The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: food

The Real Story on Canada’s Food Insecurity

Here is my latest Huffington Post piece on the special United Nation’s envoy’s report, released today, on the growing insecurity in Canada’s food system.

Identity – If You Eat, You’re In

jpp1168bCommon vernacular says we are “what” we eat. There’s truth in that, but it’s actually how we organize ourselves in the pursuit of food, which all of us require, that can surely set us apart as a community with a unique identity. This isn’t about supporting your local food bank. Instead, it’s about how we’ve permitted our collective identity to be decided for us by a modern food system that is inefficient, dangerous to our health, expensive, and ultimately alienating. How we change that paradigm as a community will largely determine who we are as a people. For if we are citizens blithely transporting ourselves to food stores on the periphery of our city, buying the same products, looking at the endless array of packaging, then ultimately transporting all that packaging to our landfills, we have become automatons – following where we are led.

This seems to be the standard pattern in my city of London, Ontario, but actually it isn’t. Citizens are realizing that how we eat is of equal importance to what we digest. They are figuring out that community gardens are a means of acquiring needed and healthy foodstuffs. Local farmers permit citizens to use land to grow produce for those in need. Londoners are using their influence as consumers to begin supporting local markets that sell local products. And what they are all discovering in the process is that this new food system is actually bringing them together, just as food always has from the beginning.

Consider the town of Tadmorden, England. It had many concerns about the modern food system, just as we do, but they also understood that their community was growing apart, vulnerable to global forces that seemed like a juggernaut. Some citizens got together, traveled through the town, and made plans to turn it into a moveable feast. They used parkways beside streets to plant produce gardens. They even turned the land in front of their police station into part of the local food supply chain. They altered the curriculum of the local high school to include new ideas of food sourcing and school land to make it work.

You can see all this in the video below, but what is so remarkable about it is that local citizens didn’t ask for a study plan, research project, or city funds – they just did it. They didn’t ask for permission; instead, they got local institutions onside and today the village of Tadmorden looks more like a living, breathing orchard than a concrete or asphalt jungle.

This is what citizens do when they grow weary of others telling them how they must order their lives. They live in communities for a reason, visit with neighbours for a reason, and adjust their kids to their environs for a reason.  Our communities are ours to grow and develop, or waste and neglect – it’s up to us.

In the last few weeks I have met some remarkable people who are attempting to bring the miracles of places like Tadmorden about in London, Ontario.  There is only one problem: the establishment isn’t interested – not really. We are surrounded by some of the richest farmland in the world but have somehow permitted cement to become our land of choice. We are asphalting over farmland at the same time as our citizens are breaking up parking lots to make room for community growing plots. It’s all a kind of insanity that reflects poorly on all of us.

Jim Rutten is a new friend of mine. He not only designed a sustainable food security system for a community, he built it and made it work in Cape Breton. Now back on the family farm outside of London, he is attempting to find new ways to bring citizens back into the natural food chain.  Hundreds of other engaged citizens are involved in similar efforts around whole food systems.  I have met apartment dwellers growing produce on their balconies, and building owners growing gardens on their roofs. I have discovered farmers desirous of bring healthier food into the city and citizens willing to travel to those farms to help with the effort. I have enjoyed breakfast at a local market on Saturday mornings with my daughter only to discover hundreds of families doing the same thing in fresh food markets throughout the city.

London, Ontario has a food charter, a food network, and a fertile food base. But the components remain largely separate from one another. Many have waited for the City to bring it all together, giving it resources and profile. They wait in vain. This isn’t about funding; it’s about food. It’s about healthy produce and meats and their ability to draw communities back together in ways that are not only meaningful but which help us to define a new generation of citizens.

Throughout the city I have found people standing at the ready – already leaps ahead of established leaders in innovating around a local food system. It’s time we just started by supporting these champions. Should we coordinate our efforts of how we eat, we will discover that food is the great gatherer, the great empowerer of any community in transition. Look at the video below and tell me it can’t be done. You can’t. It doesn’t require City Hall or government funding. It only needs us, and our ability to remake ourselves, and our identity, as a community.

Hunger and Waste

The following is my recently published article in the Huffington Post.

Across Canada hundreds of food banks sent out special appeals over the Thanksgiving season asking people to donate generously. They had clear reason for doing so. Most food banks are facing record demand, as a deep recession that has supposedly ended still leaves its impact all over the country. The London Food Bank, which I co-direct, has seen a 19% increase over this time last year – the majority of that increased demand made up of people who only two years ago were working. Last August saw our highest monthly demand ever in our 25-year history and our highest daily record was only two weeks ago. While many still claim that food banks should remain a temporary solution to poverty, all the indicators seem to be heading in the wrong direction.

