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Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System
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Deconstructing Dinner

Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY

Nelson B.C. Canada

 

March 16, 2006

 

Title: Peak Oil and Food

 

Producer/Host: Jon Steinman

Transcript: Tia Alexander

 

Jon Steinman: And welcome to Deconstructing Dinner - produced in the studios of Kootenay Co-op Radio in Nelson, British Columbia. I'm Jon Steinman. Here on Deconstructing Dinner, we take a closer look at the food we eat, and discuss how these food choices we make impact ourselves, our communities, and our planet. For more information on this program or to comment on the program, you can visit the Deconstructing Dinner website at www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner.

 

It has and will always be a recurring mention on this program how important the issue of transportation is in relation to the food we eat. As our food choices are increasingly being grown, processed and distributed thousands of miles away, the availability of food has become almost entirely up to a complex network of transportation - whether it be the construction and maintenance of roads, or the servicing and upgrading of large trucks and trailers, the transportation system is reliant on one resource - oil. Even take a look at how agriculture operates with the prevalence of tractors, combines and other farm vehicles, and let's not forget that pesticides and fertilizers are also a product of the petroleum industry.

 

We could spend the next hour discussing the negative impacts such high levels of fossil fuels have on the very environment we rely on to grow our food, but what has recently become an equally if not more serious issue, is the availability of this non-renewable resource that drives our industrial food system.

 

But no statistics are even required to see how our food system continues to expand in such a way that this reliance on oil is only increasing. And as the hands-on approach to traditional farming gets pushed aside for technical innovation, our farmers' are increasingly leaving the rural areas of this country and heading into cities where there is limited land to grow food, and a lack of resources to educate the population on how to grow our own food.

 

To discuss how our reliance on oil directly impacts the food we eat on a daily basis, we will hear some clips from a recorded presentation by Wayne Roberts that recently took place in Vancouver and was recorded by the Necessary Voices Society also based in Vancouver. Wayne Roberts is the project coordinator for the Toronto Food Policy Council. As Wayne also shed light on some great initiatives taking place in Toronto that respond to the issues surrounding the decreasing availability of oil, we will also hear of another initiative taking place in Toronto and that will be courtesy of Charles Levkoe - the Urban Agriculture Coordinator for The Stop Community Food Centre.

 

increase music and fade out

 

JS: The key term being used to describe this issue of decreasing availability of oil is known as Peak Oil. The easiest way to define this concept is that Peak Oil is the point in time when extraction of oil from the earth reaches its highest point and then begins to decline.

 

According to a report by the Worldwatch Institute published in 2005, Oil production is already in decline in 33 of the 48 largest oil producing countries. But there is still certainly debate as to when this point of oil extraction will reach its peak, or even whether we have passed this peak already, but regardless, there is one constant - and that is that oil is non-renewable and its production and use is suffocating this planet.

 

In relation to food, two themes can be extracted from this issue of Peak Oil. One, and as just mentioned, our food system is increasingly becoming structured around energy-dependent practices, but that aside, take a look in suburban Vancouver or suburban Toronto, where the access to food is becoming increasingly dependent on automobiles. These two themes will be the focus of today's program.

 

Wayne Roberts - the project coordinator for the Toronto Food Policy Council, and a frequent contributor to Toronto's NOW Magazine, was recently in Vancouver speaking on the topic of Peak Oil and how it affects our supply of food and access to it. The Toronto Food Policy Council was formed in 1991 as a sub-committee of the Toronto Board of Health. The council partners with business and community groups in order to develop policies and programs that promote food security. There is also a Vancouver Food Policy Council that holds similar objectives.

 

So here is Wayne Roberts, speaking recently in Vancouver on the topic of Peak Oil and why municipal Food Policy Councils are so important. Again, these clips are courtesy of the Necessary Voices Society, and you're listening to Deconstructing Dinner.

 

Wayne Roberts: We have in the room here and I think one of the next speaker is Julian Darley who is considered internationally to be one of the leaders of the whole new school of thought around what is called Peak Oil or as Julian would also have it Peak Natural Gas. And there's a whole series of intricate theories that go along with that but I as a relative lay person would just put it down to four propositions that I believe are unchallengeably true and that I believe that the overwhelming majority of Canadians know to be true including the politicians who have not referred to any of these issues.

 

And they are first that we face a supply problem when it comes to fossil fuels. That we are running out of what is called conventional oil that is the easily accessible, high quality oil that can be refined cheaply and we are over the next 10 to 30 years going to be relying on none conventional more difficult to access, more expensive to refine oil. So we are heading into an era where there's going to be a supply problem.

 

Secondly, and again I think this is unchallengeably true. We are facing a demand increase at the same time as we see a supply decrease. The world's population over the next thirty years is going to go from 6 to 9 billion. Two billion of the present world population earns less than $2 a day and is struggling to increase that for obvious reasons. And many of these 2 billion people live in India and China, which are increasingly becoming major energy consuming countries in industrial sectors that require a lot of energy. And at the same time as the world is going from 6 to 9 billion and as 2 billion is striving to increase their standard of living, the energy intensity of daily life in the wealthiest part of the world that we live in is going up everyday. We now take for granted cellphones, ipods, crack berries, and we drive more than we did ten years ago, we eat more exotic foods than we did ten years ago, everything is going up in energy intensity in the first world. So we have a decline in low cost supply, an increase in demand, almost what you might say a doubling of demand over the next thirty years.

 

And thirdly, what I would call a coalition derby. That is that we are going to hit that declining supply and increasing demand at the same time as the world heads into what you may call peak fish (with many of the world's great fisheries depleted), peak water and peak climate. So we're not just going to be facing a demand and supply problem in ordinary day, we're going to be facing it at a time of generalized problems.

 

And fourthly, although everyone recognizes I believe that those three things are true and although we have a lifestyle, an economy and a society that is totally dependent on an obsolete resource, no one is planning or preparing for what are going to do on something that is inevitably coming in the next 10 to 30 years. And that I believe is why we need food policy councils and why the Vancouver Food Policy Council is so central is that this critical issue is not coming up, it is in fact being suppressed by the dominant political system, social system and bureaucratic system and it takes a new form of organization to allow the world's population to come to grips with it.

 

JS: And you're tuned in to Deconstructing Dinner as we listen to clips of a presentation by the Toronto Food Policy Council's Wayne Roberts.

 

On the topic of Peak Oil and the oil crisis, it's common to hear responses to these doomsday scenarios that suggest that nothing can be done about this crisis so why worry. But as Wayne indicates in this next clip, that in the case of food, Peak Oil is not a doomsday scenario, and he cites some examples of how our reliance on a transportation-dependent food system is being addressed.

 

WR: Now most of the pictures that I'll be showing you tonight are from Toronto and that's not only because I am a Toronto-centric or Toronto is the center of the universe. I am basically trying to show that even a place like Toronto as humdrum and none mountainous and ocean worthy as it is has got some of those everyday, normal kinds of things that we can build on in order to start to resolve the problem. So a critical part of the message that I am putting out is although we are facing dire situations and we have to begin to prepare we are not facing a doomsday scenario. We are facing a situation that we have the time and resources to respond to. And so I hope to show that what more than Toronto can demonstrate that if they can do it anyone can do it.

 

And secondly, this is the place that originally got me thinking about the issue of Peak Oil, it's the Field To Table or Foodshare built warehouse in the heart of the old abandoned industrial district in Toronto which was seized by Foodshare in the early 1990's to occupy an empty building and put it to use providing healthy food for people on low incomes in the city of Toronto and no government had the audacity to evict them. So they've been there since the early 1990's but this year the city of Toronto asked them to move and offered them a whole new school as a place to relocate their offices and the reason why they asked them to move is that they are within a thousand meters of the Don River. And the Don River has a potential of flooding once every hundred years and so planners in the province of Ontario say that no building can be in an area, which can be subject to floods once every hundred years. And as I was working with Foodshare to find an alternative building in just occurred to me the ludicrousness of a building that has to be moved because it's on a plain that could be flooded once every hundred years and we have a food system where the average molecule of food that we eat everyday travels 2000km, where we have no more than three days fresh food in any city of North America at any given time thanks to just-in-time delivery and no one says we got to do something serious we got to have a plan B for our food system.

 

JS: These absurd actions carried out by the municipal and provincial government in addressing the Food Share building's location, is one of the reasons that led Wayne Roberts to address the lack of direction Toronto's municipal government was taking on the issue of food.

 

As he continued on with his recent presentation in Vancouver, he further illustrates this lack of direction in addressing the all-important issue of food.

