Food Secure Canada (FSC) held its 7th National Assembly last week amid Edmonton's first snowfall. Attended by hundreds of people, the assembly featured panels, interactive workshops, and organizing among committees and networks to bring the issues of food, farming and land to Canada's governments.
When the Assembly started, the City of Edmonton had just announced the development of a city-wide food strategy, including the formation of a Food Policy Council. At the same time, Food Secure Canada (FSC), along with many other organizations, are pushing for action on a National Food Strategy for Canada. Unlike other countries, Canada has yet to enact a national food strategy, despite rising hunger and food-related illnesses.
Diana Bronson (Executive Director of FSC) launched the assembly with the announcement that business as usual was not an option. She reiterated FSC's three goals: zero hunger, a sustainable food system and healthy and safe food. The Assembly was notable for providing many opportunities for participation in the development of strategies for Food Secure Canada to bring to the government.
According to reports after the main conference, FSC has listened to members and decided to launch campaigns for Universal Student Nutrition as well as a National Food Strategy.
FSC invited elected representatives of every party to the plenary focused on strategy. Liberal and NDP MPs attended (Malcom Allen, MP Welland and Carolyn Bennett, MP St. Paul's). Elizabeth May (the only elected Green Party MP) had a conflict. The Conservative MP (Leon Benoit MP Vegreville-Wainwright) cancelled his appearance, and other invitations to Conservative MPs were refused.
Nonetheless, universal student nutrition was identified as a strong multi-partisan issue, and one on which Canada lags far behind other countries. Programs that provide Universal Student Nutrition ensure that as long as young people are in school, they can access healthy, fresh food and snacks. The investment in student nutrition has been shown to improve education outcomes as well as to reduce health care costs from poor immunity and other health issues that arise later in life for underfed and malnourished children.
The issues of social and economic justice were prominent at the conference, starting with the first plenary entitled "Local and Just, or Just Local?" The issues of indigenous and northern communities were quite well represented at the Assembly, considering the distance and the cost of travel from the north.
The impact of climate change on food availability are particularly prominent for these communities. Presentations showed that they already face dire effects from global warming, as well as significant hunger and food access challenges. For instance, lakes on which people depend for sustenance in the Old Crow Flats area (Gwitchin First Nation territory) have dried up as temperatures have increased and spring has begun to start earlier. Photos from Norma Kassi's presentation (Arctic Institute of Community-Based Research) showed cracked lakebeds reminiscent of drought-stricken areas in Africa.
The economic issues were clearly on the table. Presenters and participants recognize the need for large-scale change in how we do business around food. There is a growing awareness of the failure of market solutions for combating hunger or addressing challenges in the food system.
Other nations have begun to recognize food as a human right through mechanisms like guaranteed income, state run food systems and other programs. In Brazil, the prices of basic food items and availability are partly under state control to work towards zero hunger.
The tenor of presentations suggests that this important shift from charity solutions is becoming more realistic and acceptable in Canada. It was clear that there is growing interest in identifying new benchmarks and goals for food systems, to reduce the competition model between producers and to engage people around multiple benefits of food systems (beyond the profit motive).
There was also considerable attention paid to alternative financing models, from foundations like the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation who are thinking of ways to do business differently to the panel on investing in food and farms (organized by FarmStart). There were presentations on community financing and community economic development fund models (such as Nova Scotia’s CEDIF funds, or the Centres Locaux de Developpement in Quebec).
It is encouraging to see how specific solutions are now in such presentations on financing, as it increases the chance of implementation. The specificity gives inspiration and encouragement in the face of the grim statistics of hunger, the challenges for new farmers in land access, and land grabs in the Global South as well as Canada.
Unfortunately, farmland is the new speculative target for bankers, hedge funds and pension funds, as reported by InterPares, the National Farmers Union and Oxfam. The mobilization of community financing may be key to protecting our local lands for regional food systems and local economic uses rather than speculation. FarmStart is launching a new project to investigate and mobilize community financing models.
Years of food bank aid (which has not reduced hunger in the long run) and other top-down solutions seem to be erupting in important new participatory models (such as Nova Scotia's Participatory Food Costing Project, and Community Food Assessment projects all over Canada, including Newfoundland and Labrador). This echoes farming presentations (on farmland from myself, and from new farmers at a roundtable). The desire for control over the production of food seems clearly shared by people working both from the consumer side and from the producer side.
The Assembly was remarkable in the amount of overlap between food and farming issues, which have been historically divided, both by free market theory and by the way organizations tend to develop. As the direct marketing of food rapidly becomes an important source of food and livelihood, the barriers between producer and consumer issues and representatives may be breaking down.
Some of the best moments of optimism and enthusiasm for change came from the numerous young farmers who are farming for food differently.
The Roundtable organized by FarmStart and FarmON.com featured about a dozen new farmers talking about their projects. Christie Young of FarmStart reports that there are 30,000 new farmers in Canada. They have organized into important networks like the Young Agrarians in B.C., the National Farmers Union Youth group, the Canadian Young Farmers Forum and the Greenhorns organization in the U.S.
These groups provide crucial support, mentoring, access to training and networking as farmers work through the early stages of their career. Busy young farmers run these impressively effective organizations mostly as volunteers.
The commitment to change and dedication to future co-operative work is an inspiration for all practitioners from food, farming and other sectors.
Sally Miller is a researcher, writer, co-op developer and author of Edible Action: Food Activism and Alternative Economics (Fernwood 2008).