online-only “virtual campaigns”, means most voters will never even know you exist or learn your positions. In fact, without election signs and a heavy amount of mass advertising by parties, a shockingly large percent of the electorate won’t even realize there’s an election on, much less who the parties or candidates are. Political apathy can’t simply be ignored; campaigns must push back with costly in-your-face tactics. So if Mr. Moneybags can’t help, what shall we do instead?
One clear answer is per-vote funding for political parties. This used to be in place federally, replacing big cheques when contribution limits were first tightened in 2004. Since then, half of our provinces have also adopted some form of per-vote funding. Arguments that this is an unwarranted taxpayer subsidy are completely disingenuous, as they come from parties benefitting from rich public subsidies through contribution tax credits and election spending rebates. Those are actually the subsidies that should have been reduced, since they favour big-spending parties or those with deep-pocketed supporters.
And since per-vote funding won’t work municipally, where candidates don’t represent parties, we also need a shift from generous donor tax credits to public matching, like in Quebec where the first $20,000 raised per candidate, and $200,000 per party, receives matching funds. This would help even the playing field between larger, more established parties and newer, smaller ones.
Most importantly, reforms like this must be implemented soon, definitely before the next municipal and provincial elections, so that we will never again have an election cycle dominated by big corporate, union, or developer interests.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Reforms needed to discourage elections from being dominated by corporations, unions, or developers"

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is the vice president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Monday, April 18, 2016

My old friend Technology: why have you forsaken me?

I grew up as a nerd, usually with a better handle on digital technology than my elders, sometimes even a resource to peers. Sadly, that era has passed; now I find technology more frustrating as time passes, or as I age.
The first big issue is my lack of a smart phone. Self-employed and working from home, with wifi at my desk and lap, I really can’t justify the expense of a data plan. Unlike some, I don’t have an employer to pay it for me; theoretically I could write it off as a business expense, but that’s still not free. So it peeves me to no end that, in this modern world, most handy new software tools exist as “apps” for phones rather than software for real computers.
Except I do put apps on my computer, to help family. My daughter saved birthday, Christmas, and allowance money to buy an older iPod we then discovered can’t handle the current version of iOS most apps need. If she’s lucky, the app she wants run an older version, but only if I first visit the AppStore from my computer and “get” the app there. So now I have an AppStore account, but even this work-around tragically only works around half the time, earning my endless enmity for all things Apple.
My other daughter has a tablet originally obtained for educational games like Plants vs. Zombies or Minecraft. Instead, she spends every online moment watching videos of other people playing games, a pastime her parents find incomprehensible and annoying. Worse, she has taken to watching videos during car rides, which we discovered halfway to Grandma’s Easter dinner had rapidly burned through the data allowance of our car’s wifi, preventing me from working online on long drives, the whole reason we had the plan!
Barrie’s Public Library is on the bleeding edge of new tech. They only had a recent bestseller I really wanted in electronic formats. I don’t own an e-reader and don’t enjoy lengthy reads on a computer screen, but with an old mp3 player gathering dust I consented to “signing out” the book-on-tape version (read by Wil Wheaton). Easier said than done. The first file to arrive was EPUB, apparently an e-book. I downloaded and installed software to “read” it, only to find all I had was a 33-page sample! So then I had to sign up for, download and install OverDrive to access the actual recording, which turned out to be 15 hours long! With the sound file now in my computer, I connected my mp3 player for something to enjoy on my daily walks. Surprise! Even with the files on my device and playable from it through my laptop, the mp3 player itself can’t “see” the files unless I install them with Sony’s special software. After 45 minutes of installation and a full system reboot, then a 20-minute Google search to overcome a known bug, and another 10 minutes to re-transfer, I finally have a listenable book in my pocket. Now all I need are better headphones to block traffic noise. At this point I suspect I could have read the hardcover in less time than it took to find, install, and use all the software to download it!
Meanwhile, the smartphone world continues to insult my cheap burner cellphone (mainly for emergencies) by forcing me to constantly send or receive text messages using a horribly unhelpful interface. I suspect it’s all a plot to enslave me to the smart phone data plan rip-off…

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Tech world tough to navigate"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is the vice president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Religion and Politics, oh my.