 

WR: Toronto as many of you know had a problem with SARS several years ago and Toronto is now getting ready for Avian Flu. And there is about this thick of a volume at Toronto Public Health where I work has prepared on what Toronto should do should Avian Flu ever transfer to the human population and come to Toronto. They have a whole chapter of about 50 pages that deals with the challenge of body bags because you know we will not have enough body bags in the city of Toronto to look after all the dead bodies if Avian Flu comes to the city of Toronto. That is the level at which planning is taking place on this issue and it is an example I believe of how what you might call either acute or contagious diseases trump chronic diseases in our system today. Because what we face with food is a chronic system problem and there is no ability on the part of this system to respond to this issue.

 

JS: Again you're tuned in to Deconstructing Dinner and we're hearing clips of a presentation by Wayne Roberts - the project coordinator for the Toronto Food Policy Council. A little later on today's program we will also be hearing from Charles Levkoe who is the Urban Agriculture Coordinator for The Stop Community Food Centre also located in Toronto.

 

But continuing on with hearing clips from Wayne Roberts presentation, he discussed the topic of urban rooftop gardens, one of many opportunities to begin growing food closer to home and an ideal opportunity for those in urban centres to better understand the value of food options that are not reliant on energy dependent inputs.

 

WR: My point that I'd like to take from this is that Foodshare had the first urban organic farm in Canada (certified organic) and it's on the rooftop of their illegally occupied warehouse. And so here you see the CN Tower and a couple of other iconic buildings. And this is the chef of their kitchen who we'll meet a little later on.

 

Today, as it happens in the city of Toronto, the finance and planning committee is discussing the budget for Toronto moving towards an endorsement of rooftop gardens across the city in all new buildings, which our food policy council had quite a bit in bringing to that stage. But if you look at the issues that are being discussed it's being discussed in terms of we need rooftop gardens partially because they're beautiful, it makes it easier to have more people in a relatively small area of the world in a city, we need them because they cool the city down in the summer time as they give off the moisture that they've picked up from the rain and that water evaporates, it cools the city and we need to them as a place to store rainwater which in Toronto we actually don't have rainwater as you do here. We have what is called storm water. That is primitive people have rainwater and sophisticated cities have storm water and that is there's no place for rain to go because there's so much pavement right, so therefore; it just causes a flash flood storm in the sewage system underneath. And it's hoped that rooftop gardens will store some of this water during the rainfall.

 

But people have not yet got this fact that the coming of oil, what we broadly call the Peak Oil problem, means this has to start driving planning. It's not just enough to say we need rooftop gardens because they cool the city, they beautify the city, they take wastewater, we need to say we need these because most cities - 1/6 of the space of most cities is flat rooftops and that is going to be necessary. This will be the new Prairies of the new world. We got to use that as food producing area.

 

When we talk about school gardens we can't just say they're ways to beautify school grounds which are not necessarily the most beautiful grounds around. We cant just say they're a way to enrich the curriculum, we can't just say it's a way to overcome what you might call nature deficit disorder which our children are suffering from. We have to also say within the next 10 to 30 years everyone will have to know how to grow food if they are going to survive. In other words what I'm arguing is that the Peak Oil agenda has to now begin to drive every aspect of urban policy.

 

JS: We'll be hearing more about urban community gardens later on in the program, but in bringing his presentation back to the topic of Peak Oil, Wayne Roberts compare the issue of abundance versus that of scarcity. It is a common misperception for one that worldwide hunger or even hunger here in Canada is a result of lack of food when this planet actually has the most abundant supply of food in the history of mankind. Our agricultural system is designed to produce surpluses, retail grocery stores are throwing out food by the dumpster load on a daily basis, and each of us have been guilty at one point or another of either allowing food in our refrigerators to expire or perhaps not finishing our meals and tossing out the leftovers.

 

So scarcity of food is not the issue, but as Wayne explains in this next clip, we here in Canada and in the Western world do not deal with abundance very efficiently, and he suggests that the scarcity of the fuel that drives our supply of food, will be the wake-up call to better manage our food system.

 

WR: We live in a world of abundance. That nature is abundant and has produced abundantly for us and that in fact the major problem that we have with food is not that we have insufficient food but we have more food than what we know what to do with. And the only thing we know what to do with it is to sell it and that is what is behind the problem is the surplus not scarcity.

