The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: food

Repackaging the Food Story

food-packaging1

TALK OF IT IS EVERYWHERE these days: why do we throw out so much good food when families are going hungry? Answers abound, but in recent months increased attention has been directed towards grocery stores and some actions that are, and can be, taken to cut into all that waste.

Key to much of recent efforts to divert some of the billions of dollars of food from being tossed out is that businesses themselves are coming to terms with the cost savings they could accrue through more efficient methods. Maximizing profits while cutting costs has been a mantra for businesses since the birth of capitalism and food companies and stores are now applying that method to food waste.

For decades the practice of “stack ‘em high and watch ‘em fly” witnessed food stores pile an over-abundance of fresh product on their shelves in the belief that customers felt more inclined to select more than they required. But research is revealing that such stacks created more spoiled product than necessary and extra staff time was required to clean up the mess. Some stores then began makes the piles lower only to discover that customers like their shopping experience better because the produce on display was roughly three days fresher than previous. The end result was that sales rose, less produce was tossed out, and customer satisfaction rose. It also turns out that that better packaging also absorbs food odours that would otherwise prompt consumers to think their food was spoiling when it wasn’t.

In Canada, $27 billion in food waste should be telling us that we are not only wasteful but that there are significant opportunities to save the landfills, the pocketbooks, and business costs. Recent research by food expert Martin Gooch titled, Developing an Industry Led Approach to Addressing Food Waste in Canada, suggests that perhaps it’s time for business to take the lead in this country.

He suggests Canadian grocers can play a big role in helping to reduce those losses, and boost their bottom lines in the process. His partnership with London, Ontario’s Ivey School of Business to research food waste in Canada’s agri-food industry was revealing, causing Gooch to note: “There are significant opportunities for businesses to streamline their operations, reduce food waste, and increase profits.”

All of these efforts couldn’t come soon enough. Not only is there great hunger enduring in the world, but climate change, and our ongoing pattern of wasting our natural environment, means the time has come to treat such problems realistically. Business and food companies, along with consumers, must begin the process of leading the way.

We are living in a world where lemonade is made artificially and furniture polish is made from real lemons. Something’s clearly wrong, and dealing with how we waste food is a beginning stage in repurposing our entire food system.

“Making Food Waste Illegal?”

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 6.51.09 AM

AT YESTERDAY’S PRESS CONFERENCE FOR THE Curb Hunger Food Drive for the London Food Bank a fellow named Steven approached me and asked if I had heard of all the things Europe is doing to divert food from the trash. We talked about the situation for a few minutes and he closed by saying, “Why can’t we do something about it in Canada. I mean, we have all this food, and with hunger growing it seems a crime to just let stores and restaurants throw good food away.”

It appears that a town councillor in France felt it was criminal too, and he recently succeeded in getting a national law passed that would ban supermarkets in France from tossing out or destroying unsold food. And it goes farther. The same law mandates that all unsold but edible food should be donated to charities for immediate distribution to low-income families. And further yet, it prohibits food stores from pouring bleach over food (a practice used sparingly in France) in their dumpster bins lest some hungry person eats it and gets sick, leaving the door open to all kinds of liability issues.

It was inevitable that something like this would eventually come out and that France, with its social progressive kind of politics, would lead the way. The fact that it emerged through the efforts of one individual is even more impressive.

The timing of something like this couldn’t be more important. The United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (UNFAO) came out with a staggering reminder last week that almost half the food produced in the world is never eaten. In Canada, the food thrown in the dump is in the billions of dollars – all at the time that food banks are staggering under the pressure of high demand.

We have to start somewhere on this problem, but targeting grocery stores is perhaps too simple a way to go about it. Such establishments have been important community partners, provided generously to food banks, and are slowly, and with much citizen pressure, placing an increased emphasis on locally grown and fresh food. We can target them, but the problem is really a societal one, not merely a capitalist oversight.

The UNFAO reminds us that citizens in North American, often awash in food choices, discard far more supplies than their European counterparts. Yes, supermarkets are culpable as well, but so are our restaurants, farmers, hospitals, military facilities, and even government institutions and citizens. We – all of us – have a problem with waste and our refusal to act upon the environmental damage this facet of our individual and collective lives is creating is part of the reason why we are so late in coming to terms with this overabundance problem.

Yes, it’s a good thing that France is challenging supermarkets to donate their surplus to charities, but that’s not really the solution we would want, is it? We require more efficiencies in the food system – growers, storage companies, shippers, sellers, consumers – rather than by just creating a kind of humanitarian impulse at the end of it all to layer over our mass consumption. And the answers to poverty don’t live in charities like food banks but in solid policies that invest in affordable housing, mental health and addictions, education, and the big one right now, secure employment with a livable wage. Anything less than an integrated approach will never heal the environment, eliminate poverty, or make us a people with activated consciences.

