The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: food

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.

Poverty’s Great Unknown (2) – Hiding in Plain Sight

hiding-in-plain-sight

IN HER BOOK ALPHABET OF THORN, author Patricia McKillip has one of her chief characters ask another: “Do you become invisible?” In reply, the other character says, “No. I’m there, if you know how to look. I stand between the place you look at and the place you see – behind what you expect to see. If you expect to see me, you do.”

This is the way it is with modern poverty; people suffer their deprivations in private, yet they are seen everywhere in every community. They are us, but we don’t really see them. In Canada, we most often can’t be bothered to look for poverty in our midst, but if we truly wanted to, we could spot it – everywhere.

In yesterday’s post we talked about some things we might not know about poverty. Here are some more.

1) According to numerous studies housing affordability is one of the key reasons people remain mired in poverty. By the time rent or mortgage payments are made, little is left to afford anything else. For this reason, affordable housing is key to defeating poverty. Most people don’t realize that it costs more to keep someone in an emergency shelter than it does to provide them affordable housing. Cities could eliminate homelessness simply by investing more in housing.

2) With hunger growing in Canada, so is the amount of food people throw in the garbage. Food Banks Canada says that nearly 900,000 people are assisted in food banks monthly. Yet research from the Value Chain Management Centre revealed that Canadians throw out $27-billion worth each year, or roughly 40% of their food. Just over half comes from households. It forces us to ask a basic question: how can a nation find the will to defeat hunger when it considers it acceptable to throw out 40% of its edible food supplies?

3) Poverty in Canada is likely to increase, not the other way around. According to a recent IPSOS poll, 61% of working Canadians didn’t contribute at all to retirement savings in 2014. To make matters more complicated, the same poll discovered that the ability to keep a steady income is under assault and is listed as a major form of stress for 45% of Canadians. We keep treating poverty as some kind of fixed statistic when, in fact, it’s a moving target, usually drifting ever upward in numbers. In such a context, poverty is far more likely to go up instead of decline. An increasing number of Canadians actually feel they are more prone to falling into poverty’s clutches as opposed to ending it.

4) A startling number of Canadians feel that they have to make a choice between jobs or inequality. The reality is that they are both related and that one can’t be solved without the other. It will be impossible to defeat poverty in this country unless we address the growing rates of inequality. To separate the two, believing we can concentrate on jobs while we ignore the growing gap between the rich and poor is a fool’s errand and a false choice.

5) Perhaps the greatest thing about poverty that we don’t know or understand is that the roots of poverty are to be found in the bankruptcy of politics. Democracy has never been so “poor,” regardless of which jurisdiction you look at.  Democracy is in recession.  Poverty of public spirit and the belief that we can manage our problems is at record lows – a reality that can’t be separated from financial poverty itself.

Those facing poverty aren’t just facing the pitfalls of isolation from a few bad decisions; they find themselves in their present predicament because of the failure of systems-wide policies that ultimately alienate a city from itself, and from those living within it. This is why the poor have become invisible, even though they live among us. But they are there if we but look for them. Once observed, we find that they look surprisingly like us. That is because they are, but it took some knowledge and focus for us to realize it. This is where the fight against poverty must begin: in our understanding that one can’t solve a problem if they refuse to see or organize to defeat it.

A Better Way

FOR A NUMBER OF MONTHS NOW we at the London Food Bank have been holding sessions with various community leaders and those requiring our services to see if there was another way of undertaking our food bank operations, a way that could permit those 3600 families coming to the food bank each month to find quality food supplies closer to the neighbourhoods in which they lived.

What we heard inspired us. Time again we heard people wondering why food bank families couldn’t acquire their groceries where most Londoners went – grocery stores themselves. We have spent months now endeavouring to find ways to bring that about, without numerous individuals and groups in the city cooperating with us in the pursuit of a new model. It will take time and involve numerous community sectors – non-profits, charitable organizations, grocery chains, city hall, and community developers – but we are on our way.

There will always be a need for a food bank in London, to continue helping the 25 other agencies that we provide food to on a regular basis, and to also collect much of the surplus food that often goes to waste.  But for those families who have to come to us directly, we are hoping to find a more equitable way to ensure they get the food they require.

To keep the public mindful that the process is still underway, we’ve produced this short video to say that the effort is still worth while and characteristic of a city that is looking for new solutions to numerous challenges. Have a look at the video above and join the search for a better way. It’s the very least that our clients and the community deserve.

The Seven Billion Kilogram Dilemma

food-in-garbage

WHEN THE LONDON FOOD BANK HAD ITS FIRST city-wide food drive back in 1986, we were told to expect between 40-50,000 pounds. We weren’t fully prepared for the over 200,000 pounds that came in. Those fire stations charged with receiving the donations were swamped and an extra warehouse had to be located to store all those supplies collected over 10 days.

As a city, we were new to this kind of initiative and much of the food was past its due date. We heard from many folks that they just wanted to help and that they just cleaned out their cupboards and refrigerators of items that had been in their stocks for months. It was a lesson for all of us. For those of us leading the effort, we needed to do a better job of communicating what kind of supplies were required. And for citizens themselves, there was the need to be more selective in what they would donate. We learned those lessons and the generosity of the London community has never waned.

Yet I never forgot that experience and how abundant food is in Canada. Maybe that’s part of the problem. In those early years of food banking we learned that Canadians threw out one-sixth of their food without it ever leaving the package. Landfills were full of otherwise edible foodstuffs. Sadly, it’s a practice that has changed little in three decades.

A report released last summer, with support from London’s Ivey Business School, determined that Canadians toss out 7 billion kilograms worth of edible food each year – roughly 15 billion pounds of food in 12 months. In dollar terms, that $27 billion.

The waste happens everywhere – farms, stores, markets, and processors. Yet, over half of the waste occurs in Canadian households. There’s no point in trying to lay blame – we all share it – but the real culprit lies in our eating and shopping habits. We have grown used to have numerous choices of various products and we often overstock just because it’s so attractively placed and sometimes on sale. We desire it to look good and most often select only that perfect-looking item – anything with a blemish can get tossed. We’re just so used to it and there always seems to be enough unblemished stuff. Farmers and others along the food chain often adopt similar patterns because it’s what consumers demand and that’s what drives the economy.

Except it shouldn’t, and we all know it. It’s one thing to grow and process good and healthy products and to eat well, but it’s another to accept a system that is predicated on waste. Habits die hard, and when it comes to food, Canadians have become habitual creatures.

We are also pretty good with numbers, so here’s a telling one. That 7 billion kilogram figure means that we toss out one kilogram of food for every person on this planet. For a nation and a people founded on the principles of social justice, it means it is time once again to live up to those ideals.

Next post: What Can Be Done About It?

%d bloggers like this: