What we learned at the most recent Food Secure Canada National Assembly

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Project: Food Policy

Every two years, people who work to end hunger and build healthy sustainable food systems across Canada gather to share, learn and laugh with each other. This past October (2016), Food Secure Canada held its 9th assembly in Toronto with an impressive turnout of over 200 speakers and 800 conference goers. It is clear that a lot of people are working to make our food systems better, and from what we learned it’s going to take a lot more.

Decolonising the table is going to be tough. After the first 500 years of colonisation and all the heartache it’s wrought upon Indigenous people – the inequity, forced removal and disconnection with our foods – it’s about time that we, for real, remove the shackles of colonisation. First off, let’s go beyond the table and give back the land – that’s what the opening panel of Indigenous leaders made clear. They said that decolonisation is going to be uncomfortable for everyone, but that’s how you know its’ working. To get there we need to recognise the power of women, of youth and of the richness of our many experiences and cultures. And most importantly we need action.

We all need to eat, right. There was a lot of discussion about our collective right to eat, about ending hunger. People talked about the ways their communities are feeding each other, such as hunter support programs in Nunavut, food banks becoming food centres that provide food with dignity, and school nutrition programs that teach youth to cook. As great as those initiative are, if we want to get serious, says Paul Taylor of Gordon House in Vancouver, we need to go beyond “teaching people to soak beans and make kale chips”. We need to talk about income first he says, so that everybody has the means to feed themselves and their families.

A national food policy on the horizon. In his mandate letter to the Honorable Lawrence MacAulay, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instructed the Agriculture Minister to “Develop a food policy that promotes healthy living and safe food by putting more healthy, high-quality food, produced by Canadian ranchers and farmers, on the tables of families across the country.” This most recent Food Secure Canada assembly provided a forum for the ministry to present its plan for developing a national food policy, and for producers, advocates, service providers, and researchers to provide input. One of the greatest challenges will be to develop a cohesive national food policy that strengthens the existing patchwork of provincial, territorial, and municipal food policies and strategies, while respecting the diversity of local experiences, needs, and aspirations. The federal government has plenty of work to do before the 2018 deadline, and it is up to all of us across Canada to hold them to task.

Healthy is a loaded term. It’s impossible to talk about a food security and a national food policy without talking about health, and yet, how we define health is far from straightforward. Historically, the connection between food and health in Canada has been one that’s largely boiled down food groups, serving counts, and the nutrients provided by an idealised western diet. As decolonizing the food system and everyone’s right to eat become central to the conversation, we are prompted to look at health through new lenses. Mental health, cultural health, community health – food relates to it all. And just how it relates is subjective, meaning there are many ways to eat well and feed ourselves – forcing people to conform to one standard way of eating doesn’t work, and doesn’t improve our health and wellness.

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