They say to avoid discussing religion and politics. Well, I’m not afraid to write about politics, and now and then address religion, especially when they intersect.
These days, religion seems very political, unfortunately for mostly negative reasons. Media pays much attention to the influence of radical Islam in some terrorist movements, or as inspiration to lone lunatics. Sadly, this fear spills over to the wider mass of non-violent Muslims desiring nothing more than to live their lives in peace, who see their religion not as a call to dominate those of other faiths, but merely a path to connect with a higher power. It worsens when members of a competing faith, such as Christianity, try to assert religious superiority not only in spiritual realms but in the domestic political arena, with policies such as shunning our duties toward refugees fleeing violence, or trying to ban all Muslims from entry, as suggested by a leading American presidential candidate.

Once on the cross, more than enough.
But your crucifixion goes on today
In killings, rapes, and war devastation,
Innocent ones maimed and abused,
Martyred ones speaking out for justice,
Brave ones protecting the defenseless,
All those men and women who die
Working tirelessly for the good of others.
When will your crucifixion end?
Not until everyone is a person of love
Today: I live as a person of love
 © Joyce Rupp in "Fragments of Your Ancient Name", Sorin Books

Therefore, it is encouraging that local Christians, working together through Simcoe County KAIROS, embrace their faith in an inclusive rather than exclusive manner. This Easter will mark Barrie’s third annual Good Friday Ecumenical Walk for Justice. Beginning and ending (with soup & bun) at City Hall 1 – 2:30 pm on March 25, marchers will visit many “stations of the cross” in Barrie, each relating to the struggles of dealing with poverty, homelessness, or marginalization. Some places are where the vulnerable risk feeling voiceless or oppressed, such as City Hall, a police station, or the courthouse/jail, while others are places they receive support, like the David Busby Street Centre, Elizabeth Fry Society, or a church participating in the Out of the Cold program. I am encouraged that Spirit Catcher is one of the stations, recognizing our First Nations and their faiths which faced great repression over the centuries. At each station, the walk will emphasize ways that “Christ is crucified today”, relating scriptural accounts to modern-day social injustices Christ would speak to, were He among us now.
Yet while some use faith to justify compassion and others to justify hatred, there are also those who feel people can be ethical, moral and compassionate without faith, relying instead on reason. Known as Humanists, they can be good without God. The Central Ontario Humanists Association (COHA) has spearheaded a great opportunity to learn more about that concept with “#GodDebate: Does God Exist?” at 7 pm on March 30. Respectfully debating on the “No” side will be COHA’s president Shawn Conroy, while arguing God’s existence will be the Rev. William Haughton of Collier Street United Church, which is hosting the event (thus giving God the home-field advantage). This isn’t a knockdown winner-take-all fight, no-one will be crowned winner; instead, it will be an opportunity for people of traditional or eclectic faiths, or no faith at all, to explore, share and discuss their own ideas and those of others. Visit event site http://bit.ly/GodDebate2016 to submit questions.
While I am not a believer, and don’t think scripture is divinely inspired, much less infallible, I do believe that great moral writings persist through history when they offer enduring insight on the human condition, whether that be the plight of the homeless or how to show compassion toward refugees from another land. With that in mind, I look forward to both of these upcoming faith-based local events.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Faith-based events will spark talk"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is the vice president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Ontario Liberals mess up Green policies again

