On October 30th, the Fall 2017 Jeanne Sauvé Forum Series on Social Connectedness and International Development continued with an event entitled, Re-Thinking Food: Rural and Urban, Local and Global.
The Sauvé Series, created by Professor 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 UN Sustainable Development Goals to refugees and human rights. 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 October 30th event featured a panel of representatives from organizations dedicated to increasing food access and sustainability, including Rachel Gray, Executive Director of The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto; Patrick Holden, Founding Director and Chief Executive of The Sustainable Food Trust, based in the UK; and Rebecca MacLeod, Regional Champion of Food Secure Canada’s Youth Caucus. The discussion was focused on why food banks and food systems are failing to alleviate food insecurity at home and around the world, and how food policy can be harnessed to build social connectedness.
Professor Samuel began the night with a simple question, “What is it about food that brings us together?” In a world where too often we divide members of society by age, race and other factors, she said, “something amazing happens when we sit down together to share a meal. Gathered around a table, we are all equals. Through the ingredients on our plates, we share a common connection to the Earth and to each other.”
Professor Samuel encouraged the audience to consider the topic through a broader lens – to “re-think food”. She explained, “This suggests that we don’t merely think about our need for food, but we challenge ourselves to see the integrated nature of food systems and the implications for all of us on multiple levels.”
Patrick Holden, a farmer of 44 years and sustainable food advocate, echoed that challenge. Too many people, he explained, have so little knowledge of where their food comes from. At the same time, he argued passionately that we don’t value food enough, while its price doesn’t reflect its true cost, both in terms of production costs and environmental degradation.
Worse, Patrick underscored how human beings are dangerously exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet and risk huge ecological and environmental catastrophes if we don’t change our food and farming systems within the next 30 years. In our current system, he explained, food producers aren’t financially responsible for the environmental damage they cause. The right course, he advocated, would be to create a sustainable system where we consume what farms produce, ban intensively farmed meats, and increase localized production, especially in large urban areas like Montreal.
Like Patrick, Rachel Gray pointed out something else that too many people think little of: food insecurity and the real people it affects. “It’s not that we can’t figure out how to feed people; we choose not to,” she said. As an example, she pointed out how we provide emergency food relief when a natural disaster strikes, but offer no relief for the income insecurity people experience on a consistent basis.
Rachel described how her organization, The Stop, uses food to get income insecure people in the door, but their real goal is to build community and relationships among patrons. In this way, she described their programming as much more than “transactional,” clarifying that food banks are only a “bandaid”. Through research and advocacy, she explained, The Stop is seeking to build social solidarity and identify the real indicators of social connectedness in the organization’s programming.
Bringing a youth perspective to the discussion, Rebecca MacLeod described her role as Food Secure Canada’s Regional Champion for Alberta. The regional champions, she explained, conduct outreach to communities, particular youth, getting them engaged in food security issues. They also do research and collect ideas from young people that are then shared by the organization with government contacts during policy consultations — giving those young people a voice in the discussions.
Rebecca also talked about her past work promoting farmers markets, both in Edmonton and as a student at McGill. She described them as “a place of community” and as a means of supporting local sustainable food.
Madeleine Andrew-Gee, Social Connectedness Fellow 2017 and Research Assistant at the ETC Group, led off the discussion portion of the event by highlighting her organization’s latest report, Who Will Feed Us? The Peasant Food Web vs. the Industrial Food Chain. The report challenges the assumption that the industrial food chain and globalization will help humanity survive given that 70% of the world is fed through the peasant food web using only 25% of the world’s resources.
Madeleine asked, what concrete actions can be taken in the short term to set us on course towards sustainable food systems? All three panelists encouraged audience members to speak out and contact their political representatives. Patrick noted in particular that an effective strategy may be to connect the food agenda with the climate change agenda. Along these lines, another audience member asked what people and farmers can do about the influence of big food lobbies. Rachel suggested getting involved with organizations that are working to counteract these special interests. Rebecca encouraged audience members to use their dollars to support sustainable businesses.
Another audience question touched on the issue of rural and urban divisions surrounding food systems and security. Rebecca noted that in Canada this speaks directly to the ongoing challenges facing northern Indigenous communities where food can be extremely expensive and inaccessible. On the urban side, Rachel highlighted the value of community gardens, which she said are becoming a new form of urban farms.
Patrick was then asked if sustainable food systems could produce enough food to feed everyone, to which he responded, yes, but that we would have to change our diets and stop wasting as much food as we do. He was also asked if sustainable systems are even possible given that many people don’t live close to farms. He responded by emphasizing the importance of reconnecting farmers and markets, and that this is a crucial question moving forward.
The next Sauvé Series event will feature a discussion on the fight to eradicate multidimensional poverty and the importance of communities and local knowledge in driving solutions. Speaking at the event will be Sabina Alkire, Director, Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, University of Oxford; Marlene Ogawa, Program Manager, Synergos Institute in South Africa; and Denise Byrnes, Executive Director, Oxfam-Québec. For more information and to register for this event, please visit socialconnectedness.org/sauve.