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More voices needed on national food strategy

The Waterloo Record by Steffanie Scott 22 February 2012

Who’s setting the table for the food that Canadians are eating? And who should be involved in establishing a national food strategy for this country?

Between 2008 and 2011, more than 3,500 Canadians participated in “kitchen table talks,” a process that culminated in the publication of Resetting the Table: A People’s Food Policy for Canada. The report was adopted by Food Secure Canada, a national network of people and organizations mobilized around zero hunger, healthful and safe food, and sustainable food production and distribution systems.

In stark distinction to this grassroots process, and to its priorities, the Conference Board of Canada hosted a Canadian Food Summit in Toronto earlier this month, and is purporting to be leading a process to create a Canadian food strategy. Not only was the conference board’s agenda critically limited in scope, but a strategy aimed at solution-finding that sidelines small- and medium-scale businesses and broad-based citizen input will only reinforce the practices that undermine healthy and sustainable food systems.

Although the people’s food policy is the most comprehensive policy document to date, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute have recently released their own strategies. The lack of collaboration between these initiatives will make it difficult for the conference board to claim its new Centre for Food in Canada as the most legitimate convener for another Canadian food strategy.

And the agenda of this two-day food summit was dominated by viewpoints of the chief executives of Loblaws, Maple Leaf Foods and the like. No one involved in the People’s Food Policy Project was permitted to be on the agenda. And only in much smaller breakout sessions could participants hear perspectives from the Toronto Food Policy Council or researchers on social and environmental determinants of the emerging obesity epidemic.

The lack of a dedicated session on hunger at this major food strategy event is particularly deplorable given the background of the conference board’s president, Anne Golden, who formerly worked on social and poverty issues with the United Way in Toronto.

The predominant messages from the large-group sessions were that price is king, factory farming is necessary, and government’s role is to get out of the way — no one mentioned its role as protector of its citizens’ well-being. Discussion of the local food economy and small- and medium-scale food production and retailing was largely relegated to the margins and to the penultimate session on Day 2, after which many of the corporate sponsors had left.

The conference board’s purported holistic approach to food is in practice extremely narrow. Most glaring was the interpretation of food security — which is usually understood as access to food for low-income populations — to mean industry viability. Ecological considerations were important insofar as they helped to maintain economic competitiveness. Too bad none of the summit organizers went to hear Diet for a Small Planet author Frances Moore Lappé on her recent speaking tour in Ontario.

The conference board’s process is structurally flawed. Since ‘investors’ — large-scale industry and government partners — pay in to be part of the process, this ties the hands of the conference board to produce any meaningful analysis about the challenges facing the food system. A multimillion-dollar budget will ensure widespread dissemination and access to decision-makers, even though the quality of the research has been abysmal, and an expert review process for the research is sorely lacking.

The fact that more than 500 people, from all aspects of the food system, chose to attend the Canadian Food Summit is a sign that many knowledgeable people are keen to be at the table collaborating in a national food strategy.

It is time to bring together and build on the existing proposals and networks, rather than engage in a form of privatized policy development that only emphasizes opportunities for big business. This is not in the interests of Canadian citizens.

Steffanie Scott is director of the local economic development program at the University of Waterloo. She is also vice-president of the Canadian Association for Food Studies and was founding co-chair of the Waterloo Region Food System Roundtable.