The CSI Food Constellation – HQ of Toronto’s Food Rebels
Members, farmers, restaurateurs, market coordinators and others from across Toronto were convening at the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) Annex to discuss the programming and logistics of the common space and kitchen.
“There was such a great buzz in the room,” recalls Aruna Handa, food philosopher and entrepreneur.
All had their own reasons for attending, but shared a passion for food, whether its production, distribution, preparation, consumption or disposal.
“It was so energizing,” says Aruna. “I just thought, Wow! We have to meet again.”
Aruna took the lead and began organizing monthly get-togethers of food collaborators and conspirators who quickly found issues and projects to tackle together. CSI welcomed these food fanatics, offering them a functional workspace and the Constellation Model to facilitate collaboration.
At each monthly gathering of the CSI Food Constellation, someone pitches an idea, project or business, and offers tantalizing foods in exchange for feedback. The meeting is 90 minutes long with time set aside to assess people’s common visions, and an additional half-hour at the end for informal networking. The constellation is open to everyone working or interested in the “good food sector,” and many who meet at CSI establish meaningful relationships.
One enterprise to come out of the food constellation is Toronto Office Markets, bringing local food markets to workplaces across the city. The office markets started at CSI and are now expanding to other buildings, with the intention of eventually setting up in subway stations.
The constellation also hosts a “speed consulting” series of events that bring together ten consultants and ten potential clients working in the good food sector. Each client has seven minutes with each consultant to see if there’s a spark.
“The constellation is 100 percent reflective of our core values,” says Tonya Surman, executive director of CSI. “It’s food innovation. It’s entrepreneurial. It’s collaborative because ultimately they are finding collaborative strategies to reinforce their economic success as food entrepreneurs. And it’s systems-changing because they’re transforming the marketplace by giving people access to local food.”
The local movement is part of a powerful market transformation turning the tide on the “big and global” of the previous few decades. Many of us seem to be searching for a personal sense of authenticity, centeredness, and a more meaningful relationship to the people and places around us. We’re increasingly shunning the neon lighting, utilitarian starkness and automated monotony of the “super” or “mega” market chains. Instead, we try to visit farmers’ markets, and neighbourhood butchers and bakers.
Despite this, those working in the good food sector face many challenges such as regulatory hurdles, restrictive distribution channels and limited business know-how. The lion’s share of our food dollars in Toronto is still spent in only three supermarket chains. But those working in the good food sector can create new distribution channels and business models so more dollars are spent locally. The Constellation Model can catalyze this process by enabling collaboration.
“This is an important part of a social innovation: the replacement strategy,” Tonya says. “The ability to replace bad systems with good systems, or bad approaches with good approaches, really matters. People eating good food, local food, as opposed to imported, is a replacement strategy, and collaboration is vital to our success.”
The food networking events presented CSI with an opportunity to apply the Constellation Model, which emerged from and was developed for the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment, and was adapted for Frontline Partners with Youth Network, the Ontario Nonprofit Network, and others. Inspired by complexity theory and systems thinking, the Constellation Model harnesses the power of self-interest for the collective good.
Market coordinators, market vendors, farmers, chefs, restaurateurs, bakers, researchers, writers, lawyers and chocolatiers participate because it is in their self-interest to do so. A constellation is created in response to a need or opportunity, or what the model refers to as the Magnetic Attractor. Once a group of people recognise the Magnetic Attractor they have much to gain from forming a partnership around it, turning self-interest into a shared goal or project.
“It is our self-interest that motivates us to come to the meetings, to collaborate on food initiatives, to get various projects off the ground,” Aruna says. “If someone has a cool idea that addresses issues facing many people in the sector, then this is the venue to find collaborators to get the project off the ground.”
When Len Senater, owner of The Depanneur—a café/corner store mash-up where “interesting food things happen”—ran into licensing issues that threatened to derail The Depanneur’s opening, he turned to members of the CSI Food Constellation for advice. He connected with Carly Dunster, a constellation member and self-described “food lawyer,” whom he put on retainer.
Carly’s experience as legal counsel with the Toronto Underground Market “opened my eyes to just how many individuals and organizations are clamouring to develop new and innovative ways to feed their communities, combat hunger, and shorten the distance between farm and plate,” she writes on her website. “They have creative, dynamic ideas, and need to know how to work within the existing food legislation framework to execute those ideas. The Underground Market experience also showed me that legislative and regulatory change is necessary in order to foster, and not stifle, this kind of innovative thinking.”
While bringing people such as Len and Carly together through the CSI Food Constellation, Aruna founded the capacity-building company Alimentary Initiatives. It is currently working on a number of enterprises, including Professional Development to help food entrepreneurs grow their businesses, and Toronto Office Markets.
The food constellation is proof of the kind of innovation that can result when CSI fosters collaboration. New constellations are forming; a gardening constellation is now in the works.
“In these meetings we feel like we’re finally driving the bus,” says Aruna. “We get to say where the stops will be. We are actively changing the food landscape of this city. It’s small steps now, but it won’t be small for long. It’s a glorious revolution and it all starts with food.”
Well then, let’s dig in!
If you'd like to join or just learn more about the CSI Food Constellation, check out the Constellation's website, join the food list for notices about upcoming meetings and events, or email Aruna at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Barnabe Geis, Communications Lead, CSI