Yes, we have to start somewhere – I get it. But why don’t we start together, all of us, and move a country rich in food into a nation wealthy in ingenuity and citizen responsibility. Food is a great place to start, since the necessity of it calls for something better from each of us, and all of us. Healthy and sustainable food production and consumption is one of the ways out of our individual and collective lethargy. We can go big and go home, from refining the most sophisticated of food processing plants and supermarkets to our own kitchens. We require food to live but our handling of it might now generate our chance to evolve.

Half the Sky? Think Higher

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 5.12.44 PM

WHEN MAO ZEDONG (CHINA’S CHAIRMAN MAO) noted that women hold up “half the sky,” he might have greatly underestimated that figure. Best selling author, and New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristoff wrote a book, co-authored with Sheryl WuDunn, and filmed a documentary that used “Half the Sky” as the title for both. He made his intentions clear at the very outset of both projects:

“So let us be clear about this up front: We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts. That is the process under way – not a drama of victimization but of empowerment, the kind that transforms bubbly teenage girls from brothel slaves into successful businesswomen.  This is a story of transformation. It is change that is already taking place, and change that can accelerate if you’ll just open your heart and join in.”

Hundreds of researchers and writers besides just Kristoff have repeatedly noted that economies simply can’t flourish unless women are permitted and encouraged to apply their entrepreneurial skills to their local environments. Nowhere is this more true now than in farming and agricultural businesses.

Recently, the United Nations spoke of how former rural dwellers are now migrating to cities by the millions, but a deeper look reveals that the majority of that great migration are men either searching for new lives, or seeking employment to send money back to their families in rural regions. Whatever the reason, the result is that women are having to pick up the agricultural slack left as a result. This represents, for women in developing countries worldwide and their communities, the opportunity they have been waiting for.

But as we might suspect, there are problems – lots of them, as farming increasingly transitions from men to women.

To begin with, women farmers are frequently deprived of land ownership. Laws haven’t kept up with the changes and an entirely new field of lawyers and researchers are rising up to correct such historical oversights in an attempt to assist women to gain a fighting chance. Today, half of all farmers are women and half of the food grown has come from their hard work. But it could be better. According the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), if women could just enjoy the same land rights as their male counterparts, their combined efforts could lift some 100 – 150 million people out of hunger. But that’s not happening because women can’t own the land they till.

But it’s not just about land; it’s also about animals. Women are greatly limited in the animals they can own, and they don’t even get all the revenue raised from the animals they do possess. We see this in South Sudan whenever we visit and it takes dedicated effort to change the culture over many years.

All this is important because it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Women most often have less educational opportunities than men and experience far more difficulty gaining access to seeds, technical information, fertilizers, pest control measures, and tools. That’s a lot to overcome, but they also carry advantages that men don’t. Their understanding of local market operations is vastly superior to that of their male counterparts, and the networks they establish in tireless efforts to feed their families would dwarf what others possess. Combine that seasoned expertise with the tools mentioned above and the developing world would go through transformational change.

We don’t have to venture overseas to witness the distinct disadvantage women face when gaining ownership of their lives is such an uphill climb. Just consider the matrimonial property rights dilemma that confounds our First Nations communities and how aboriginal women can lose a sense of ownership virtually overnight. This isn’t just a developing world phenomenon, nor merely a Canadian aboriginal problem – it is a global travesty of injustice, a lack of political will, and a refusal of many to build legal ownership into communities and countries as they modernize.

Given that women are quickly increasing their oversight over agricultural operations as the men depart to municipalities, it likely is true that the idea women hold up “half the sky” isn’t even close to reality. The task of beating world hunger is now squarely within their opportunity to rectify, but only if the global community fights to win them the rights, opportunities, and the tools to get the job done.

Why Can’t Canada Feed Itself?

the war against hunger is truly

NOT EVERY PERSON IS HUNGRY, BUT MOST hungry people are poor. There’s no way around it; a person with too little nutrients finds life an ever-greater challenge. “We have to eat to live,” said Marty Rubin, “and that’s our timeless tale of tragedy.” In the modern West, this is becoming increasingly so.

Speaking to Global News a short while ago, Priscilla from Saskatoon put out the stark choices that consistently drive some to hunger: “If I attempt to eat healthy, bills wouldn’t get paid. And most of the time I’m balancing what’s more important – a roof over our heads or the ability to eat healthy – or even eat three meals a day.”

How can it be that one of the richest nations on earth, and that exports vast quantities of food overseas, ends up in a place where an increasing amount of families can either afford a place to live or healthy food, but not both?

Food bank use across the country never relented, even a number of years after the Great Recession supposedly ended. But there is one subtle though critical development: a larger number of food bank clients are working, many are highly educated. Yet at the end of the day, this still can’t afford to effectively feed their families without cutting other important aspects of living.

According to recent studies, four millions Canadians are living in some form of food insecurity. That’s a lot, and it continues to climb even though job numbers have increased marginally. Historically, Canada has rounded off the rough edges of poverty and hunger through a national form of social safety net, but that net now has huge holes in it, leaving entire families to drop out of security and into poverty.

A compelling recent study by a McMaster University professor, Atif Kubursi, concluded that Ontario’s local food supply would create thousands of more jobs in the province, including some seven thousand in Hamilton, Ontario alone. At the same time it would be better for the environment and allow citizens healthier choices.

