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