Setting the Table for Food Justice: The Role of Community-Engaged Research

Dr. Tammara Soma, Co-Founder and Research Director of Food Systems Lab, was the feature speaker for a President’s Faculty Lecture on Tuesday November 23. Here are some highlights from the event.


Who has a seat at the food policy table and who gets to define the problem and shape the solutions when it comes to addressing issues such as food insecurity?

These are some of the questions that I seek to answer with my colleagues and students at SFU’s Food Systems Lab. Applying community-engaged research methods, this woman-led research lab is focused on centring equity, justice, and particularly the voices of Indigenous partners in shaping our collective vision to achieve sustainable, decolonized and just food systems for all. Informed by the Islamic and Indigenous teachings that food is medicine, I will showcase why worldviews matter when it comes to planning for food.

Insights from citizen scientists will demonstrate why food is more than just a commodity. Rather, food represents family, identity, culture and spirituality.

— Tammara Soma


Tammara Soma (MCIP, RPP) is an assistant professor at SFU’s School of Resource and Environmental Management and the research director of SFU’s Food Systems Lab. Canadian Organic Growers named Food Systems Lab as one of four “women-run projects that are redefining agriculture.” Originally hailing from Indonesia, Soma conducts research on issues pertaining to food system planning and the circular economy. Soma is a co-editor of the Routledge Handbook of Food Waste and was selected as a committee member of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for the consensus study “A National Strategy to Reduce Food Waste at the Consumer Level.”


The President’s Faculty Lectures shine a light on the research excellence at Simon Fraser University. Hosted by SFU president Joy Johnson, these free public lectures celebrate cutting-edge research and faculty that engage with communities and mobilize knowledge to make real-world impacts. Each short lecture by an SFU researcher will be followed by a conversation with Joy Johnson and an audience Q&A.
This year, lecturers will approach the themes of equity and justice from a variety of disciplines.

Food Systems Lab is one of four women-run projects that are redefining agriculture

Reposted from The Canadian Organic Grower:

Four Women-run Projects that are Redefining Agriculture


We’re showcasing creative and innovative women who are leading the way towards creating a more equitable future for food security. The work they’ve done and continue to do for their communities, the organic movement, and the environment deserve to be recognized. We’re very lucky to have such dedicated caretakers across the country, and understand that these are only a few examples of extraordinary women we know. 

1. SeedChange: Jane Rabinowicz and Tiffany Traverse

Jane Rabinowicz, Tiffany Traverse and the whole team at SeedChange are working with farmers and like-minded organizations to reclaim the power of good food and nourish communities. They are passionate changemakers with a fascination for seeds and are determined to mitigate the impact of climate change. They continue to work towards improving farmers’ livelihoods, increasing land biodiversity, and promoting seed and food sovereignty.

Rabinowicz is currently Executive Director at SeedChange and a board member of MakeWay. She has dedicated her career to community-led change, and is recognized by The Globe and Mail as one of the most influential people in Canada’s food system. She promotes ethical seed sourcing and creating community-based projects to teach different ways of approaching organic farming. She believes in the cooperation between organic and regenerative agriculture to create a balance for farmers and consumers alike while raising awareness of the significance of maintaining seed health.

Tiffany Traverse is a board member of SeedChange, an Indigenous Researcher, and an Indigenous Land & Seed Steward in the Peace Region of British Columbia. She’s currently researching and working alongside Métis seed keeper, Caroline Chartrand, on a rare Indigenous seed project. She’s always been fascinated with the beautiful mysteries surrounding seed sovereignty, and is now challenging the common agricultural practices by studying and implementing Indigenous methods that revolve around permaculture. She redirects all findings and credit back to the Indigenous Land by promoting the practices and ingenuity that have been keeping people healthy for generations.

With less than 1% of Canadians being farmers, there is pressure on farmers to produce enough to feed the masses, let alone use regenerative organic processes. This is why Rabinowicz, Traverse and the whole team at SeedChange are taking strides towards promoting a system that works with the environment to create better practices instead of fighting against it and deteriorating it further. 