Green legislation from other parties
is never quite as good as promised.
It’s great when governments finally do the right thing, yet frustrating when they try but screw it up. Over a decade of Green Party policy, I’ve seen many Green ideas migrate into the platforms of other parties and even enacted by governments, who rarely carry it through the way Greens would.
For example, the Ontario Liberal government started out with the best way to increase the use of clean renewable energy like solar, wind and biogas: a feed-in tariff. Basically, it guarantees that producers of clean energy can sell their product at a reasonable markup, which gets individuals and businesses the necessary start-up financing. It’s nothing unique to renewables, of course; nuclear, gas, and other electric producers also get guaranteed rates. By extending this mechanism to renewables, the playing field is levelled.
Unfortunately, the McGuinty government screwed this up a few ways. At the smallest level, they keep adding more and more restrictions on the microFIT program: they limit the size of a solar installation to 10 kilowatts, they won’t allow installation on a second property, whether it’s a business, cottage, or rental house, and farmers with panels on poles or frames, instead of existing farmhouses or barns, get lower prices. It’s like they can’t decide if more solar production is a good thing to foster, or a bad thing to restrict! At the mega-level, they gave initial preference to major corporate producers, including a multi-billion dollar deal with Samsung. Only many years later did they partially address this through preferential opportunities for local community co-ops, which should have been the norm in the first place. The end result of these blunders was to unfairly stain the whole idea of renewable energy among the public.
Similar problems are recurring around carbon pricing. As most environmentalists and just about every economist will tell you, the best way to reduce climate destabilizing greenhouse gas emissions is putting a price on carbon pollution, so reduction becomes part of every economic decision at the business, institutional, or family level. Even Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown now endorses that approach. Yet as he notes, but as our Premier Kathleen Wynne seems to have missed, the best carbon price is revenue neutral, returning all monies paid to pollute back to the economy through a tax shift or a dividend. Although a carbon tax can be a “price on everything” (although not on many things that are carbon neutral), it can also fund a “tax cut on everything” or a poverty-fighting rebate to everyone.
British Columbia showed the way; their carbon tax shift reduced pollution while economic growth continued without financial pain. Ontario and the rest of Canada should follow suit. Instead, though, Ontario is setting up a cap-and-trade carbon regime. Experience in other parts of the world predict this system will be complex, expensive, and hand unearned profits to the traditional polluters who got us into this mess in the first place, because they get free or discounted credits to use or sell. And as far as we can tell, the revenue will mainly be used to balance the budget, with some of it directed to emission-reducing projects like transit or efficiency.
By making the carbon price a burden on the economy, instead of a boost to innovation and efficiency, the government besmirches climate action like it did renewable energy. And with a federal Liberal government that seems unwilling to provide any better direction (2008’s Green Tax Shift plan apparently wholly forgotten), it looks like the best we can hope for on climate policy is half-measures and unnecessary pain.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Pain associated with climate policy"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is the vice president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Milking the 2% contribution

Sometimes our CF-18 bombers are really in tents.

When is 2% a thing, and when is it not? The right-wing media in Canada can’t seem to agree; while the rest of us happily accept 2% milk as real milk, pundits seem to either exalt or dismiss Canada’s 2% contribution.
In the war of words over the war we are waging against our atmosphere, Sun and Post columnists have consistently dismissed Canada’s role as insignificant: we only contribute 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the fact that we are only .5% of the world’s population and are thus polluting at 4 times the global rate, our “small contribution” is their justification to deny the influence we might have by cleaning up our act.
Yet this week, it turns out that our 2% contribution is a significant factor in another air war: bombing raids on terror group Daesh (not their self-styled title of “Islamic state”, as they neither represent a religion nor deserve statehood). Canada’s six CF-18 fighter jets comprised a whole 2% of the air strikes; if, as we have been told for years, 2% isn’t enough to matter, then how is it such a wanton act to withdraw from this campaign? If the point is that our participation is more symbolic than numerical, that doing our part matters more than how big our part is, why doesn’t this same logic apply to other dire global threats, like climate change? It would seem that 2%, statistically 4 times our share of population, is either punching over our weight or it isn’t, in both cases.
So let’s assume that our role matters, in both ways. We must then ask whether our actions can truly improve things or are just futile. While those pundits have argued that climate action is a waste of our effort and instead urge us to boost a tar sands industry that itself is less than 2% of Canada’s GDP, they insist we will be judged by the world on our contribution (or not) of 2% of the bombing raids going on over Iraq and Syria. While they are patently wrong on the first point, I must agree they are right on the second, yet that leads me to support the opposite policy.
You see, Canada should play our role in international military actions, when the mission is both legal and just. We luckily stayed out of the illegal invasion of Iraq, which created the failed state that spawned Daesh. We shamefully took part in the illegal war in Libya, moving beyond protecting civilians and instead taking sides in a civil war, leading to another failed state providing support and weapons to Daesh. Now we are part of a bombing campaign that has killed over 1300 civilians in Iraq and Syria, deaths which are a key recruiting tool for Daesh to refill their ranks and raise funds.
Are we taking the side of brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad, who only a few years ago we condemned for using chemical weapons against his own citizens, who is now propped up by Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia? He has already murdered more Syrians than Daesh ever has. Or are we siding with the Kurds, who have reportedly been ethnically cleansing the areas they capture from Daesh, to expand their own land base? Or with our NATO ally Turkey, whose interest in the area seems mainly to suppress the Kurds rather than Daesh? As Russia’s contribution to the bombing campaign destroys hospitals and schools, how could our own role be clear to the victims on the ground? All they will know is that foreign jets are bringing death from above, and Canada is part of that campaign. Or were – our 2%, significant or not, was in the wrong place and has been rightfully withdrawn. We can find better ways to address conflict and terror than by fanning the flames of someone else’s sectarian violence.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "There are better ways to battle conflict and terror"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is the vice president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Comical nostalgia: force for progress or stagnation?