One troubling finding of the report, titled Dollars and Sense: Opportunity to Strengthen Ontario’s Food System, is that Ontario actually doesn’t produce enough food to feed itself, though it would easily have the potential to do so.

In a strange twist of globalization fate, Ontario residents prefer the look of imported fresh produce from the Florida area over home grown foodstuffs. And yet Florida residents prefer Ontario’s produce. Go figure. Understandably, consumers have become highly selective in what they want to eat, but that doesn’t mean they are highly educated as to the choices. Ontario fresh produce is every bit as nutritious as Florida’s, but most don’t know that.

Another finding in the study is that, although Ontario imports $20 billion worth of food products each year, over half of that amount could be grown in the province directly if there was just the will to put it together. At the moment, Ontario imports twice what it exports.

Kobursi’s conclusion of all this was revealing: “Ontario is missing regional economic development opportunities to enhance and support the production and distribution of local food.” We all sense this to be true. The Canadian healthy living guidelines on food have been well researched, and if we were to eat according to those recommendations, consumer demand would drive change throughout the province’s entire food industry, creating more employment opportunities in the process. That says something in an industry that already employs over 767,000 people in the province. That’s 11% of our jobs.

What is true in Ontario is frequently mirrored across the country. Somehow we have permitted a vital industry to largely bypass the hungriest of Canadians. And maybe that’s the problem. As singer and celebrity Bono put it: “If you want to eliminate hunger, everybody has to be involved.” At present we have the knowledge and the research to teach us how to reform and revitalize our food systems so that can Canada could feed its own as well as the world, creating prosperity in the process. We need to find that formula and it will have to be consumers that drive it forward because governments, at least at present, show little inclination to tackle poverty in any serious fashion.

Social justice in any nation is vital to its future credibility, but if low-income Canadians only have enough food to last them for a few days, all those aspects of social justice, from housing to health, from employment to equality, have to take a back seat while hunger itself devours their hope and opportunities in just a few days. No nation can survive intact that permits a growing number of citizens to remain in poverty even as the economy supposedly improves.

Food: A World of Contradiction

illustration4

FOOD IS EVERYWHERE THESE DAYS, and not just physically. Talk of it runs the gamut from food trucks to food banks, the price of food to the massive amounts of it thrown into landfills. When James Beard noted years ago that, “food is our common ground, a universal experience,” I wonder if he knew just how true that would become, given all the issues around food these days, from its abundance to its scarcity, its price to its source.

In reality, food is an entire world, a universe even. A vast as the human experience, it also reveals the strengths and weaknesses of our values. We see it of such importance that we enforce access to it at the same time as we permit others to face starvation for lack of it. Even the United Nations Charter of Human Rights mentions food, while the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization was its very first department.

And like much else in the world, the subject of food is broken into silos that often exist separately and frequently contradict one another. There are organizations that monitor the quality of food who are nevertheless behind the times in labeling what is truly nutritious or harmful. Food banks that were to be temporary responses to times of recession became institutional even in the good economic times. Cities surrounded by quality foodstuffs, like London, Ontario, which suffers from a lack of locally grown products in the city, watch in frustration as most of the food grown in the area heads out on trucks to other parts of the province, nation, or even the world. Countries in which food production is a major advantage nevertheless watch as the price of products continues to escalate in alarming measures.

As long as its condition remains in such a state, the universe of food will remain as divided as the physical world itself. As each sector of food production, research, legislation, manufacturing, selling, consumption, and waste follow their own course, the domain of food, so essential to a better world, will remain divisive.

Yet, in recent years, we are hearing more about organizations and entire communities reaching out past such a divided model and seeking to link aspects of food life to real-life human conditions. Fair Trade products seek to unite quality items with those growing the ingredients. There are local food markets seeking to link their efforts with effective wages for those growing the products. Citizen movements are pressing governments to undertake comprehensive efforts to properly label and source products that end up in the food system. Activists seek to utilize available urban lands, including rooftops, to expand the local food system in ways that make availability more healthy and charitable. Some consumers groups seek to reward farmers for environmental services and not just food products themselves.

Yet in the midst of all this global movement for reform, two billion people reside on the edge of starvation, obesity is escalating a serious health risk, and chemicals in food supplies continue to be inserted despite concern over long-term health implications. Governments at all levels have chosen to largely avoid responsibility by leaving food issues to the challenging work of charities and non-profit institutions. We have a long way to go,

Citizens have spent the last few decades checking out of politics because of its lack of responsiveness to their values and challenges. But in the area of food, individuals, groups, and even some companies are seeing some concrete results in improving the food environment. Why? Because we all require food to live. We know it, and we increasingly, for the sake of our children and our own health, apply our energies and dollars to making the entire food cycle more efficient, more readily available, and more sensitive to the buying capacities of shoppers.

To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is a responsibility, not just for ourselves but for a fairer world. As author Katie McGarry put it: “Food shouldn’t be half-bad. It should be all good.” Good for everybody, including the planet.

%d bloggers like this: