The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: sustainability

Repackaging the Food Story

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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.

Election 2015: Will That Be Cost or Value?

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IT BECAME ONE OF THE MOST TALKED ABOUT experiments in modern psychology. Around 1970, Stanford researcher Walter Mischel decided to sit a series of four-year-olds in a room and put a marshmallow on a table in front of them. He told them that they could eat the marshmallow right away, but that if they waited until he returned he would give them two marshmallows.

Videos shot of the children during that time revealed a lot of squirming and kicking, even kids banging their head on the table. Mischel then followed them through subsequent years and learned some fascinating trends. Those kids that waited until he returned did much better at school and had fewer behavioural problems. Thirteen years later, those kids that waited for the second marshmallow had SAT scores that were 210 points higher than the kids who devoured the first marshmallow immediately. Twenty years later they had much higher college completion rates and 30 years later they had much higher incomes.

The results fascinated the nation and effectively illustrated how kids who could picture longer term strategies in their thinking and exercise self-control (waiting for the second marshmallow) had an easier time of things as they matured. It has come to be known in the vernacular as the “marshmallow test.”

In certain ways, Canadians are being asked to undergo a similar experiment during this federal election season. Sometimes we are asked by the parties to opt for the immediate baubles instead of the longer-term investments. We keep being treated as impulsive shoppers who can choose from an array of boutique items on a shelf that would bring some quick satisfaction – negligible tax credits, limited responses to the refugee crisis, meager investments in climate change adaptation, pension tinkering, even help with the purchase of sports equipment. They all sound great and enticing, but they get us little.

Or we can exert more self-discipline focusing on Canadian arts, education, healthcare, research, environmental, true healing with our indigenous people, and transportation infrastructure that will yield dividends in decades to come. There are a scant few of these on our present election promise season. Why? Because political parties sense that we are more intrigued by costs than we are values. Yes, we desire affordable education, a clean planet, security for our older years, comprehensive healthcare coverage, and a political class that actually delivers on our aspirations. But, in truth, we really like those trinkets that in the end appear to provide a few extra dollars in our pockets.

The problem is that post secondary education costs have already gone up over 200% since 1993, and we have to pay more for government services while waiting longer to acquire them. Is this honestly what we desire in this election? Does the political class feel we’ll opt for that first marshmallow? Of course they do, because that’s how they feel they’ll get our vote. They won’t change that approach until we align ourselves with the counsel of Jennifer Crusie: “Values aren’t buses. They’re not supposed to get you anywhere. They’re supposed to define who you are.”

This is our dilemma during Election 2015: we are being forced to choose between the immediate satisfaction of the initial marshmallow or the deeper discernment that comes with waiting to acquire them both. Canadians pride themselves as a value people but all to often accept cost over values, which are ultimately priceless and were the basis upon which our parents and grandparents build an equitable country. The things we truly value and share in common are those things we simply can’t put a cost to but which form the sinews of our civilization.  If we make the proper choice, we will change the future, and that of our children. This could be an election for the ages, or merely for the next four years. It’s time to play the long game.

 

“Making Food Waste Illegal?”

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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.

A City of Soul

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THE CITY OF SURREY, BRITISH COLUMBIA, decided it was time to get more serious about the arts. Only they didn’t undertake the task in the fashion other municipalities had tried. Believing that every aspect of the arts was vital to any future life the city had, they laid out some clear markers:

  • they would develop 6 community public art plans, identifying sites and themes for the public arts around the city
  • Surrey would compile an inventory of public and private sector cultural assets, services and facilities n the city – identifying gaps and needs
  • seek to identify needs, opportunities, space and operational requirements for a decentralized model of arts and heritage
  • identify space and resource requirements for the growth and preservation of cultural and art collections
  • assess needs and roles for effective communication of cultural values and benefits by public and community stakeholders
  • identify cultural spaces and amenities in city centre development plans

What’s important here is the sheer comprehensive nature of their undertaking. This wasn’t about merely supporting one group or another, but was instead an inspiring attempt at getting every sector of the community to buy in. Just like other communities, Surrey had been through its own economic difficulties and it would have been easy to place what many regarded as the “soft stuff” on the back burners in favour of the harder financial realities. City leaders quickly discerned the fallacy in such an approach, reasoning that if citizens lost the ability to express their emotions and celebrate, then economics alone would lead to a diminished municipality.  Numerous cities have cultural prosperity plans, but Surrey actually implemented theirs.  Great cities find a way to get it done.

