The food movement has spoken.
Thirty years after a cross-country team of Canadian food advocates first convened in an effort to develop a national food strategy, a revamped and expanded version of that group will today issue a 27-page roadmap to food system change.
The People’s Food Policy Project, an umbrella group representing grassroots organizations and individuals from coast-to-coast, canvassed more than 3,500 Canadians over two years to come up with its findings. They are based on the concept of food sovereignty, the idea that people have a rightful say in determining how their food is produced and where it comes from. Not only does food sovereignty need to be restored in Canada, the project argues, policies at all levels of government need to be overhauled to enable it.
One of four civil-society efforts currently under way to develop long-term food strategies, the PFPP is the most comprehensive attempt to develop a truly national strategy. Some experts say, however, it is also the least likely to have a direct policy effect. Instead, the value of the project is in its galvanization of thousands of Canadians who have become attuned to how the food system works and which parts could work better if tweaked and aligned with policies on health and the environment.
By creating a sense of democracy around food – the term for that is food citizenship – the project is giving people the sense that they deserve to have more say in the way the food system is set up.
“Policy is almost always an experts-only conversation,” said Kenton Lobe, a PFPP volunteer and a founding member of the Manitoba Food Charter, a position paper that has been used to build support for grassroots food systems change in that province. “Public participation is one of the key parts of how you transform people’s understanding of issues like sustainable development. It becomes a tool of awareness that can only strengthen our democratic process,” he said.
Adding credibility to the PFPP, which would at one time have been considered a fringe effort, is the warm reception it has received from competitors-turned-collaborators. That includes the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. Representing agri-business interests, the CFA is developing its own national food strategy aimed at ensuring the sustainability of Canada’s food supply for domestic sales and international trade. The organization, however, keeps an open dialogue with the PFPP.
Both the federal Liberals and the NDP were involved in the PFPP process. Both parties have included food policies in their respective electoral platforms.
The commonalities between civil-society and partisan efforts lie in the desire to bolster Canadian agriculture and food systems by making changes that will enable farmers to sell a more diverse array of food not just outside of Canada but within it.
“As the price of oil goes up, we’re seeing the price of food go through the roof,” said Robin Tunnicliffe, an organic fruit and vegetable grower from Vancouver Island who worked on the PFPP and serves on the board of USC Canada, one of the key organizations to support the project. “If we had vibrant regional food systems, which are entirely possible with a few changes in policy, our food system would be more resilient … to external shocks that have caused chaos,” she said.
Titled Resetting the Table: A People’s Food Policy for Canada, the report seeks to recalibrate the domestic distribution of homegrown food by creating local and regional purchasing policies for institutions and large food retailers. The aim is to ensure food is eaten as close as possible to where it is produced. It also suggests a shift in Canadian agriculture and aquaculture toward more environmentally friendly practices and the creation of policies that help new farmers enter the profession. A national poverty elimination plan and a Children and Food strategy (including a national school-meal program) are pillars of the document.
Rod MacRae, one of Canada’s foremost food policy experts at York University, said the true test of the disparate food policy efforts, regardless of the harmony they’ve realized thus far, will be in whether the government can muster a worthy response.
“Will a government have the capacity to try and extract the most useful and robust elements from all these different pieces and try to create some national consensus around it? Or will they actually be paralyzed … and do nothing?”