 

If you think about a problem like global warming. Global warming is fundamentally a problem of abundance or super abundance that is we have more fossil fuels than we know what to do with. And we have more fossil fuels and can get it more cheaply than the universe can store the waste from those fossil fuels. In my opinion that is a more serious problem than Peak Oil but we can't get it because I believe we're not well wired to deal with problems of abundance. You know, the United States couldn't deal with that there were going to be leftover money after the Soviet Union collapsed. There was no longer a cold war enemy they had to find another enemy and they couldn't deal with that budget surplus right? And I think that's partially a US issue and it's partially a human issue we actually plan better around scarcity than we do around abundance.

 

JS: Should you want to find out more about this program Deconstructing Dinner or if you miss any of today's broadcast, you can check out the Deconstructing Dinner website at www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner.

 

On the website will be a poster that Wayne Roberts displayed during his presentation of which we are presently hearing clips from. And this poster is one that promotes the Toronto Food Policy Council of which he is the Project Coordinator. Here's Wayne Roberts explaining the meaning behind the image featured on this poster.

 

WR: Part of what we're trying to do with that imagery is to identify food not as a marginal issue within city government but as a central issue of city government. And in a way the flipside of that, is to define city government as the emerging most important area of government activity in the world today. As I'll try to get to as we proceed. It is a suppressed area of government. Not only within BC or within Ontario but within Canada and within the world even at the level of the United Nations. Cities are not recognized as the governments that are closest to where the great majority of the world's people live.

 

JS: During a recent broadcast of Deconstructing Dinner, the connection food has to the many other issues we see being covered throughout the media, is one that is not sufficiently achieved. With issues such as healthcare, war and climate change all being inextricably linked to food itself, this lack of connection is not just apparent throughout the media, but also within our various levels of government.

 

One of the reasons the Toronto Food Policy Council was formed, was in response to this lack of foresight in incorporating food issues into provincial and federal departments. Wayne Roberts explains what needs to happen from a governmental standpoint.

 

WR: What we did here and what I believe is critical to what needs to happen around Peak Oil and responding to Peak Oil is that we need to organize across sectors and not up and down but across. Ok, so all cities now are organized, public health is here, economic development is here, tourism is here, garbage is there, none of them ever fit. And food is I believe the greatest victim of this process of forming vertical hierarchies of issues that never meet even though food becomes compose and is part of the Works Department and it needs water which is also part of the Works Department. And tourists come and they usually like to eat which is part of the Economic Development Department etc. right?

 

JS: While provincial and federal governments here in Canada wield the greatest influence in shaping policies that affect all of us, Wayne Roberts continued his presentation by highlighting the increasing power municipal governments should hold given that the increasing rate at which urban populations are growing.

 

WR: The city of Toronto unanimously adopted a food charter and there's a couple of things that we are trying to do with that I think relates to the field of Peak Oil. One is to say it's not only United Nations that can pass Charters of Rights, cities can pass Charters of Rights. It's important that we approach social issues and social problems and social challenges from the point of view of rights based approach that is that people have rights. They don't just have problems they have rights.

 

And because the Peak Oil issue is going to bring up two sets of food issues. One you may call an availability issue, that is; will there be enough food that is being produced? And secondly, is an access issue and that is; will people on low income be able to afford the food that is produced? And some of you may have followed things after the Hurricane Katrina in the American south. Walmart faced it's first serious economic downturn in it's history because their customers were now paying more for gas and oil to get to the Walmart, were therefore going less to the Walmart and buying less. So you that this relatively low-income group within the population is extremely vulnerable to very minor changes in the price of oil relative to the changes in the price of oil we're going to see over the next decade.

 

JS: Again you're tuned in to Deconstructing Dinner, a weekly broadcast that aims to deconstruct our food choices and discuss the impacts our food choices have on ourselves, our communities and the environment. We're currently hearing clips of a presentation conducted by Wayne Roberts - the project coordinator for the Toronto Food Policy Council, as he spoke on the topic of Peak Oil, and how our oil-dependent food system is at the greatest risk of being affected by this imminent decline in the availability of oil itself. As Wayne has indicated, the threat of Peak Oil is by no means a doomsday scenario, and he has been stressing the importance of municipal governments addressing the availability of food, and how they can best go about implementing responses.

