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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Let them eat carrots! Add to ...

Should poor people be able to eat the same food as rich people do? Food activists think so. So they've launched a scheme to give vouchers to poor people in Toronto. The vouchers can be used at local farmers' markets, where the produce - say, a bunch of farm-fresh carrots - costs only twice as much as what you'd pay at Loblaws. Three cheers for social justice!

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There are other schemes afoot for adding carrots to the diet of the needy. Food banks in Ontario are canvassing for volunteers to fan out across the province and collect subpar produce from farms that would otherwise plow it under. The produce will be distributed to food banks to augment their usual dreary offerings. Sounds great - although you've got to wonder, after allowing for gas, mileage and labour, if it's really all that economical.

Never have so many people been so well-fed (to say nothing of overfed) as they are today. Yet, according to Michael Ignatieff, Jack Layton and a passel of food-policy experts and social activists, our food system is broken. They are determined to fix it. And they have the same formula: more subsidies to local farmers, more farmers' markets, and better access to healthier food for all Canadians, especially low-income ones. (How they plan to give more money to farmers while keeping prices low for consumers is a mystery for another day.)

The assumption among the food reformers is that "healthy food" is only available to those who can afford it. In other words, the reason poor people are more obese and have more health problems than the affluent is that they can't afford to eat better. If only the disadvantaged could get their hands on more nutritious, locally produced, environmentally sustainable fruit and vegetables, they'd automatically reject Cheez Whiz and Big Macs. Their health status would naturally improve, and society would be a whole lot better off.

Frankly, this logic seems a bit wishful. It assumes that, if you offer people choice, they'll make the right one, even though a little self-reflection ought to tell us this isn't always true. Meantime, there's one institution that's done more to improve access to healthy, affordable food than all our politicians, food activists and food banks put together: the supermarket.

The average urban grocery store offers a staggering array of fresh, healthy foods our grandparents never would have dreamed of. Fifty years ago, the only lettuce you could get was ice; now you can get dozens of varieties year-round. You can choose from 57 different kinds of bread. And quality and choice are constantly improving. You want organic? No problem. Ethnic? Check. Over in the cheese section, you can find dozens of delicious artisanal cheeses from small producers across Canada. If they had to rely on farmers' markets, they wouldn't be in business.

Today, most Canadians can eat better than the Eatons used to. Food's a bargain. The supermarket revolution ushered in relentless competition, which has driven prices down. In 1961, Canadians spent more than 19 per cent of their household budgets on food; today, they spend less than 10 per cent. Only the Americans and British spend less.

It's good to buy from local farmers. But supermarket food is just as safe and healthy, usually more convenient and sometimes better. Prices are low because supermarkets are incredibly efficient and offer enormous economies of scale. (There's a reason that artisanal cheeses cost an arm and a leg.) It's nice to keep farmers employed. But Loblaws alone trains and employs 139,000 people, and they need work, too. As for eco-consciousness, Loblaws has been a pioneer in low-cal products, green products, cloth grocery bags, and waste diversion. It leads the pack in corporate social responsibility.

So instead of giving poor people vouchers for farmers' markets, or gathering up rejected carrots from the farmers, we could send them straight to a Loblaws. Just one problem: It wouldn't qualify as social justice.

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