“I’m energized every time I walk into this building,” says Tony Doyle. “And so is everyone else. They know we’re doing something unique here.”
The building Doyle is talking about is the Centre for Food at Durham College in Oshawa, the city on the eastern edge of Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe that has been best known for generations as the headquarters of General Motors Canada.
General Motors aside, today’s Oshawa is evolving into a post-manufacturing medical and educational centre with a quite different economic future.
Now it wants a different food future too.
Durham College’s Centre for Food is a hub for a number of the college’s food-related programs including culinary, horticulture, hospitality, and special-events-management programs. It also features a store selling food grown or produced on site, and a fine dining restaurant that is open year-round.
Doyle is the associate dean at the Centre for Food. Opened in 2013, it’s a modern-looking building with a colourful glass facade that is becoming a landmark on an otherwise dreary and suburban stretch of Highway 401.
And there’s a surprise. Even though it’s set amidst roads, malls, and restaurants, the centre is actually next to a field of vegetables. There’s a melange of crops including cabbage, sweet corn, tomatoes, squash and small fruit, and even a greenhouse and a small apple orchard, too, on a former industrial site returned to agriculture.
You soon find that this isn’t the only combo in the works. The food and farming program, one of the horticultural programs at the Centre for Food, has just doubled its enrolment to 48, made up of students from the region, second-career learners, and some international students. “It’s a real mix,” says Doyle.
Doyle says the vision for the centre started when the college realized that many students left Durham region to pursue post-secondary studies in the hospitality industry. At the same time, there was increased consumer awareness of locally produced food. Together, they contributed to a vision for an educational centre based on the concept of field-to-fork.
“We’re focusing on urban farming in urban areas,” says Doyle.
Doyle considers the community to be another key element of the Centre for Food. “We want to be a solution for this community,” he says as he talks about people using the facility as a community hub for weddings, bar mitzvahs and corporate training. Another connection is through its partnership with a local mental health hospital. When patients are ready to integrate back into the community, chefs at the college teach them about cooking skills and healthy, cost-efficient meals.
Agriculture is a big employer in Durham region. “Our mandate as a college is about making sure we’re connecting to industry,” says Doyle. Those connections include the advisory board for the food and farming program that consists of industry experts, an orchardist, bee keeper, cannabis industry representative, and a local restaurateur.
Food and farming program
The food and farming program teaches students small-scale and urban farming. Along with courses about growing, there are others such as entrepreneurship, food safety, and artisan product development. Labs include food production and the creation of value-added products.
Doyle says that an interdisciplinary mix of both courses and students is an important aspect of the program.
In a recent school-run competition, a food-and-farming student paired up with a culinary student to create the winning entry: a vegan, allergen-free, school-safe brownie. Then he gives the example of microgreens, a crop that food and farming students grow year-round, which is used by the on-site restaurant. “We have students who will pick out of our garden in the morning and serve on a plate at night in our restaurant,” he says.
The college hires 12 of the students to work on the farm for the summer. “The students feel really confident when they go out, they have this broad knowledge,” he says. “They can work in a lot of different places when they’re done.”
Signs of success
“We’ve had municipalities come to visit us to learn how we’ve repatriated the land and how we’re using it and producing thousands of pounds a year,” says Doyle as he talks about a growing recognition of the Centre for Food.
In 2016 Durham College named the Centre for Food after W. Galen Weston in recognition of a $1-million grant to the college by the W. Garfield Weston Foundation. Doyle says the Weston foundation has been very supportive of the focus on local food and the field-to-fork principle.
The values of the program are summed up in an annual harvest event. “Our harvest dinner is one of our signature events but it also captures everything we do,” Doyle explains as he describes the annual event that seats 130 members of the public outdoors, along a long table right next to the field.
Food and farming students grow ingredients. Ornamental horticulture students get the grounds in shape for the event. Culinary students prepare the meal. Hospitality and special-event-management students serve the meal.
It involves students from all of their programs, making it quite interdisciplinary. “People talk a lot about local food and the 100-mile diet,” Doyle says. “We’ve got a 100-foot diet.”
“I’m blown away every day I come here,” Doyle repeats. “What we’re doing is unlike anything that’s being done in Canada. The integration of food between programs, the complementary nature, the interdisciplinary study — it really makes for the most unique educational environment.”
Brad Abel is a second-year student in the food and farming program at Durham College’s Centre for Food.
Abel, who grew up near Ridgetown, Ont., says that while he wasn’t raised on a farm, “There was lots of corn.” Agriculture wasn’t new to him, having family members who had worked in the industry.
He is a second-career student. “I used to work in a machine shop,” he says. But indoor work wasn’t for him.
At the time, Abel was living in the town of Renfrew, Ont., where he had a large lot. He started growing lettuce, tomato, and eggplant. “The first year I did it to see how it went,” he says, explaining that he ended up with far more than he could use himself.
He liked growing. “I ended up building greenhouses on my property,” he says. The following year he got involved in a local farmers market. After selling at the market for a season, he came here to Durham College.
He says his classmates come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some are older than him (he’s 30), a few are in their 20s, and some are fresh out of high school. While some grew up on farms, others have always lived in the city.
Abel likes that the food and farming program exposes him to more than just growing. “You have this circle, this value chain, of experience,” he says. He also enjoys the direct connection to consumers. “People come out and they tell you this garden looks amazing,” he says as he talks about patrons of the campus restaurant, Bistro 67.
“It gives you this knowledge, ‘Yeah, this will work,’” he says. When Abel finishes the program he plans to return to Renfrew to farm.
“It’s a good way to learn how it will work in the real world — in a smaller system,” he says. “You can see every step.”