 

As was mentioned earlier, not only is the non-renewable resource required to fuel our supply of food at risk but so to is access to food, as especially is the case in the growing suburban areas of cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, where access to food is commonly restricted to those with an automobile. And this raises the concept of pedestrian rights, the rights that all of us deserve in having convenient access to local and healthy foods without the requirement of motorized transportation. As was mentioned in a previous broadcast of Deconstructing Dinner, when our food choices are dominated by large chain grocery stores, the resulting limited access to local retailers and local foods threatens these very rights.

 

And Wayne Roberts explains this idea of pedestrian rights.

 

WR: This is Jane Jacob some of you may have heard she wrote the great book The Death and Life of Great American Cities and more recently books on economics and the coming dark ages and sort of a sister charter to the food charter is the pedestrian charter. That pedestrians also have rights. This is a very important issue in food especially for cities. Planners sometimes have a difficult time understanding why food is a planning issue and one reason why food is a planning issue and just think about it in terms of your own everyday travels. About 20% of the car trips that are taken in a city are to buy food. And that is increasing as main street stores go down and mom and pop groceries go down and more and more goes to the Costco's and perhaps to the Walmart's of the world that are situated far from where people live and in order to keep your big refrigerator full you have to buy more and more and it's more than what you can haul back in a handbag. So food shopping is increasingly becoming a car dependent activity and it is accounting for about 20% of the trips.

 

So a Pedestrian Charter of Rights argues as it's founding principle, that all essential functions within a city should be accessible by foot.

 

JS: As Wayne Robert continued he expanded on rights and our right to food by addressing how food does not belong solely in privately owned buildings but belongs in the commons, places and communities that belong to everyone and he used farmers markets as an example of this

 

WR: Farmers markets stimulate the local economy that needs to be re-stimulated because farmers decreasingly produce food for the local market and we need to help them reorient in producing for the local market. And we need to, I believe, identify direct sales to customers as a form of value added. Within the formal food industry, including government agencies that deal with food, value added means you get a potato and turn it into a potato chip or a French fry even better that adds value which I assume what they mean by that is that it adds to the price. But adding value is I believe a somewhat different activity and when you have a farmer explain here's what went into the producing of this food, here's how it happened, here's the challenges that I faced, you get to know somebody, you put a personal face on your food that is a value added activity. And so it allows the farmer to double the amount of money they get from the same amount of food. So they get a low volume but a higher premium per unit.

 

And I believe it introduces the second theme that will become common as we strive to respond to the problems of Peak Oil which is we will rediscover the commons. Food has always been sold in food markets in the center of cities in Asia and Europe that are today the norm. It's really only in North America that it's not the norm. Because food belongs in the commons, in the areas that is owned by all. It does not belong in private property that owners are building say you can come and go. It belongs in the public squares of the city.

 

JS: As Wayne Roberts is an advocate for more control of food within municipal governments he refer to Cuba as being the first country in the world to respond to Peak Oil and indicated this as a key example in addressing the need of a food system that is not dependent on a finite resource such as oil.

 

WR: Over the Christmas holidays I was in Cuba and I had a chance to sort of appreciate what's going on here. And Cuba is probably, I think it's fair to say, the first country in the world to respond to the problem of Peak Oil. That is in 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed and their subsidy for low cost oil disappeared and they had to figure out how to reorganize an entire food economy, which actually depended more on imports than our food economy in a very short order. And it's generally considered to have been highly successful. And two of the things that went into the success according to most analysts and my own observations while wondering around getting sun burnt are first that they have an incredible education system and a very well educated population. With 2% of Latin America's population they have 10% of Latin America's researchers just as one example.

 

So in their urban agricultural department in Havana, which produces 60% of the fruit and vegetables that are eaten in Havana, they have 12 full time government agrologists who assist them with research and development on the kind of crops to plant, the kinds of seeds that need to be developed, the kinds of methods that are best used in backyards and other places to grow them.

 

JS: You're tuned in to Deconstructing Dinner and we're presently hearing clips from a recent presentation in Vancouver that was conducted by Wayne Roberts of the Toronto Food Policy Council. He spoke of Peak Oil. The term apply to the imminent threat of declining global supplies of oil and how this affects our oil dependent food system. In better addressing the issue of Peak Oil, Wayne used Toronto as an example of how cities need to re-establish a sense of place in dealing with the threat of diminishing supplies of oil.

