Julia Bryan on the challenges of hunger, poverty, and local food.
Over 18,000 people in Kingston live below the poverty line. An estimated 8,000 more are working poor. At least one in five children live in poverty.
According to the recently released Dignity Project, nearly 40 percent of Canadians believe that people who live in poverty in Canada ‘still have it pretty good’. The Project, a Salvation Army initiative aimed at addressing persistent myths about poverty in Canada, reveals a truly depressing gap between middle-class assumptions about poverty and the realities faced every day by families, in communities like our own, who are struggling to meet their basic needs. Perhaps the most influential of these realities is the lack of access to affordable, healthy and appropriate food.
Food insecurity is directly related to income, but it is also created by a food system that is fundamentally unfair. In one sense, the modern industrial food system moved us in the right direction by greatly increasing access to food . Although so-called ‘peasant dishes’ like pig’s trotters are enjoying a resurgence in popularity due to the re-imaginings of celebrity chefs, there is a reason these dishes contain what were once very cheap cuts of meat; people with money ate better food and poor people ate what they could .
Unfortunately, while the availability and affordability of a wider variety of foods has dramatically changed the diets of a great many people, the shift is not necessarily for the better. We are now faced with the improbable challenge that a growing proportion of our population is simultaneously obese and malnourished. In fact, the only segment of society not gaining weight is the super rich.
People with low incomes consume fewer servings of fruits and vegetables, fewer milk products and fewer vitamins than those in food-secure households. Dietary deficiencies are associated with higher rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
It is because of this that poverty reduction has to be part of the development of a just local food system. It is not just about convincing people to make healthy food choices--it is about ensuring they have the power of choice.
Food systems are engines for local economic development; they create employment opportunities and keep more money in the local economy. In a local food system, community is our most valuable resource and for a local food system to be successful and just, it must include everyone. Low-income people are the most susceptible to market changes and are least able to absorb the increased costs for food that arise from international conflict and from increased climatic variability.
As Elaine Powers argues in her chapter in For Hunger-Proof Cities, the proponents of sustainable food systems are often economically privileged, despite the fact that their struggle for an alternative vision of the future may at times make them feel marginalised. In this vein, it is sometimes too easy to identify with those who are marginalised in other ways and assume that the urgency of the need for change is significant for all of us in the same ways. It is not.
Right now, many people in our community simply need food. They also have the right to make whatever food choices feel appropriate to them. What is frustrating is that a functioning community food system (that would extend choices to everyone is so tantalizingly close and yet painfully out of reach for these members of our community. Local food movements need to make access a priority. We need to cultivate an understanding of the barriers that prevent people from being able to enjoy the privilege of cooking a meal at home from fresh, local ingredients - something that requires time, resources, skills and a safe, secure place to live. Sadly, because many people in Kingston do not have access to the basic resources to live in dignity and security, they are unable to participate in a local food economy. The surge in popularity of community gardens and skill-sharing programs in Kingston hopefully points to a brighter future that involves empowering people towards both individual and community levels of local sustainability. We need to work harder, however, to ensure that these opportunities are available to everyone. Poverty reduction must be part of the local food strategy, so that the most vulnerable members of our community are not excluded from the more sustainable, stable and community-oriented future that a local food system will provide.
Julia Bryan is the coordinator of the Community Round Table on Poverty reduction and was on the community council of Food Down the Road.