Trevor Hancock: Good news on the good-food front

This seems a good time to be thinking about food, when we are focused on the one hand on feasting, and on the other hand on the hunger that many of our fellowcitizens face.

Last month, I attended the Good Food Summit, organized by the Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable. It was a heartening celebration of the hard work and good news about good food in this region.

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CRFAIR is small organization, but it plays a big role in bringing together the many players involved in the production and distribution of the food we grow and eat: farmers, gardeners, First Nations, food processors, retailers, restaurants, food banks, community food initiatives, schools, nutritionists and many others.

Founded in the 1990s with a strong focus on food security, and hosted by the Community Social Planning Council, CRFAIR grew to have 30 member organizations and four workgroups focusing on various aspects of food security. Island Health funded CRFAIR to work as the food-security hub for the capital region, and research partnerships were established with the University of Victoria and others.

Then in 2013, CRFAIR became an independent entity, funded by a combination of foundations, local governments and Island Health, with a mission to “mobilize and connect efforts to develop healthy, equitable and sustainable food systems in the capital region.” One key focus is “good food,” by which they mean food that is “good for the planet, good for the provider, and good for the health and well-being of all.”

Sadly, many aspects of our food system are far from these ideals. Our diet is definitely not healthy; as a society we eat way too much food of the wrong sort, leading to dramatic rates of overweight and obesity along with a host of chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, stroke, arthritis and some forms of cancer.

Nor is our food system equitable. Most obviously, we have large numbers of people, including children, who are hungry and lack the economic means to acquire adequate amounts of healthy food. But in addition, we exploit cheap labour in Canada, the U.S. and many other parts of the world to produce our food.

Here in B.C., for example, a 2008 report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that “Canadian farmworkers on piece rates were earning just over $5 per hour,” which was well below the minimum wage, while a 2015 CCPA report noted that almost all B.C.’s agricultural workers are immigrants or migrants and they are “subject to coercive employment practices with serious consequences for health and safety.”

Third, our food system is not sustainable, it is not good for the planet. Our modern, meat-based diet requires a lot of land and water, extensive energy and chemical inputs and intensive farming practices, and produces large amounts of waste, including significant quantities of methane and carbon dioxide that contribute to global warming.

Jennie Moore, a professor at the B.C. Institute of Technology, did her PhD on the ecological footprint of Vancouver. In a study published in the Journal of Environmental Management in 2013, she and her colleagues reported that food consumption represented almost half the ecological footprint, mainly due to “the large area required to grow crops and fodder, and because of the energy intensity of food production, processing and distribution.”

Astonishingly, of the 2.6 million tonnes of food used in Vancouver in a year, “approximately one-third ends up lost or wasted due to spoilage and/or plate-waste.” More than 370,000 tonnes was “plate waste,” food that was purchased but not eaten.

None of this is good news, but it is food for thought.

Happily, however, there is good news on good food. There were many examples at the Good Food Summit of people and organizations throughout the region that are working to create a food system that is indeed “good for the planet, good for the provider, and good for the health and well-being of all.” Check out the Good Food Network on the CRFAIR website, especially the “Find good food in the CRD” page, where you will find a list of 10 simple things you can do to make a difference, links to useful resources and much more besides.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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