 

WR: What we need to do is to re-establish our sense of place. We are spending incredible amounts of energy in Toronto to bring fish from all over the world to Toronto and we live on the edge of what was one of the world's great fisheries the Great Lakes which we destroyed with pollution but which we can re-establish. So it's one of the things that will happen, I believe, as we rediscover place in an era of Peak Oil.

 

And perhaps I can use this to introduce another key concept, which is unused capacity. And I believe that the greatest resource we have in our economy is unused capacity that is something we already have, have already paid for and of which we are only using a small fraction. And for a very small cost we can double, triple or quadruple the output of that. And so what we have is an incredible lake in our case or in your case is an ocean right beside us that can supply us with food. And we don't need to go any humongous distance in order to bring it home.

 

JS: In further illustrating unused capacity as Wayne referred to, he spoke of the methods by which industry discards fruits and vegetables that are as he referred to, cosmetically challenged.

 

WR: Another example of unused capacity of course in the field of food. If we can go back to my comment about abundance. Approximately 1/3 of the fruits and vegetables that are produced in North America are destroyed before they get to market because they are ugly. Okay. And some of you may know teenagers who worry about having a little blemish on their face well if you have a little blemish in your apple it will die. And about 2/3 of pesticides that are used on Nova Scotia apples just to give one example are to deal with the small blemish that goes on the skin of the apple that has no impact whatsoever on the taste or the nutritional quality of the apple. It's just a purely cosmetic feature. So approximately 1/3 of the fruits and vegetables grown in North America are destroyed because they are what I call cosmetically challenged. So then they are land filled.

 

And there's an example of carrots, because as you see, when carrots are going down in the ground and they meet a rock they split and go around it. They don't have the intelligence of humans to continually bang their heads against it. And consequently they become ugly. In the food banks we noticed that farmers were sort of almost coming in the darkness of night and leaving a truck load of ugly carrots or onions or whatever there. That the food bank was not asking for any of this food because they generally deal in highly processed food that never goes bad because there's nothing any other animal other than us would ever eat. So, they're not necessarily looking for fresh food which can go bad (they don't have the facilities to deal with it) but farmers just could not stand the idea of throwing away what they thought was perfectly good food out just because it was cosmetically challenged.

 

JS: While industry is guilty of not fully utilizing their capacity this idea of unused capacity can be transferred directly to our own kitchens. What would certainly be a topic for an upcoming show is the efficiency in which we are able to use and reuse food that we bring into our kitchens. And Wayne used milk as an example to illustrate personal unused capacity.

 

WR: And you know, just think of the milk, you know when you see a best before date. You know like if you see it best before January the 26th you're not going to buy it because you don't you're going to have drunk enough coffee before now and the 26th. I don't think there's any other reason why people buy milk to my knowledge. So you won't buy it. Well it goes unsold and it goes down the drain right? But you can use that milk to make a milk-based soup and freeze it and it can be kept for a long period of time. It actually isn't at no cost, it actually saves us money because it costs a lot of money to clean sewage systems that's got a lot of milk in it right? So we actually save money by using this instead of wasting it.

 

JS: And that was Wayne Roberts - the project coordinator of the Toronto Food Policy Council. Wayne is also a regular contributor to one of Toronto's weekly publications NOW Magazine. And the recording of his presentation conducted recently in Vancouver, is courtesy of the Vancouver-based Necessary Voices Society, and you can hear Wayne's entire presentation by visiting www.necessaryvoices.org. You can also find out more information on the Deconstructing Dinner website, at www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner.

 

We are going to take a quick musical break and when we return to Deconstructing Dinner we will be hearing from Charles Levkoe - the Urban Agriculture Coordinator at The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto.

 

musical interlude

 

JS: That's Celso Fonseca off his album Nature, released on Six Degrees Records.

 

If you're just tuning in, this is Deconstructing Dinner, a weekly one-hour broadcast produced in the studios of Kootenay Co-op Radio in Nelson, British Columbia, and rebroadcast on other campus/community radio stations. I'm Jon Steinman.

 

On this program we take a closer look into our food choices, we take a closer look into the food that's available to us, and in the end hope to better understand the impact our food choices have on ourselves, those around us, and the well-being of this planet.

