Canadian food activists celebrated World Food Day 2004 by creating a new national organization to be the voice and vehicle for accomplishing our food-security goals. The new group includes a wide diversity of perspectives and issues, but members are united in their commitment to the following three principles: “zero hunger,” “sustainable food systems” and “healthy and safe food”.
The yet-to-be-named national organization is the outcome of the process begun in June, 2001, at the Working Together: Civil Society Input for Food Security in Canada conference. The 2004 Assembly, “Growing Together: Cultivating Food Security in Canadian Society,” built upon the base established in 2001.
Approximately 200 people gathered in Winnipeg to attend the Assembly and participate in creating the new organization. They came from every province and territory. There were people from small community groups, a wide range of non-government organizations, farmers, fishers, small businesses, government agencies, service providers, policy think tanks, Aboriginal communities and organizations, faith groups, universities, colleges and high schools–a gathering whose numbers and diversity attest to the importance of food-security work. The next Canadian assembly is planned for World Food Day 2005.
The Assembly defined food security as “The assurance that all people at all times have both the physical and economic access to the food they need for an active, healthy life. It means that the food itself is nutritionally adequate, culturally appropriate and that this food be obtained in a way that upholds basic human dignity.”
The concept of food sovereignty goes even farther. Food sovereignty is about ensuring not only access to food, but democratic control of the food system. When “value-added” means farmers have to sell crops and livestock at prices below the cost of production so that the Cargills, McCains and Tysons can process it for Safeways and Loblaws to sell at high prices, citizens do not have democratic control of the food system.
Canada is a signatory to the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which recognizes the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger. Yet, due to lack of food democracy, we still have widespread hunger in Canada and our agriculture trade policies often undermine the food security of other countries. According to the 2004 Hunger Count of the Canadian Association of Food Banks (CAFB), since 1989 food bank use in Canada has increased by 122 per cent. In one month of 2004, nearly 850,000 Canadians used a food bank.
In his presentation, the CAFB’s Charles Seiden quoted Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” Seiden noted that in Canada violence in the conventional sense is a crime, but those responsible for widespread hunger go unpunished, because it is a crime that the very institutions conceived to serve and protect the people indirectly sanction through ill-conceived policies and inaction.
Food sovereignty also means that farmers who are producing our food can make a decent living. According to the Darrin Qualman, researcher for National Farmers Union, the corporate sector’s monopoly control over input and crop prices have so severely depressed farm incomes that the younger generation is not taking over family farms. Without a major policy turnaround, the prairie family farm may virtually disappear within one generation.
Cliff Stainsby from the Canadian Labour Congress pointed out that employees in the food and agriculture sector are among Canada’s most food-insecure workers. Industrial agri-business operations use agricultural exemptions from labour laws to employ workers at low wages and in poor working conditions. Many food-service workers only make the minimum wage, which is below the poverty line in every province.
The food-security assembly illustrated that Canada’s long-standing “cheap food” policy hurts farmers and workers, and does not protect the poor from hunger. The new food-security organization will need to advocate solutions that build upon the linkages between rural and urban communities, labour, farmers and consumer interests, among the diversity of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures in this country, and between Canada and other countries.
The Assembly was infused with hope, in spite of the seriousness of our food and agriculture problems. Hope comes from the thousands of grassroots initiatives to create alternative food systems, and from early results of good food policies implemented by various government agencies and departments. Participants also got to see to see hope in action via tours of Winnipeg-area food cooperatives, businesses and farms.
There was a strong consensus at the Assembly that food security and food sovereignty are best served when there are vibrant local food systems in place. Local food production, processing and distribution builds communities, keeps wealth circulating within the region, reduces transportation costs, increases agricultural diversity, permits food democracy and contributes to healthy populations, better food quality and a healthier ecosystem.
In situations where certain foods cannot be produced locally or where there is not a market for what grows or can be raised locally, we could challenge the mainstream commodity-export mentality by promoting a “fair trade” system of food marketing within Canada, similar to what we have developed for Southern cash crops like coffee, chocolate and nuts.
Building up local food systems will also counteract cultural homogenization. Rich and varied regional food cultures can displace the ubiquitous Tim Hortons, McDonald’s and Wendy’s scene. The Assembly put this value into practice by serving local cuisine at all meals. The final banquet was truly a celebration of food and good company. The farms where each menu item originated were posted, the farmers themselves were present at the banquet and were introduced, and recipes used during the conference were given out.
The new food-security organization will be our national voice, bringing attention to the problems of food security and advocating positive practices and policy changes at all levels. The group is open to all individuals and groups who want to work together towards these goals. For more about the Assembly and its work, please visit www.foodsecurityassembly.ca.
Cathy Holtslander is Project Organizer for the Beyond_Factory Farming Coalition, a national coalition of organizations promoting “livestock production for health and social justice.”
Examples of Food Security Activities
- Collective kitchens
- Farmers’ markets
- Community Shared Agriculture
- Cooking, Food Buying & Nutrition Classes
- Community/school/rooftop gardens
- School breakfast, lunch & snack programs
- Food/agriculture/fisheries co-ops
- Food banks
This article appeared in the March/April 2005 issue of Canadian Dimension .