Food activists celebrate gains at Halifax conference

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Photo: flickr/recessionreliefcoalition

One of the oldest of essential human needs, food energizes Canada's newest social movement, which entered the scene long after the labour, human rights and women's movements -- all of which predated the global rise of neoliberalism. 

If the 500 food advocates attending six plenaries and 50 workshops at the Halifax conference of Food Secure Canada are any indication, the poorly resourced movement is also among the youngest (me being about the only exception), most excited and accomplished of new social movements.

Major, albeit unsung, victories are being scored in school and health fields -- long the most debated, progressive and impactful bastions of Canadian public policy .

Though Canada is one of a few industrialized and affluent nations not to have a national school meal program -- Ireland and The Netherlands are other exceptions -- the groundwork for such programs is moving by leaps and bounds, and the issue may well be featured in next year's expected federal election.

Over the past decade, transformative programs have taken root willy-nilly at every level of the educational system across the country. Toronto alone has 171 FoodShare-orchestrated programs serving 166,000 elementary students, almost half the student body.

A two-day pre-conference meeting of 25 leaders of school food projects formed the Coalition for Healthy School Food to spearhead a national campaign for healthy school meals. It will lobby all political parties to Step up to the Plate, says Meredith Hayes, who coordinates the Ontario network and manages FoodShare's Toronto programs.

Almost all the programs have operated below the radar of the media, politicians or official government bodies -- it's unclear if this is an advantage or disadvantage -- and are funded through grit and spit, volunteers and social entrepreneurs. 

In New Brunswick, 8,600 elementary students in 25 francophone schools enjoy meals that are presented by a social enterprise and farmer co-op, mostly with ingredients from the school garden or farms within 60 kilometres of the school.

Students participate in all aspects of food preparation. One meal program mission is to create learning opportunities in entrepreneurship, health and sustainable development. The students donate half their earnings to fund a school in Haiti.

School, kids and community: "when you get those working together, you can do pretty well anything," says Rachel Schofield-Martin, lead animator with the program.

At the other end of the educational spectrum, Joshna Maharaj is lead chef for a program at Ryerson University, featuring ingredients from 60 local and sustainable farms and a range of local bakers and processors. The key is cooking to the budget and food quality is cooking from scratch, Maharaj says.

"These things can happen and not break the bank," she says. "We are having a blast. The good news is that it's all possible, we just have to be willing and a little bit creative.

Programs such as Ryerson's operate at over six universities in Canada, based on a campaign by the campus-based group, Meal Exchange.

At a Saturday plenary featuring dialogue with Liberal MP Mark Eyking and NDP MP Meagan Leslie (Conservatives were invited but did not attend), panelist Debbie Field of FoodShare extricated a commitment from both to support federal cost-sharing of a national school meal program.

Though the low standing of food in official health policy and practice is best illustrated by the standards of hospital food, provincial health policies increasingly point to food policy as a way to prevent ballooning medical expenditures that increasingly hoard provincial budgets.

If prevention of chronic disease didn't intrigue health ministers, it certainly captured the attention of provincial treasurers, and gave healthy food advocates an opportunity to sing on the side of the budgeters, not just the angels.

Dr. Robert Strang, responsible for Nova Scotia's health blueprint, called Thrive! A plan for a healthier Nova Scotia, told the conference that the political discussion was sparked by public anxiety about sky-rocketing rates of childhood obesity. We moved to take the focus of discussion away from obesity and children, he said, and instead position healthier living under "the umbrella of how to create environments that make Nova Scotians healthier. Healthy eating certainly fits nicely." 

With a remarkable similarity to the medicine wheel followed by Indigenous peoples, his proposal is that Nova Scotian policy go in four directions, breaking out of the confines that separate health from other areas of government policy.

1. Start with a healthy start for children, with breastfeeding as a centrepiece, and breastfeeding-friendly workplaces as a necessary reform.

2. Proceed to reclaiming food and physical literacy in the school system.

3. Carry on with healthy eating policy for all public institutions, from child care to schools to sports arenas. Take out the fat fryers, he says.

4. Build healthier communities with community kitchens and community gardens and the like.

There will also be, he said, "a necessary conversation around global warming and climate change" and the imperatives to create local and sustainable food and "invest heavily in rural economic development and sustainability."

The province has committed to local foods making up 20 per cent of the provincial food supply by 2020, a goal that sets the bar for the rest of the country.

Parallel changes are underway in British Columbia, said Strang's co-panelist Margaret Yandel, manager of public health nutrition in the B.C. government. 

A major disadvantage facing the Canadian food movement is government non-engagement, based on neoliberal prescriptions of governments that don't interfere with global corporations except to subsidize them. But every cloud has a silver lining, and a major advantage of the Canadian food movement is its ability to work with highly skilled community leaders operating on the ground.

"Practices pushes policy," Lauren Baker of the Toronto Food Policy Council told the opening session of the conference. We show what can be done, then we pressure governments to remove the barriers to doing more.

Food for political thought.

Wayne Roberts, a founding member of Food Secure Canada, is the author of Food for City Building: A Field Guide for Planners, Actionists and Entrepreneurs.

Photo: flickr/recessionreliefcoalition

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