Perhaps you might find yourself in the comics section
Nostalgia can be a powerful force, for good or for ill. Sometimes it can boost a new project, while other times it sucks up all the oxygen and stifles innovation. In today’s comics we see examples of both situations.
Turn to the comics page in this paper and you’ll find 4 daily strips. Three are fresh and new, while the fourth, For Better or for Worse, is a re-run. Created by Collingwood native Lynn Johnston, this strip was a ground-breaking pioneer in many ways during its original 30-year run. Drawing humourous insight from realistic situations of everyday life, it was and remains one of few strips whose characters aged in real time, going from toddler to adult before our eyes. While most days brought a smile or a giggle, the strip didn’t shy away from handling some very serious topics like divorce, youth coming out, or the heroic death of a beloved family pet. I would never want to diminish the amazing things accomplished by Johnston’s true-to-life characters and their family-next-door storylines.
However, this strip had its day and should have retired when Johnston stopped creating it. Instead, it plods on in repeat. The storylines, fresh when first penned, are now as hopelessly dated as the plotlines of Three’s Company or Family Ties. Stories of a mother and housewife working outside the home, people living together out of wedlock, or a woman getting impatient with her beau and considering popping the question he never gets around to, just aren’t cutting edge anymore, and to have them re-played today only diminishes the power they had in their original context. What’s more, by taking up 25% of the real estate on the comics page, FBoFW crowds out the opportunity for newer, younger artists make a living expressing their own ideas in a tough business. It’s time for this strip to retire before its glory is forever tarnished, and let a new cartoonist take her place on the printed page, before the medium itself implodes.
Contrast that with the case of Captain Canuck. This Maple Leaf-draped superhero who had his original 15-issue run from 1975 – 1981, with a few short re-appearances or re-interpretations over ensuing decades, is now back full force with three ongoing comic book series. One is a completely new modern day re-envisioning of the character, another continues the original storyline, while the third is a reprint of the original 15 issues. But even the reprints are updated, with new covers by current artists and all-new stories occupying the back 5 pages where the originals featured other, less memorable characters. Published by Chapterhouse, it’s the flagship for a stable of totally new titles and characters, providing great opportunities for talented up-and-coming writers and artists. In this way, nostalgia can propel new creativity.
Whether your tastes tend to old stalwarts or new styles, if you have kids, report card time is a great opportunity to encourage reading through the Free Comics for A’s promotion at Big B Comics. Bring in an official K to 12 report card and for each subject area with an A, get a comic from the back issue bins for free! Even if they didn’t do so well this term, Big B sends kids home with something great to read, starting them down the path to the nostalgia of tomorrow.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Comics can help kids appreciate reading"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is the vice president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.