Just as we were learning of all these new pressures on the demand for food among the marginalized, news broke of the ironic reality that Canadians waste $27 billion of food each year – that’s $27 billion.  The draft report on this kind of wastage, by the Value Change Management Centre mentions that 51% of that total finishes up as unwanted leftovers that end up in the garbage. The breakdown of the report, which you can read here, states that 18% of the food wasted is due to packaging and processing. Retail stores waste 11%, while a figure just below that (9%) is lost during the farming stage. Even the food industry itself wastes 8%.

If we broaden the issue out to include the United States, things don’t look any better. The U.S. Natural Resources Defence Council says that almost 40% of food in America goes in the garbage each year – a figure proportionally equal to Canada. It appears as though North Americans waste food on a grand scale. The average American wastes 10 times more food than a Southeast Asian. Like their Canadian counterparts, American families throw out 25% of their groceries. And then there are those restaurants and catering services, which together discarded 126 billion pounds of food in 2008 alone. Grocery stores threw out 43 billion pounds of food in the U.S., mostly fresh foods.

Twenty years ago we heard that over 20% of food in Canada was tossed before it ever left the package. Have we learned anything? Furthermore, there used to be a widely held belief that we shouldn’t be wasting food because millions were dying of hunger in places like Africa. Now it’s worse than it ever was.

What exactly are we doing? With the price of food constantly rising, and with millions more being globally added to the destitute poor each year, how can we reconcile our conduct with such developments? We can’t. It’s one thing to say we shouldn’t need food banks, that they should be a temporary presence in our communities, but what does it matter if we are throwing out more food than is distributed by those food banks collectively each year.

It was Mahatma Gandhi who used to say, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” How do we square this in a nation where we toss out $27 billion dollars of food in the midst of hunger? We do have much to be thankful for as a country, yet no population can be truly grateful when throwing out food while children suffer in poverty. A huge gap exists between all those polls that say the majority questioned desire to end hunger and so much waste. It is a credibility problem – for food companies, for citizens, and ultimately for us as a nation.

If it is true that the real cause of hunger is the powerlessness of the marginalized to gain access to the resources required to feed themselves, then the proper answer to that dilemma is not to send them to the dumps where we have just displaced our leftovers. Canada once used to feed the world with our surplus; now we can’t even feed our own with it.

Hunger Games – No Way Out

Budgets are infernal things and in times of economic hardship can either rescue a troubled economy or prolong it. And in a world where governments ever have an eye toward the next election and big business runs on quarterly projections, budgets inevitably have a particular audience in mind to improve their ratings and their fortunes, regardless of long-term consequences.

With the case of the Finance Minister’s budget announcement it’s clear he wasn’t speaking to Canada’s less-fortunate, other than to encourage them to keep a stiff upper lip – the hunger games will continue. For whatever reason, governments continue to justify cuts to the poor or marginalized under the rubric that we all have sacrifices to make if we hope to balance the books. The trouble is those with the fewest resources have very little to contribute to the effort and the cuts have a proportionally more devastating effect.

Just take hunger as one troubling example. This past year saw food prices rise approximately 8% in Canada overall. But the real story is in the trend over the long-term. Consider how these prices have risen in just the last ten years:

  • Chicken – 71%
  • Ground beef – 103%
  • Sugar – 61%
  • Toothpaste – 50%
  • Butter – 50%
  • Bread – 102%
  • Eggs – 68%
  • Potatoes – 84%
  • Apples – 39%
  • Carrots – 47%

These increases have been tough enough for an average family to handle in the past decade of decline let alone a family or individuals living below the poverty line. The recent Ontario budget opted to freeze the child tax benefit as a restraint measure, despite the fact that its proposed increase this year would have provided much-needed relief with cost of living increases. The choice to freeze Ontario Works and Ontario Disability benefits will spell similar trouble for struggling families.

The recent federal budget was deafening in its silence towards those struggling on the margins. The signs of laissez-faire for the poor and hungry were everywhere between its lines. Clearly the budget wasn’t shaped to affect this struggling portion of society. It was the government’s prerogative to take such a course, but, as with any major financial statement and direction, there will be winners and there will be losers. Again, the poor lose in Budget 2012. Canada’s most highly paid executives will still average $6.6 million a year. The average Canadian will receive $42,988. And the poor will remain stuck below the poverty line. This budget didn’t change any of that.

Farmers by the tens of thousands will continue getting out of the business in this country – a reality unchanged by this budget. Urban poverty, homelessness, the decline of mental health supports, the stubborn refusal to establish a national affordable housing strategy – these realities didn’t even garner mention in the document. To trumpet the reality that economic policies have resulted in low inflation is a misnomer. Every family is feeling the pinch of seeing prices on things like food and gas that they use each day continue to escalate, with warnings that this trend will only continue.

