“Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and the right to define their own food and agriculture system.” International Forum for Food Sovereignty (2007).
The recently published Middlesex-London (Ontario) Community Food Assessment http://www.healthunit.com/community-food-assessment is a heavy meal. It ultimately seeks to get to the heart of our local food system. What does it look like? What is working and what needs work? Two key and important subtexts include food insecurity and food literacy. Another implied subtext is a “localness” imperative in our food supply system that evinces succor from anti neo-liberal and anti-globalization mindsets.
The report itself is like a big meal with good calories and empty ones. The best calories are the local information, which helps enunciate our current situation and offers important clues on how to bridge food security gaps. The empty calories are the rote cutting and pasting of national and provincial data, some of which sets a useful context, but much of which is just there.
While holism seeks to pull all the factors together to create one large context it is at times more complicating than problem solving. For instance the implied hypothesis that “localness” of our food system will solve our food security issues is on the one hand interesting because local foods are one of the more edifying parts of our community experience but on the other hand naïve because we live in an internationalized world of our making- that we deliberately set out to make.
While no expert in food systems myself it is clear that it has changed since the end of the second war and perhaps even before then. The family farm, just like Mom and Pop stores, as we know it is for the most part a faint memory (even though we like to think in those terms). Farms like Walmart have become bigger. They are no longer subsistence driven but rather set up as commercial enterprises to export their goods beyond their neighbourhood to national and sometimes international markets. In short they are businesses. I grew up on a hobby farm north of Kingston. It had at one time been part of a family farm. The soil quality is meager and at some point became too inefficient to sustain commercial farming. As a family farm it went out of business.
However, elements of our society are driven by the need for some sort of unchanging equilibrium, where nothing changes and what has changed needs to somehow be dialed back, as if time travel is possible. It is wistful Rockwellian nostalgia. While our past contains important markers about how we once lived, it can at best inform how we are going to live moving forward, but it is not something we need to crawl back to.
My point is that we should not overcomplicate food security by adding too many layers to solving this problem. The question is simple but the answer is not: How do we ensure that everyone has access to sufficient food? The average London-Middlesex household spends about $7,400 on food annually with about $5,100 of that on groceries and the rest on restaurants. This works out to about $60/capita/week. When looking at the breakdown of food purchases on a dollar basis meat is highest and fats and oils lowest. Fruits and vegetables fall somewhere in the middle at about $500/household/year. As the authors point out for those on social assistance or earning a low wage this presents an insurmountable challenge whose outcome is acutely felt by the growing demand at the London Food Bank (now at 3,500 households per month) and other such organizations. The food security issue is really a security issue at that point.
Do we provide a greater monthly stipend to bridge this real gap? Or do we develop programs to move those who can and are able to a job and those with lower paying jobs to higher paying jobs? As an entrepreneur I favour that latter approach.
The report is at its strongest when discussing food literacy. We have lost much of our understanding as it relates to our food system and don’t always know what and how much to buy, how to prepare it, what “best before” means, and what to do with leftovers. I will leave you with a sobering thought and outcome of this food illiteracy. In Ontario using real on the ground data, that I and my peers have collected, conservatively about 20% of household garbage or about 2kg/household/week consists of food waste of which at one point was edible. This works out to about $11/household/week of groceries thrown out. This food in the garbage transcends all socioeconomic circumstances. This estimate doesn’t even consider restaurant meals. Improved food literacy can help all of us to improve the efficiency of using (i.e. eating) our food resources. In the case of food waste, which is highlighted in the report as an area requiring action, it brings us back to dollars and cents, which is what is at the heart of overcoming food security issues.