On April 3rd, the Jeanne Sauvé Forum Series on Social Connectedness and International Development continued its Winter 2017 session with an event entitled, Beyond Food Banks: Sustainability, Social Justice and Belonging in the Urban Environment.
The Forum Series, created by Kim Samuel in collaboration with the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation, explores the root causes of social isolation, along with strategies for building social connectedness through international policy and program development. It began last fall with weekly discussions at the historic Jeanne Sauvé House in Montreal covering a variety of topics, from the ongoing refugee crisis to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. The Series is also closely linked with Professor Samuel’s fourth-year seminar course on social connectedness at McGill University, the first of its kind.
The April 3rd Forum Series event focused on food as a basic human right and key to building belonging and broader security. With food banks serving as only a crisis response to food insecurity and urban poverty, the discussion was centered around the importance of food security as key to building sustainable community solutions within complex urban environments, both in Canada and around the globe.
Opening the evening, moderator Kim Samuel pointed out that while the world produces more than enough food to feed the entire global population, almost 800 million people suffer from chronic undernourishment. She added that among the psycho-social impacts of lack of access to food is social isolation.
Ms. Samuel drew particular attention to Canada’s Indigenous communities, which consistently experience higher levels of food insecurity compared to the rest of the country. She explained that this is the result of a “multiplicity of issues including colonization, displacement, climate change and poverty.” She recalled traveling to Moose Factory in northern Ontario and learning how Indigenous communities there and further north face food costs three to six times higher than average as a result of government policy, resource extraction, transportation costs and corporate monopolies.
Ms. Samuel also remarked on the power of food, both socially and culturally, to bring people together. As she put it, “When we gather together to enjoy a meal, we are engaging in a tradition as old as humanity — one that transcends national borders and cultural divides.” She added, “Breaking bread together breaks down barriers and builds connection.”
The first panelist, Rachel Gray, Executive Director of the Stop Food Center in Toronto, spoke of the unique ability of food to build social solidarity. She recalled one visitor to the Stop telling her, “I can’t remember the last time I sat down and ate with people like this.” As Ms. Gray explained, when people don’t eat meals with others, they are imprisoned, and it is very difficult for others to comprehend the full burden of that day-to-day reality.
But are food banks the answer? Ms. Gray pointed out that despite the presence of 450 food banks across Canada and 40 years of experience, there are still 4 million Canadians (13% of the country’s population) who are food insecure, one third of whom are children. Moreover, she added that only about a quarter of food insecure people actually use food banks due to a variety of factors, including proximity or they are ashamed to do so.
“Forty years of food banks and yet there has been no meaningful change to food security,” stated Ms. Gray. “We have a collective responsibility to create a better system.”
This message was carried on by the second panelist, Diana Bronson, Executive Director of Food Secure Canada. She noted the opportunity Canada currently has to create a national food policy and strategy to combat hunger based on the acknowledgement of food as a fundamental right. She added that this policy must incorporate solutions that address the disproportionate food insecurity of racialized individuals and Indigenous peoples, as well as the impact of climate change on food production and markets.
Ms. Bronson then outlined Food Secure Canada’s food policy engagement plan, which seeks to unite the support of stakeholders across government, business and NGOs. She asked the audience to imagine a national food policy that “eliminates hunger, strengthens school food programs, ends the use of food as a weapon against Indigenous peoples, and offers a long-term vision.”
During the discussion period, Ms. Gray was asked what the Stop does to promote its services and make people comfortable to visit. She responded that staff take great care to welcome visitors, promote understanding that it is their space, and emphasize dignity. The Stop also hosts a number of community, holiday, and cultural food events to promote inclusion. She noted, “People come first for food, they come back for community.”
Ms. Bronson was asked how Food Secure Canada reconciles issues like sustainability and the right to food with corporate interests. She responded by emphasizing the need for a new governance structure, adding that not every aspect of this issue can be solved within the current government’s term. She argued that we need to get to a place where the price of food reflects its true cost, and that we need to come to terms with issues such as the unsustainability of certain agricultural sectors.
All agreed this was a remarkable evening of conversation that enabled everyone to think about the importance of food from their own kitchen table, to their neighbours and communities and ultimately, more broadly to the importance of national policy. We certainly see this as the beginning of the dialogue and encourage everyone to stay tuned to the work of developing food policy as well as efforts at the local level to create food security and connectedness.