To learn more about the work of SeedChange, click here!

2. Heart Beet Organics: Amy Smith & Verena Varga

Smith and Varga are known in PEI for their beautiful and bountiful farm. They made a name for themselves by growing all sorts of organic goods, while doing so with less than two acres of land. When they first moved to the island, there were many doubts surrounding their potential success, but they quickly showed what determination, hard work and creativity can get you. 

Since the majority of farms in Canada are inherited from family, it’s difficult to get into the agricultural world without being raised in it. Smith and Varga saw this gap in the system, and created an apprenticeship program for people who are interested in learning more about farming and organics. Smith can track all of her farming success back to her experiences working side by side in the fields with her mentors, and wants others to have the same opportunity. Smith and Varga invite curious, ambitious people in their community to work alongside them in hopes that some may discover a passion for agriculture. 

“The best farming education you can get is getting your hands dirty and working side by side with farmers” – Amy Smith, Saltscapes.

Additionally, they are fighting against food waste by creating products out of their unmarketable produce. For example, they produce delicious and healthy fermented products including kimchi, tempeh, hot sauce and much more. Heart Beet became the first and largest commercial producer of Kombucha in PEI. In 2019, they opened their farm-to-table café and kombucha tap room, where they serve plant-based meals that feature their produce and fermented products.

These women faced doubts and skepticism from the agro-community and turned it into motivation. Their enthusiasm, dedication, and passion for organics and their community is only the start of their triumphs. To learn more about Heart Beet Organics, click here!

3. Saanich Organics: Heather Stretch, Robin Tunnicliffe, Rachel Fisher 

Heather Stretch, Robin Tunnicliffe and Rachel Fisher are co-owners of Saanich Organics in Victoria, British Columbia, and each have certified organic farms of their own. They started Saanich Organics out of frustration with the amount of imported food coming into their community when fresh organic products were being grown locally. They noticed there was a gap between consumers and local organic farmers that could be fixed if food was made more accessible. Saanich Organics gave the opportunity to mend the bond between organic farmers and the local community by providing easy accessibility to organic food. They now provide a delivery service. They also offer a regular meeting place for farmers and consumers to sell, discuss, and buy local organic products — this is supporting their local farms and lessening the communities’ environmental impact.

They have since continued their work in sustainable organics by creating Seeds of the Revolution which provides healthy seeds along with growing recommendations on the packaging. The seeds can be mailed out all across Canada, and are great for small producers, farmers, and commercial growers alike. 

These women saw a barrier in their community and took the initiative to create a better way to build relationships between farmers and consumers. Check out their work here!

4. Food Systems Lab: Tammara Soma, Tamara Shulman, and Belinda Li

Tammara Soma, Tamara Shulman, and Belinda Li are co-directors of the Food Systems Lab, a research hub that specializes in bringing a sustainable food system to everyone. They’re working to reduce food waste in a way that enhances ecosystems, conserves natural resources, and mitigates climate change. They were sick of the band-aid solution that has been sweeping the environmental justice sector, and decided to build a community of scientists and researchers to build the lab. They wanted to make sure to build the foundation from three principle pillars: Reconciliation, social justice and inclusion.

With their team of specialized professionals, data-driven approaches, and in-depth research and design methods, these women are able to develop and evaluate solutions to improve the food system and our ecological footprint. 

To check out the Food Systems Lab’s latest research, findings, and progress, please visit their website here!

Successes and Challenges for Local Businesses during COVID-19

In partnership with LOCO BC, we hosted a virtual networking event for local businesses on January 26 to discuss how local businesses facing COVID-19 have adapted, creatively tackled challenges, and pursued solutions for environmental social and economic sustainability. Using the platform, participants mixed and mingled at themed virtual table discussions to connect with other businesses in a way not possible since the pandemic began.

Food Systems Lab recently worked with eight independently-run local businesses and two non-profit organizations on case studies to support a green recovery from COVID-19. We learned how they found creative solutions to support staff, safety, customer engagement, finance, and sustainability practices. Check out our newly launched video with highlights from the case studies, or read more about them on our project page.