 

The topic of today's broadcast is centered around the issue of Peak Oil, which as explained earlier is the point in time when extraction of oil from the earth reaches its highest point and then begins to decline. Oil is of course the driver behind our food system and the food that is available to us, and is thereby one of the most important issues to discuss when speaking of food. Very often non-renewable and environmentally unsound sources of energy have been passed off by our neighbours to the south, and even here in Canada as being of little concern. But when George Bush's most recent State of the Union address included him saying this, and I quote "Here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil," end quote. Well then if George Bush says oil dependency is a concern, it is definitely a concern!

 

We were just hearing clips from a recent presentation by Wayne Roberts of the Toronto Food Policy Council, and he commented in a recent article published in NOW Magazine, that although Bush acknowledges this dangerous dependency on oil, his solutions are nevertheless technologically based and do very little to address the dependency issue itself. As Wayne Roberts indicated, redesign of our energy dependent food system, is not about finding new technologies to do so, but is about growing food locally.

 

To get a closer look into some of the initiatives taking place in cities such as Toronto that respond to our dependency on oil, and the increasing difficulty in having readily accessible food, I spoke with Charles Levkoe - the Urban Agriculture Coordinator at The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto. Charles received a Masters degree in Food Security and Public Education from Toronto's York University, and he also sits on the board of the American Community Gardening Association. Charles was recently passing through Nelson on his way to Edmonton, and he joined me in the studio to discuss his involvement at The Stop Community Food Centre.

 

The Stop Community Food Centre was actually formed in the 70s as a food bank, but later evolved to become more than just that as hunger was identified as being much more than just a poverty issue as is commonly the belief. The concept of Peak Oil and finite resources to fuel our food system, can better illustrate how access to food is also a contributing factor to hunger. This access to food is only going to decrease as we become more dependent on a food system fuelled by a non-renewable resource.

 

In introducing the Stop Community Food Centre, Charles first spoke with me about hunger, and how poverty is not the only contributing factor.

 

Charles Levkoe: There's been traditionally two ways of looking at hunger. One way has been through the eyes of, sort of, hunger is caused by poverty. Which is true, I wouldn't argue with that. And in Canada, the main perpetrator of that argument, I guess, is the food bank movement or the, you know, the Canadian Food Grains Bank talks a lot about that. And it's important, I think it's something that we need to talk about that when the question is raised why are people hungry we talk about poverty, we talk about the fact that in Toronto, and I cant speak for other cities in Canada but I guess it would be very close. In Toronto where I work, the community I work in, people are making on welfare, on unemployment insurance, on minimum wage jobs, the average person has about $2 a day after rent income. And you know Wayne in his talk mentioned that the average person is living on $2 a day in other countries in the majority world and that statistic isn't unfortunately is not so far from, you know again, what some people who are in poverty are living in in the cities in Canada. Now again the amount you need to survive is also much higher because in Toronto rent is approximately, the average rent is you're looking at 7 to $900 a month. People are paying their rent and they are left with about $2 a day to survive. And no matter how you can be creative with that money it's just not enough to buy food.

 

I think the other side of the argument and I was saying there's two sort of arguments. The other side of the argument, which has been sort of used by a lot of environmentalists is while the real challenge with hunger is that the way food is produced some of the issues around sustainability really come into play. And along with that, the argument has been made around community development and how food is distributed, the kind of culturally appropriate foods that are being produced and this often happens at food banks. You know, someone comes in who say is Muslim or even Jewish for that matter and can't eat ham and all you have is canned ham as a protein I mean it becomes a real challenge.

 

JS: Charles explains how the Stop Community Food Centre identified that undividedly feeding those who are hungry was only an immediate solution, and how identifying this allowed the centre to evolve into becoming more than just a food bank.

 

CL: So the history of the Stop Community Food Centre follows very closely to the development of food banking and I think the food justice movement in Canada. The Stop started around the 70's - late 70's there was a recession in Canada - sort of late 70's early 80's people were poor as they always have been but the levels of poverty were increasing. It started in a church in downtown Toronto people were literally knocking on the door saying I'm hungry. The story I've heard is the church women were making sandwiches and handing them out. And I think, as I said, that was typical in Canada. The first food bank in Canada was formed in I think 1983 or 1982 in Edmonton was the first incorporation and the Stop incorporated itself in think 1984. The number of people coming to the Stop, it was originally called Stop 103 and I think in Canada as well. As it was increasing people started to sort of take a step back and say wait a second. Putting more food into food banks and increasing food banks around Canada isn't actually solving any problems. It's just sort of following this increasing challenge. And it wasn't till about, probably sort of, the early 90's that the Stop actually started saying we need to do more, we need to not just be putting a band-aid on this food crisis that's happening. We need to actually try to take a more progressive step/preventative steps and look at the sustainability of this movement.