What’s the point of living on the same streets if we merely become an audience. Visionary community planners understand that citizens must become players in their own performances and the best way to achieve that is to inspire them – not just with amazing arts but in giving a city some soul. As David Binder puts it:

“Twenty-first-century arts festivals] ask the audience to be a player, a protagonist, a partner, rather than a passive spectator.”

Those communities that make art to be solely about money have forgotten how they initially came together through community singing, acting out life in real-time, and painting the essence of a streetscape. Only as communities grew could they eventually sustain concert halls and art galleries – a great step in their respective evolutions as communities.  Any aspiring city should seek out the arts and support them at their very best.  And when they are performed at their very best, the arts help a city to become a showcase to the world.

A city that no longer has something to sing, act, or draw about inevitably loses those higher levels of the arts that can inspire entire communities through talented performances. It is through the arts that we learn to dream together, to feel the same collective emotional tug to weep or laugh, to mourn, or to live with purpose. Participatory democracy is better flamed through the passion of the human spirit than through any other source and it is often through the culture of a city that this passion is resourced.

There are those who occasionally imply that cities and their huddled masses will destroy themselves. We have yet to see it. Just two words remind us of just how resilient cities are: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their future seemed obliterated in a millisecond, yet today they thrive, having overcome some of the worst humanity could throw at them and prevail as robust communities.

In reality, cities can survive against the most amazing odds. They come back from floods, famine, conflict, poverty, and political catastrophe because in the end their citizens still dream and find way of using their emotions, intellect, and willpower to forge their own future.

If communities die, it will be mostly because individual lights went out over the process of time. People lose hope. They feel the odds against them are too great. They grow isolated, losing the humanity in one another. The bulbs burn out and the light is gone. It is for the very purpose of restoring the human soul and spirit that the arts were born.

Why a community flourishes is every bit as important as how it does so, and it is often through the presence of artistic communities in our midst – amateur and professional – that the will to actually be a great city is generated. The day a city can no longer find its purpose will also be the day that culture must rescue it. “To be or not to be” never came from a corporate or political leader, but from a writer. The ability to find ourselves and lose ourselves in the same moment is the gift of art. And no city can ever dance when its leaders can no longer hear the music. The question should never be whether we can afford culture; it should be how can we possibly survive without it.

For Millennials: Talk Meaning, Not Just Money

 

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AUTHOR ROBERT PUTNAM NOTICED SOMETHING INTERESTING back in 1993. He discovered that between 1980 and 1993, the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10%, while those participating in league bowling declined by 40%. Putnam used that illustration as something of a symbol for the transformation that was taking place in the United States and turned it into a book titled, Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.

For two decades now research has shown that on both sides of the 49th Parallel we are becoming more individualistic and less institutional. There are pros and cons to such a development, leaving some social commentators to conclude younger generations remain more focused on their own concerns than those of society at large. The Millennials (born between 1980 and early-2000s) are largely singled out as leading this trend.

Recent global research is now telling us something quite different, however. Of the top ten concerns for Millennials across the globe, only 3 of the top 10 are economic, and only 1 of the top 5. They are concerned about unemployment (37%) and financial inequality among nations (28%). Yet they are just as concerned about how we are using up our natural resources (33%), climate change (32%), and personal safety (23%). The rise of poverty also registered in their concerns.

The report was commissioned by the global firm Deloitte, and polled more than 7,000 Millennials in 28 countries. Researchers were somewhat surprised to discover that the emphasis placed on social over economic challenges was the same from developed and developing nations. Across the board, Millennials rated the role of government as providing education, access to hospitals, meaningful work, and the safety of citizens above that of improving the financial status of citizens. And they went further, answering that the ultimate purpose of government is to advance social progress rather than just trusting everything to the financial sector. In fact, they no longer believe that economic growth alone is sufficient for providing meaningful lives and communities.

It gets even more interesting. Those Millennials taking part in the research stated clearly that social progress is not merely the responsibility of governments, but also of businesses and the corporate sector. Concern was expressed that not enough resources were placed in essentials like infrastructure and investments in communities that would allow them to live with better quality of life standards.

What is all this saying? To begin with, we can dispel the myth that Millennials are far more narcissistic than their older counterparts. It’s simply not true. They might be less institutional in personal activities, but they comprehend the importance of institutional resources for solving our greatest problems and protecting our quality of life.

I don’t know many Millennials who bowl, but I have encountered thousands who engage in citizenship, struggle for women’s equity and human rights, and who think of people as more than what’s in their bank account. Above all, they know of the need for community and social inclusion. Community equity isn’t a generational possession, but a shared human trait that transcends age and cohorts. That’s enough upon which to build a successful future.

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