For those who are hungry, Jim Flaherty’s budget reminded them to just get used to those pangs, as when he instigated budgets as Ontario’s finance minister that saw food bank numbers skyrocket within months. Seniors frequenting feeding agencies is now expected to escalate as a result of budget changes. More and more clients are visiting the country’s food banks that were working only a year ago. The entire Canadian economy created 14,100 jobs since July of last year, yet Flaherty’s budget will eliminate 19,200 jobs with one stroke of his very sharp pencil. Many of those families will face the one choice they never dreamed of having to make – visit a food bank to feed their kids.

In this past year, food prices globally rose an astonishing 37%, and with fuel prices consistently on the rise we are being warned in this country about a steep escalation in the costs of food. Was there a plan in the budget for this? No? Anything about adopting progressive policies on alternative energies that would eventually lower food prices? Again, no.  Any federal funds to support small farms, community gardens in communities, infrastructure repair between cities and their rural surrounds? Ne’er a mention.

And so the hunger games continue. In a land of such abundance that has grown food that once fed half the world, we have just passed a budget that says we can now no longer feed our own. The hunger games are on, with a riveting plot between the hunter and the hunted, the full and the famished.

Dan Bennett once said that, “The trouble with a budget is that it’s hard to fill up one hole without digging another.” Budget 2012 didn’t so much dig a new hole as it made what presently exists deeper and all the more impossible to climb out of. This was a budget that chose the affluent over the anguished, the moneyed class over the marginalized, the hoarders over the hungry. This isn’t a best-selling book, or even a high-grossing film. It’s the reality for millions of Canadians, 40% of whom are children.

Former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland once said, “An important lever for sustained action in tackling poverty and reducing hunger is money.” Budget 2012 just ensured that the money is heading in the opposite direction.

Hunger’s “Twilight Zone”

I first cut my teeth on international development in Bangladesh in the early-1970s.  Back then the theory was that a lack of food supply was destined to wreak havoc in the coming decades.  This came to be the common understanding at that time.

Fast-forward to Rome a few months ago, to the Food Summit, and we suddenly started hearing a different story.  Ironically, delegates were being told that there was plenty of food available to feed the entire world.  The issue quickly became one of finances: food was readily available, but at a price that many of the poorest couldn’t come close to affording.  Before you knew it, everything became money, money, money – if we had the funds we could do anything.

I’m not so sure.  Transport is also an issue, especially in those regions of the world hard-pressed by their very remoteness.  What about violence and crop disease – things likely to eat into advances made in food disbursement and supply?

Then there’s the granddaddy of them all, rarely mentioned because it would mean austerity measures in the world’s richest nations.  Specifically, we’re talking about climate change.  Last decade was the warmest since historical records had been kept.  That led to sizeable, sometimes cataclysmic, results.  The worst drought in five decades afflicted millions in China, and massive food shortages in Kenya were attributed to drought brought on by the changing weather patterns.

The most vulnerable of the world’s poor subsist on only a few tiny crops.  The slightest change in the weather patterns could bring about the biggest change in their lives.  Laboratories around the world are constantly working on methods of providing more and safer food.  Lessons learned from development assistance over the last few decades have taught us that untying food aid from our own domestic supply can have a dramatic impact on the economic life of recipient nations.  The World Food Program, with its 6 billion dollar a year budget has seen more effectiveness in delivery of food supplies in the troubled regions of the world.

Yet for all this, it remains unlikely that the poorest of the poor will be able to receive or grow enough food to feed their own families.  We’ve entered a strange cycle where the world now produces enough food to supply the entire global population yet at prices too steep for the neediest to afford.  Despite efforts from groups as vast as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, with its 8,000 researchers and its “road map” for food security around the world, the stubbornness of the presence of hunger among the bottom billion persists as perniciously as times previous.

It’s also appearing more and more likely that some of the advances in food production have come about at certain environmental costs.  The effects of genetically modified crops, coupled with the intensive overuse of the farming of vast tracks of land, is burdening the ecological system.

Like it or not, it appears as though we have entered some kind of strange “twilight zone” where modern technology and research cannot solve one of humanity’s greatest problems.  We have created a world that now produces enough food but is still pressed by staggering hunger.  The world’s poorest countries have cut back in investment in agricultural related research because, ironically, richer nations have reduced their development funds to these very same nations.  Brazil and China now produce food in staggering numbers, but the poorest nations have seen no change at all in their crop yields for centuries.

Clearly, development advancements have solved one problem but then priced the solution out of existence.  It’s obvious to anyone who has traveled Africa or Asia and it bedevils the best and brightest minds in the development world to this very minute.  We must address this challenge before millions more die of hunger in a world stuffed with food.

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