Culture  Deconstructing Canada’s food systems

Radio show host Jon Steinman discusses the practicalities of coperative food production

With supermarket shelves being taken over by possibly misleading organic food labels, it is increasingly difficult to know precisely where the food we consume comes from, its nutritional value, and its producers’ farming practices. This knowledge gap can be frustrating, especially when big businesses target the average consumer, to profit from their ignorance and willingness to pay more for “healthier” options.

Deconstructing Dinner and McGill’s Food Sustainability Strategy event last Monday tackled this very issue. The event featured a talk by Jon Steinman, host of Deconstructing Dinner – a radio show focused on revealing the insecurity of the current Canadian food system. Laura Rhodes, the newly appointed Food System Administrator at McGill, went on to introduce the University’s sustainability strategy.

In his talk, Steinman traced the changing definition of food security, from a region’s ability to have access to food at all times, to continual access to “nutritious, safe, personally-appropriate, culturally-acceptable food – produced and procured in ways that are socially and environmentally responsible.” From this angle, Canadian food systems can be viewed as fundamentally insecure – a realization that had led to initiatives which work toward changing the food system in order to achieve food security.

The town of Nelson, BC exemplifies this commitment through its food co-op, which features a community-owned grocery store that maintains a local buying ethic. Nelson-ite farmers and consumers develop closer inter-relationships through such an initiative, and consumers are made aware of the life-histories of all their meals. Also, farmers are guaranteed a market for their produce. With the community integrated into the food system, costs which would normally be incurred by the farmer are subsidized – with the consumer becoming an active participant, not just a receiver.

In addition, the Nelson co-op revives the oft-forgotten social and cultural importance of food through harvest celebrations. A Regional Food Council, which Steinman hopes to create, would serve as a common voice for separate initiatives, a forum to reinforce the personal nature of the collective. “It would exist like a networking group …a networking tool for everyone to interact regularly,” Steinman said.

Is this approach practical on a large-scale, or only in smaller communities like Nelson? Large-scale industries have monopolized the food market, removing any opportunity for independent farmers to sell their products in urban settings. But collectives offer a different approach through the decisions of an entire community. “Collectives are their own little economies. There isn’t anything that can get in the way of that from the industrial food systems. It can happen on any scale. Groups in Montreal or Toronto can engage in the same model and develop personal relations,” Steinman said.

That’s where the McGill Food Systems Project comes in. It incorporates some of the elements found in Nelson’s co-op, such as providing independent producers with a guaranteed market, increasing nutritional awareness, and providing a platform for interaction between producers and students. McGill Food and Dining Services holds regularly scheduled local and global food days in campus cafeterias, and is introducing labels to demarcate local and organic foods. “We are inviting suppliers into the dining halls to talk to the students in residences, who are learning more about local food and what is available in Montreal and Quebec,” Rhodes announced.

The department’s sustainability strategy will also focus on applied student research and sustainable purchasing and operations. “The objective of these actions is to transition our food supply to more sustainable and local sources,” Rhodes said. “We want to build a capacity to meaningfully assess what is or isn’t sustainable food. Our role is to communicate in the sense of building capacity to make sustainable choices.”

Steinman agreed with the addition. “McGill has the opportunity of starting small. One of the problems seen with a lot of food initiatives is trying to start from the top and fix everything at the government and corporate level, when there is a need to start small and use that as a model, as seen at McGill,” he said.

There seem to be only positive things to be said for the sustainability strategy. Many students will be satisfied knowing where their meals are coming from, and that the option to lessen their ecological footprint now exists more concretely. If not, the McGill Food Systems Project welcomes suggestions for further measures through direct communication with the department and also through their annual survey.