Smart Cities initiative evolves to adapt to COVID crisis

WELLINGTON COUNTY – The joint Smart Cities initiative between the county and the City of Guelph is moving forward under a revised plan following a planning hiatus resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Guelph and Wellington County received $10 million from Infrastructure Canada to implement the municipalities’ Smart Cities vision: Our Food Future, Canada’s first circular food economy after the local proposal was selected as the top entry in its population category (up to 500,000) at an awards gala in Ottawa on May 14, 2019. The program goals include increasing access to affordable, nutritious food; establishing new circular food economy business and collaboration opportunities and generating revenue by reducing or transforming food waste.

While work was interrupted by the pandemic restrictions, Smart Cities project manager Justine Dainard, in an update provided to Wellington County council June 25, states the Our Food Future project teams, committees, and community steering group have all resumed scheduled meetings.

“The Smart Cities project rollout underwent a rapid evolution when COVID-19 arrived in Ontario,” Dainard explained in the report.

During March and April, work teams and partners re-evaluated how the multi-year project could best respond to immediate needs. The re-evaluation resulted in Grow Back Better, a 10-point plan which will launch many Our Food Future-funded initiatives, intended to provide support this year to Guelph and Wellington residents and businesses.

Dainard points out the Grow Back Better plan was built to reach and benefit both the county and the city. In the upcoming months, she explained, the Smart Cities office and county staff will be raising awareness and connecting people to new programs, funds and supports.

The report indicates the essential funding milestones and deliverables of the Smart Cities initiative have not altered:

– a rural broadband access pilot program is moving forward;

– planning for an on-farm pilot in Digital Agriculture Capacity Building and Adoption will begin this summer; and

– the county’s work within the Guelph/Wellington Solid Waste Management Master Plan is underway.

Dainard notes a planned County Food Hub feasibility study will be postponed by at least 18 months, and will then incorporate lessons learned from Grow Back Better actions.

Among the key elements of Grow Back Better is an emergency food relief plan. The existing SEED Emergency Food Home Delivery Program began transitioning in April to provide those most impacted by COVID-19 with immediate access to nutritious food. The goal is to distribute 100,000 nutritious food boxes by October free of charge to community members in need via contact-free home delivery.

Councillor Steve O’Neil asked how residents in need could access food the program.

“Seed emergency food support is available to anyone in the city or the county. It is accessible through the website,” Dainard explained.

“Seed is already working with East Wellington Community Services to locate people in need,” she added.

On May 22 the Harve$t Impact community donation platform was launched with the aim of raising $100,000 or more in cash donations as part of SEED’s $1 million-plus fundraising target. Our Food Future will match contributions up to $90,000 and provide communications support to encourage donations. Our Food Future is also collaborating with Toward Common Ground, a partnership of social and health service organizations that developed a collective planning model for Guelph and Wellington, to collect information about barriers to accessing affordable, nutritious food during the COVID-19 pandemic. Data will be used to identify systemic challenges and leverage best practices to provide residents who are struggling to access the food they need.

A Get Growing! – Urban Agriculture initiative will issue a call for proposals for projects that accelerate urban agriculture and its potential to increase awareness and access to food and local food production. Funding available through the initiative includes:

– $ 70,000 for a visible, high-impact community project that has a built-form component;

– $ 20,000 for a collaborative urban agriculture project that can scale communitywide; and

– $ 2,000 each for five community projects or projects led by individuals that have shared community benefits embedded in their goals.

The program is launching this summer with an anticipated 2021 implementation timeline.

Also launching this summer is a “Food Resiliency Table” to support the development of a resilient regional food system.

“This group will include residents and key collaborators from the Our Food Future network. Together, they will gather intelligence on the regional agri-food sector, develop recommendations or programs to support short-term and mid-term needs, and champion this 10-point recovery plan,” states Dainard in the report.