SIMBIO on the National Observer

Belinda Li from the Food Systems Lab talks about some of the findings from Social Innovation Management for BIOPlastics (SIMBIO) in this news article published in the National Observer, which has since been syndicated to the Toronto Star, Welland Tribune, and Prince George Citizen. This article is a repost of the original.

Compostable plastic is booming in Canada — but it may still end up in landfills

By Marc Fawcett-Atkinson | NewsFood Insider | November 27th 2020

Compostable plastic cups at Jones Beach State Park, Long Island, N.Y. Photo by Brian Yurasits via Unsplash

Bio-based plastics, most of them compostable to some degree, are proliferating across Canada. Yet millions of compostable cups, containers and bags will probably still end up in landfills.

It’s a crisis driven, in part, by bad communication.

Bio-based plastics are not made equal. Some break down easily; others need months in an industrial composting machine before they disintegrate into organic compounds. And they’re classified through a labyrinthine system that leaves everyone — from manufacturers to waste managers to consumers — confused.

“Differentiating between the different definitions, that in itself is a project,” said Belinda Li, director of innovation at Simon Fraser University’s Food Systems Lab, which is leading a research project on biodegradable plastics.

In practice, that means most conscientious Canadians trying to dispose of their plastic waste appropriately have two choices: The recycling bin or the trash can.

Belinda Li, director of innovation at Simon Fraser University’s Food Systems Lab, says the mosaic of certification standards means most bio-based plastics don’t get composted. Photo provided by Belinda Li

Over 90 per cent of the world’s plastics are produced from fossil fuels, accounting for roughly six per cent of global oil consumption.

Less than one-tenth of this plastic is recycled, and the trend isn’t reversing: Researchers estimate that on the current trajectory, a fifth of the world’s oil will be used to make plastic by 2050, according to a forthcoming study by Li.

Bio-based plastics have emerged in recent years as an alternative against this backdrop — but what falls in that category is broad. According to research by Li’s team, the term is used to describe everything from plastics made from plants to plastics that can be broken down into their molecular parts by composting and plastics that are both plant-based and biodegradable.

That’s largely because, in Canada, the words used to describe bio-based plastics aren’t consistently regulated, Li explained. For instance, a coffee cup lid could be labelled as “biodegradable” or “compostable,” but what those words actually say about the whether the plastic can be broken down into organic matter is inconsistent.

“If you have something that’s certified organic (for example), it’s actually certified” according to standards set by the federal government, she explained. “With bio-plastics, none of that exists right now. You can label something as anything you want — compostable, biodegradable, plant-based.”

Researchers estimate that on the current trajectory, a fifth of the world’s oil will be used to make plastic by 2050. Bio-based plastics present an alternative — but the definition of compostable plastic is broad. 

While there are several third-party certifications available to bio-based plastics manufacturers, being certified is voluntary, she said. And each certification standard also has different requirements on how long it takes for plastics to disintegrate and the kinds of technology needed to actually break them down.

And often, those standards aren’t actually reflected in municipal waste management systems.

“The conditions that the tests have are really hard to replicate in the field,” she said.

For instance, plastic that meets the ASTM D6400 standard — one of the more common classifications for compostable plastics — assumes the plastic will spend at least 180 days in an industrial composter.

“(For) a lot of composting facilities, their process isn’t that long. They need to get their stuff through faster than that because they just don’t have the (space),” she said. “So there’s a mismatch between the types of tests being done to show compostability and on-the-ground compostability.”

As a result, many municipalities across the country — including those in Metro Vancouver — will remove bio-based plastics from the organic waste stream, even if they’re technically compostable.

New Video: The Soap Dispensary

We’re thrilled to share our first case study from our Supporting Sustainable Business Adaptation during COVID-19 project featuring The Soap Dispensary, a local business that has been leading the zero waste retail movement for nearly 10 years. See how they overcame the challenges of adapting to COVID-19 and get inspired to take action in supporting local businesses in this short video.