You might be worried about the food you eat. One thing you can do is buy organic food, or buy locally. So you go to the store and find some organic raspberries; they’re cheap and the plastic box says ‘Produit du Québec.’
But what does that actually mean? Who are the people who make local food happen? Someone who made their way to Canada through the temporary foreign workers’ program probably plucked the raspberries. Their pay is below minimum wage. They have no legal protection, no guaranteed health care service, and they get deported if there’s any labour dispute. When the season is over, they go back to their home country. If they stay, they’re seen as illegal, hunted down by authorities, and deported.
If you’re worried about the state of the food system, “going local” might seem like an easy choice, yet it’s harder on others. But what can you do besides buy locally or organically?
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On August 29, I attended a barbecue hosted by the Réseau d’Entraide de Verdun. The Réseau – as people call it – is a food bank located in the basement of a community centre in Verdun, down the street from a McDonald’s. The Réseau cooks meals, hands out food, and organizes collective kitchens for people to get together and cook.
The atmosphere at the BBQ was classic: children refusing to eat kale, grown-ups demanding more relish, and sweet tunes playing from the speakers.
But this was a special BBQ, co-hosted by the Food For All committee of Solidarity Across Borders. Solidarity Across Borders is a network of activists fighting for a ‘Solidarity City’ – a place where people can access all essential services, regardless of who they are or where they come from. The goal of this event was to raise awareness and bring people together around the issue of food access for people without residency status – often referred to as “illegal immigrants,” an extremely dehumanizing term.
Aaron Lakoff, a member of the Food For All committee, listed some of the reasons why it’s also dehumanizing in practice. “If you’re an undocumented migrant living in Montreal, you’re probably going to be living a very financially unstable life, for the very simple reason that you can’t get a work permit, so you have to work under the table, often-times in very low-wage jobs. [...] You have to live in substandard housing. People have a problem accessing cheap and healthy food. Add to that this really insidious practice of food banks demanding official documentation that non-status migrants can’t get, just for the very fact that they’re non-status in this country. It means that there’s a real, serious food security problem.”
According to another member of the collective, Gwendolyn Muir, organic food and other ‘back to the land’ ideologies are inaccessible to most. “We’re taking a very different approach and talking about access as the starting point, in order to try and change the structures that people have to deal with every day.”
When you hear the term “alternative food movement” you might think about Michael Pollan, farmers’ markets, or organic labelling. However, this is the food movement for the rich. Thinking that organic food is going to change an unfair food system is like trying to win Monopoly by buying only the most expensive property: the other players aren’t always going to land there.
In recognizing this, Muir and Lakoff are part of an alternative alternative food movement, often referred to as “food justice.” Food justice activists are people who realize the whole game is rigged, and if you’re unlucky, you lose. Food justice comes down to the idea that, in order to change our food system, we need to work together with those who are the most affected by it.
In this case, the Solidarity Across Borders network works with migrants who are often pushed to work in Canada because multinational corporations forced them off their land in the first place. Migrants are refugees of international capitalism, trying to find a way to support themselves and their families despite the odds.
As Muir points out, “There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ immigrants. There are people who come here, who risk everything to search for a better life, who bring their families, and who deserve to stay. We [in Solidarity Across Borders] fight for the freedom to move, the freedom to remain, and the freedom to return.”
As I was interviewing Lakoff, a police car pulled up and several cops strutted onto the sidewalk. Thumbs hooked under their belts, they asked to speak to someone in charge. A tense hush descended on the previously pleasant scene. No doubt many present didn’t have too many good memories of police – Verdun is a poor neighbourhood, which comes hand-in-hand with a strong police presence and excessive racial profiling.
The irony wasn’t lost on me that this party, intended to raise awareness over the trouble undocumented people have in accessing food services, was crashed by these professional party-poopers. Their presence reminded me of the fear that many Montrealers carry with them all the time: fear of not having enough food to eat, fear of not even being able to attend a food bank, fear of deportation, fear of not being able to pay rent next month. This isn’t disconnected from the food I eat; it is intrinsically connected to an international food market, local food in Quebec, and what I can get at the grocery store. Fighting against an unjust food system also means fighting for migrants’ rights.
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If you’re looking to break beyond attending pricey farmers’ markets, there are many things you can do. If you’re at a loss, you can email any of the organizations or individuals listed below.
To get involved with the Food For All campaign, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To get involved with the Réseau, stop by at 4400 Boulevard LaSalle, Verdun or email them at email@example.com.
To learn more about the Solidarity City campaign, visit www.solidarityacrossborders.ca.
Aaron Vansintjan is a second-year MSc. student studying Renewable Resources. If you have comments or questions about food justice, you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.