We know that the way in which we eat has changed drastically, mostly since World War Two, when developments in food technology gave us convenience foods, the rise of fast food and global trade in food commodities. Now we are facing a variety of issues in food security and nutrition, issues that are being studied in detail in Canadian institutions. I got to eavesdrop on some of the ongoing observations and I told Jo-Ann Robert’s about them on this week’s edition of Food Matters on All Points West.
What we hear a lot of in the media about food these days is about sustainable food, local food, organic food, or, food safety issues, recalls, illnesses. But there is much more going on behind the scene, more than you can imagine. Most universities in Canada have programs involving food in many ways, be it food associated with agriculture, or society or communications, and something I didn’t even realize existed up to a few months ago is the Canadian Association for Food Studies. This a body that was formed in 2005 to encourage academics as well as other professionals in the food industry to communicate what they’re working on and provide a better understanding across the country of the issues we’re dealing with in the world of food. The recent edition of Congress at the University of Victoria included a convention of the members of the association in a program called At The Edge, Exploring the Boundaries of Food Studies. (pdf file)
My only regret is that I had only one day to devote to attending the conference and even on that day I had some tough decisions to make regarding which sessions to attend and how I could learn the most information over the short amount of time I had available. An ideal way to do that was to attend one of the sessions set up in the pecha kucha (peh-CHALK-chah) format…Pecha kucha is a Japanese word that you can loosely translate as ‘chit-chat’. But in practice it is a series of talks, kind of like TED Talks, but not really. Each speaker gets 20 slides in their presentation and each slide can only be shown for a maximum of 20 seconds, so that means each presentation is only 6 minutes and 40 seconds long.
I’d like to try doing one, as I think it would be quite challenging but it can be even tougher to take good notes over the course of that short space of time! But it was just what I was looking for…to find out what issues people are studying when it comes to food across the country. There were 8 presenters in the session I attended.
The City of Kamloops mounted a great campaign called the Public Produce Project aimed at educating more people about how food grows and what it looks like in a garden. The project turned an empty lot downtown into a temporary, edible garden, which was harvested by the Kamloops Food Bank. The project is now in its third year, people refer to it as a miracle in the neighbourhood with widespread community support and has changed municipal policy regarding urban land use.
In Ontario, a study showed that there are many and diverse initiatives being undertaken in an attempt to reconstruct food systems but they exist at all different levels of government. Some of the agencies involved talk to one another, some of them don’t, so the researcher in this case came up with questions that need to be answered like, ‘how should these agencies grow?’, ‘should they centralize?’, and ‘are they really transforming our outdated food systems or just creating a short-term fix?’ Big questions.
Meantime in Edmonton, a citizens’ panel on food strategy and security was formed. 66 people gave up 8 weeks of their lives to make recommendations to the city. Their main recommendation was that the city should NOT develop what are called the ‘Northeast Farmlands’. City council ignored that recommendation. The presenter discovered that this advisory committee was dysfunctional, it didn’t report directly to decision makers and that the ‘power wielders’ on the committee influenced the final report.
Another presenter looked at what can happen in typical school nutrition programs. Unfortunately, the case is that most of these programs operate with limited budgets and volunteers with a lack of knowledge and a limit to the time they can devote to the program. So food ends up being bought more with time and quantity in mind instead of the quality and appropriateness of the food, for example, it’s easier and cheaper to go to Costco instead of trying to source from local farms.
Another researcher in Nova Scotia looked at the informal food economy and discovered it may be vastly underestimated and that there is a lot happening off the books, anything from criminal activities that could involve theft or poaching, or a more widespread bartering system in existence, or a continuation of traditional wild food foraging and hunting which creates a much more direct food economy than what is the norm in more urban areas, for example. Large companies supply wholesaler, wholesaler supplies retailer, retailer sells to the public.
We also heard about food deserts developing in Prince Edward Island of all places because of the demise of small grocery stores and one I hope to learn more about when the results are published, a study of the food issues being faced by people with mental health issues living in social housing on Vancouver Island. And the final presentation dealt with how our current realities obscure future opportunities to change our food systems and how it is so easy to get bogged down in bureaucracy.
I think the overall tone of that session was cautious optimism, I guess. I think just the idea that people are starting to think about these issues on a more global basis is encouraging, and by global I mostly mean, outside of your own group or agency. Clearly there is a lot of work to be done on how food agencies communicate with each other, and there has to be some value in getting more people on the same page and working out how they can be of assistance to each other instead of a possible hindrance. And that theme was carried on later that day with the keynote speaker of the day, Patricia Allen, the chair, of the Department of Food Systems & Society at Marylhurst University in Portland, who talked about building sustainable and equitable food systems for everyone despite of what she describes as the ‘elephants’ in the room. But that would take me another six minutes to describe…at least!
Just One More Thing: My very first column for the re-vamped Monday Magazine hit the street today, and the intertubes. Pick it up and have a look through the whole issue, or if you just want to read my column, you can click here.