A Post for World Food Day

Zesting an orange.

This post is part of the Blog Action Day 2011: Food project.

Looking at the Internet, you’d be forgiven for thinking that North America is awash in gourmet food, sourced from farmers’ markets and CSA boxes. Many bloggers (myself included) like to write about experimenting with cooking, discovering new ingredients and techniques, and the pleasures of feeding family and friends. But for many people, the issue isn’t the best technique for zesting an orange, it’s whether they’ve access to oranges at all.

The issue of access of food isn’t as simple as distribution of donations, though food banks, once thought to be a temporary measure, have become a permanent part of the landscape in many communities. Food banks are structured as a stop-gap, unable to guarantee the components of the varied diet people need to thrive long-term. As food insecurity continues, more ways of fighting it have spread – like community kitchens and gardens, along with low-cost food organizations like Quest Food Exchange and affordable CSA programs like the one run by SOLEfood Farm. These initiatives move beyond stop-gaps and acknowledge something that often seems to get lost in discussions of food policy – that the poor are as much a part of their region’s food culture as are those with more resources.

So often the discourse around issues of income and access to food revolve around the choices low-income people make. Though the existence of issues like food deserts and affordability are more often acknowledged now, there’s still a moralizing aspect to these discussions. There’s also an underlying assumption that the poor don’t know how to feed themselves, at least not properly. The truth is that our culture condemns the poor for engaging in the same behaviours found in the middle and upper classes. Eating out is a vice or a virtue, depending on the name of the restaurant. Indulging oneself is okay when the chocolate is Scharffen Berger, but less so when it’s the drugstore variety. We need less judgement in our thinking about food and more justice.

It’s one of the things that resonates for me in the Occupy movements that have been happening recently. Relative access to resources gets read as relative worthiness and more and more people are finding themselves on the wrong side of this judgement. I hope it’s going to lead to a dismantling of some of the myths and inequities that exacerbate hunger.

It’s time to stop talking about local and organic food as though it’s an upper class phenomenon. After all, many of the components of today’s food movements are based on methods long used by low-income people. Back yard gardening, canning, and preserving used to be thought of as quaint or frugal. Better off folks were busy moving into apartments with vestigial kitchens and immersing themselves in restaurant culture. Most of us, regardless of income, are a generation or two away from true competence in looking after our own food needs. Let’s all work on creating healthy food systems that don’t depend on exclusivity for success.

Today is World Food Day, hence the focus on food for this year’s Blog Action Day. Conferences and discussions are taking place across the world, focusing on local and international food issues. Here in Vancouver, a youth-focused conference happened today called Food for All. I hope that the coming generation of food activists can overcome some of the stereotypes that prevent us from sustaining equitible foodways at home and abroad.

What Lies Ahead

It is a commonplace that those who reach middle age lament the world that has passed and rail against the one that is coming into being. I keep that in mind when I feel curmudgeonly, but I don’t let that stop me from making my mind up about the rights and wrongs of our time.

I come from the generation whose grandparents experienced life in Canada without universal medicare or unemployment insurance. Our parents came of age here in the era of the greatest prosperity and the narrowest class gap of all time. Now, the gap between rich and poor is widening at a frightening rate and medicare is hardly likely to survive into my old age. In the face of these pressures, communities are engaging in discussions about food security and re-discovering techniques for self-sufficiency. Others are discussing the impacts of unchecked development, both within cities and on agricultural land.

I don’t mean to suggest that we return to a mythical golden era; we’ve certainly made strides in human rights and equality since then. I just believe that much is being lost right now that puts the best of our culture at risk.

This post is the introduction to a series of occasional posts about my neighbourhood and region, where I’ll explore my thoughts and fears about the suburbanization of the city, the loss of agricultural land and the growing economic gap that will affect city dwellers and outliers alike.

A New Home for the Winter Farmers’ Market, with Digressions

This past Saturday, the Vancouver Farmers’ Market had their first winter market of the season. It was a bittersweet occasion for me, because until this year the winter market was almost literally a stone’s throw away from where I live. (If I had a better arm, it would have been.) But, the market had long outgrown its winter home at the WISE Hall and this year the city gave permission for the move to the parking lot at Nat Bailey Stadium.

I’ve told you the bitter, but there’s definitely some sweet. The winter market can now happen weekly and is much larger than it was in its old incarnation. Since the scattered summer markets are now closed for the season, there’s also an advantage in having it in a location that’s nearer the centre of the city. It’s reasonably accessible by transit and there are good cycling routes available, so it’s possible to avoid the congestion and competition for parking spots that driving there causes. Once again, the east side has served as an incubator for something that benefits the whole city. And local, organic food is definitely beneficial.



                       
                       
                       
                       
                       
                       
                       
                       
                       
                       
                       
                       
                       
                       

Though it seems like awareness of food miles and the benefits of eating locally has sprung up out of nowhere in the last few years, the Vancouver Farmers’ Market has been running for fifteen years now. The dominant culture can take quite a while to catch on to a good thing.

I first heard someone talk about eating locally in the mid-eighties. He was one of the most interesting professors I ever had. His course was ostensibly about the geography of weather, but he made sure to give us some life lessons along the way. For instance, he talked to us about geographical and weather considerations for house-hunting, which I think of often when looking at the suburbs running up the North Shore Mountains. (Hint: it’s very bad to cut into a natural slope in a rainforest climate zone.) He’s also responsible for politicizing me around water rights, and by extension, all natural resources and genetic materials. It’s always amazed me how much taking that one course helped me to solidify my political and ethical ideas.

Eating locally was one of those ideas. In the class discussion, we focused on the farm stands that dotted the Fraser Valley, where I grew up. The farms behind those stands grew a variety of vegetables, with much less need of pesticides than industrial mono-culture farms. They could also grow more varieties than industrial farms, since transportation-hardiness and shelf life weren’t considerations for local sales. We learned that we were lucky to have so much access to good food. As the years went by and as development skyrocketed in the Valley, I wondered how long this access would last.

Enter the organic and local food movements.

Now, not only do we have a vibrant system of farmers’ markets across our region, but people are also looking for local, organic produce in grocery stores. I think this bodes well for our health and also for the health of our farmlands, which have been under threat of development even when they’re part of the Agricultural Land Reserve .



                       
                       
                       
                       
                       
                       
                       

Farm stands have even been experiencing something of a renaissance. When I’ve visited farm stands on the Sunshine Coast, I’ve felt like they are lovely, nostalgic throwbacks. Especially since some of them leave their produce unattended, with a price list and a strongbox for you to leave payment. With the rise of urban farming, though, the Farmers’ Market is no longer the only game in town. There’s even a small farm and stand in a vacant lot at Victoria and First.

Extremely local eating is becoming more and more organized here. Neighbours are co-ordinating garden plots together; urban farmers are leasing back (and front) yards; the Vancouver Fruit Tree Project harvests surplus and unwanted fruit; and chicken houses, aquaculture systems and apiaries are springing up around the city. I hope our food culture continues along this trajectory, because our future food security will depend upon it.