What does sustainable food mean, beyond its use as a marketing buzz phrase? Who gets to define sustainable, and who has access to sustainable foods?
Those are the questions we asked leaders from across the food system in Canada, drawing on their expertise working for food non-profits, in industry, government, academia, and with people experiencing food insecurity. This study was a followup to a 2019 study from Food Secure Canada examining how those living on low incomes value and access sustainably grown foods, and what challenges and barriers they face.
The study showed that after years of living with COVID-19, sustainability is more important than ever, even for those living on low incomes and who may struggle persistently or from time to time with having enough food. There is also a marked interest in local, ethically sourced and fair-trade foods.
However, the cost of sustainable foods and consumers’ incomes are the main barriers. These are compounded by the structural discrimination consumers may face, especially if they are Indigenous, Black, or a member of other equity-deserving communities. This discrimination can take many forms, from a food-insecure family not finding foods at their local grocery that reflect their cultural heritage, to an individual applying for a community funding grant, only to find that their project to provide food does not fit narrow, Euro-centric criteria.
Race is a crucial element in food security
We are increasingly aware of the number of Canadians going hungry, and with good reason — food insecurity has been persistently high in Canada, and recent data has shown that racialized communities and Indigenous Peoples are much more likely to experience it. Findings from our study showed that people care about not only having enough food but also having foods that are culturally appropriate and sustainable. They care that food is sustainable not only for the environment but also for the economy, including for all people involved along the food value chain.
What people are reading
This study illustrates the complexity and nuance of concepts like food security and sustainability. Neither food insecurity nor sustainability can be tackled if we ignore the structural barriers in Canada, including colonialism, racism, and other systems of discrimination and dispossession, like access to land. What is sustainable for one community may not be for another, and solutions need to be specific to where people live, developed with and for them.
Moving beyond food security to food sovereignty
Study participants repeatedly pointed out the importance of moving beyond emergency food services such as food banks to solutions that address underlying issues, especially poverty. During the height of COVID-19 disruptions, financial support from the Canada Emergency Response Benefit allowed many to keep hunger at bay. Participants welcomed policy measures that advance an income floor under which no one falls, effective for strengthening food security.
Roadmaps to food sovereignty
While addressing both food security and sustainability are daunting challenges, we have good roadmaps: the federal government has committed to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (with goals such as no poverty, zero hunger and responsible consumption and production), as well as the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (which respects, recognizes, and protects the human rights of Indigenous communities). The findings and Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission provide further guidance, touching on aspects such as access to traditional foods and land sovereignty for Indigenous Peoples.
Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Marie-Claude Bibeau has welcomed the opportunity to work with stakeholders to eliminate the need for food banks, something that food system leaders have asserted over the years. With this conviction, we have the opportunity now to ensure all Canadians have access not only to enough food, but also food that benefits the environment, is economically accessible, and contributes to a more racially equitable country.
Research funding: For this research, Food Secure Canada has received funding from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada’s Contributions Program for Non-profit Consumer and Voluntary Organizations. The views expressed in this report are not necessarily those of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada or the federal government.
Farzaneh Barak (MSc, PhD) has over a decade of national and international experience in public health nutrition and food security in countries like Iran, Malawi, Uganda, and Canada. She is a final-year PhD candidate at McGill University and an FRQSC doctoral awardee.
Dr. Monika Korzun has worked in the Canadian food system in various capacities over the past 12 years, including academia, non-profits and industry. She currently holds a McCain Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie University.