4 Years of Getting Skilled Up at Cape Breton’s UP!Skilling Food Festival

up!skilling logoWhen you walk in the doors of New Dawn Centre for Social Innovation on the morning of Up!Skilling, it is like showing up at a conference…but all your friends are there and the experts are the farmers and foodies up the road. The atmosphere is casual and celebratory. Up!Skilling is about community: bringing people together through a shared passion for food, and through shared learning.

Om April 28th, we enjoyed our fourth offering of this annual festival, drawing as many as 100 people each year. The tickets are inexpensive and there are unwaged and pay-it-forward options. Tickets include a day of food skilling and a delicious lunch, plus there is always affordable childcare offered. The festival grows and shrinks with access to funds and the capacity of organizers, but there is a committed core of supporting organizations, including: New Dawn, ACAP, Ecology Action Centre, Cape Breton Food Hub and Cape Breton University. The festival is now housed with the Island Food Network, but continues to be a collaborative, passion project for old and new coordinators and volunteers. After four years of success with this grassroots initiative, it feels like a good moment to reflect. We called on a few people to share their experiences after being involved for several years.

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Some of the real magic happens in between sessions when participants have a chance to connect (credit: Corey Katz)


Demmarest Haney- Facilitator Extrordinaire

Demmarest Haney, farmer at Feywood Grove Farm, has been facilitating sessions for Up!Skilling for the past three years. She has taught workshops on chacuterie, cheesemaking, food storage, and more. Demmarest continues to be excited by the sense of community and camaraderie around Up!skilling. “One of my favourite things to see has been the evolution of some participants, from quiet observers to knowledgeable presenters. It is a real sign that Up!Skilling is working and engaging the community.”

While teaching makes Demmarest nervous, reactions of participants keep her coming back for more. “I especially love when I run into a participant later and they tell me how they have used my recipes/techniques in their own life.”

Demmarest recalls going into a commercial kitchen to do a food workshop and finding one of her handouts taped to their refrigerator, and hearing from a local eatery that they have incorporated fresh cheesemaking into their menu after attending her cheese workshop. It is exciting to witness the food skilling trickling out into the community.


Demmareat Haney facilitating a cooking workshop (credit: Corey Katz)

Lyn Stuart – Loyal Participant

Lyn Stuart has been an Up!Skilling participant since the beginning. She hasn’t missed a year yet! “I need a yearly Up!Skill to get growing. It kick-starts spring for me in a big way and I am so thankful for the opportunity to attend. Each year my skills get a little bit more fine-tuned. Some years I add a new hobby to my repertoire, and I always leave feeling a little bit wiser.”

“Its a beautiful thing the committee has done with creating such a laid back environment to learn and grow in. Coming together in this type of space to share skills and knowledge year after year is so special, and so important. Something as small as our presenters just doing what they do best at a festival like this will create such positive change in and around our island. That right there is magic.”

Lyn has participated in a broad range of workshops over the past four years. “The festival has done an amazing job of staying true to its roots,” Lyn reflects. “For someone choosing the courses I think that each year had a great mix of workshops for both the novice and the experienced, and a wide range of topics for the foodie, for the green thumb, and everything in between. The workshop on how to build a raised bed by Pauline Singer completely energized me. I was astonished at how easily it all came together. My dad gave me his drill that night and I tore through my barn for scrap wood, and made three raised beds that week!”


Jen Cooper – Hard Core Committee Member

Behind the scenes, there is an equal sense of pride and passion for Up!Skilling. Jen Cooper, from ACAP Cape Breton, has been involved all four years, quickly taking on a lead role. Jen says, “It’s a sign of spring to me now. Each year it feels like new growth and it’s so positive. The magic that keeps me coming back for more is being part of that community feel but a lot of it lies in the committee. It feels like friends hanging out but we’re getting something valuable done at the same time.”

For Jen, there have been many highlights over the years. One year she grew an oversized tomato plant that she offered up for the door prize. She had to transport it to the festival, strapped in the backseat with a seatbelt. Kimmy McPherson from the Glace Bay Food Bank won it, and it was the beginning of a new food friendship : ) That same year, Alison Uhma was hired to graphically facilitate, and she did a beautiful job of capturing the day. Jen has also facilitated a workshop on how to design rainwater harvest.


Jen Cooper facilitating a workshop on rainwater harvest

jens tomato

Jen’s prize tomato plant



Alison Umah’s graphic representation of Up!Skilling Day (a couple years back)

From a committee perspective, Jen has seen Up!Skilling grow, pruned and re-grown a few times. “Each year the committee becomes stronger and pivots around a paid coordinator. A coordinator is key and allows for the rest of the committee to remain volunteers without burning out. We’ve had excellent coordinators and I’ve learned so much from them. I also think the brand has become recognizable. It’s our 4th year using the same logo and our second year using the watercolour veggies.” Jen is the artist behind the scenes. She paints each of the cute little veggies (in logo).

In 2017, we were able to add a few smaller, “Bite-Sized”, Up!Skilling workshops throughout the year. Organized by the Better Bite Community Kitchen, they targeted a smaller audience and shared knowledge in cooking healthy on a budget, how to prepare healthy food, and how to use kitchen equipment properly.

Up!Skilling Hopes and Dreams

Lyn has been a part of some casual post-Up!Skilling gatherings. “I would love to see more of that, and just more events in general related to this movement of growing and preparing and understanding food. I always feel so energized and am dying to network more with people.”

I would love to see Up!Skilling continue to grow while retaining it’s grassroots/community centered vibe,” says Demmarest. “ It might be great to see it expand into other areas where we as a community could use some upskilling – such as a repair café, clothing swap, or skill-share program.”

Like Demmarest, Jen envisions an Up!Skilling that retains the things we love… “Familiar things like the location, the bright colourful feel, and the quality workshops and knowledge sharing should remain. I’d like to see Up!Skilling make enough money to get off the shoe string but not enough to grow it too far from its roots.”

The future of Up!Skilling involves sharing and learning beyond the day of the event: little changes in the way we approach growing, cooking and eating, or the extra attention, gratitude and connection that are inspired. “I feel empowered by this event, says Lyn. “This festival is a good reminder that you really can be a part of this food movement…you can start somewhere and make a difference. There is so much to know, but it is okay to be a beginner. Incredible what someone can pass on in a one hour session and how that can carry on to affect your life, your children’s lives, and hopefully others lives for years to come.”

“I want to commend those who are part of making this festival happen. It is such an accessible festival, fuelled by one awesome vision for our community. Sometimes what makes accessibility possible is a lot of work and not a lot of pay – each and every one of the volunteers and committee members gets infinite thanks from me.”

For more information or to get involved in future Up!Skilling, contact islandfoodetwork@gmail.com or visit our website, http://islandfoodnetwork.ca/upskilling-2018/





Written by Jody Nelson, Cape Breton Community Food Coordinator with the Our Food Project of the Ecology Action Centre.

Adventures in Local Food is your source for food news in Nova Scotia, from pickles to policy. It is a project organized by the Ecology Action Centre
Learn more about our program at https://www.ecologyaction.ca/ ourfood
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