 

JS: Charles describes some of the activities taking place at the Stop.

 

CL: I mean the mission of the Stop, which really sort of says it all is to increase access to healthy food in a manner that maintains dignity, builds community and challenges inequality. And I think those sort of four tenants, that idea of healthy food, the dignity, the community building, and the challenging inequality is really the heart of what the Stop is doing and really I think what the movement is looking at as well. And the Stop right now we have our food bank because I think there is a need to deal with the immediate and emergency needs of a community. We also have a dining program, we have a perinatal program for new mothers, where we're looking at trying to deal with educational needs of women who are having babies. Also having a community kitchen program where people are learning the skills necessary to prepare food according to their budget and also according to health needs. And also the program I coordinated at the Stop, which is the Urban Agriculture Program looking at community gardening and environmentally sustainable food systems education.

 

JS: If you're just tuning in, this is Deconstructing Dinner and we're hearing recent clips from a conversation I had with Charles Levkoe - the Urban Agriculture Coordinator at the Stop Community Food Centre and he explained to me his focus at the centre, and that is the community garden located on the property.

 

CL: So the Urban Agriculture Program that I run I like at it in sort of two main parts. We're dealing with the actual growing of food so we have a 9,000ft2 community garden, we have a few smaller community gardens where we're doing herb growing. We have an outdoor oven where we're actually doing free community lunches and we do a lot of pizza lunches so people can actually pick food from the garden, bring it to the oven and we'll actually bring out the dough and people roll out their dough and put their toppings on. And it gives us sort of forum to talk about food from the field to the table.

 

The other main part of it is this food systems education work where we work with about seven or eight schools. Last year we worked with 50 classrooms about 1,200 kids and we developed curriculums around food security starting from growing their own food and we trained a number of volunteers who would go into classrooms and actually talk about the food system and do workshops on it. Sort of really hands on interactive workshops with the kids and they'd run them through those workshops and they'd actually plant seeds with the kids. And then those seeds would go in our greenhouse, which would then go into our garden. We'd invite the youth back into the garden to plant the seedlings and then when school was out a lot of them would come back during the summer with their friends and families and then the fall we'd invite them back as a class again to see sort of how the seeds that they've planted have developed. And we do harvesting with them and sometimes tastings.

 

JS: As was explained, the community garden was one of many initiatives undertaken at the food centre that responded to concerns that simply acting as a food bank was not enough - that it was just as important to provide those in the community a place to grow their own food, and provide an environment to better appreciate the value in doing so. But as is the case for many of us, simply growing our own food can't stop just there. There is of course the need to understand how to use what is grown in the kitchen and Charles explains.

 

CL: It's really important to think of that work in the context of this larger program and larger programming that's happening at the Stop. Looking at these ideas of dignity, community building and inequality. A lot of food that we grow in the garden goes back into the food bank, into the meal program and into the classrooms as well. We have a professional chef at the Stop who has helped us work with a lot of the produce and show us recipes, work with the community around recipes that they can make so when they're growing their food they can then bring it into the kitchen and learn how to actually cook it.

 

JS: While the community garden at the food centre provides a space to understand the value in growing food locally, community gardens are above all, a place to bring people from the community together and share in the act of growing food for the community. Charles describes the demographic of those who participate at the Stop's Community Garden.

 

CL: The population of folks in our community that we work with at the Stop in general is generally I would say a marginalized community. It's one of the poorest communities in Toronto. Its an area called Davenport West. It's a group of folks that are very mixed ethnically. Some are working. A lot are not working. Those who are working tend to be folks who are working probably more than 40hrs a week making very little - generally minimum wage or less. A lot of new immigrants, people who have just come to Canada, new Canadians, people who are sometimes working under the table and trying to support a family on that. I work with a lot of people who are professionals in their home countries - doctors, accountants, farmers in some cases - who come to Canada and cannot find work and when they do find work, one man I work with from Turkey was an engineer in his home country and is now a greeter at Walmart and I served as a reference from him and when the woman called me to ask if I thought he was a reliable worker I really had to hold some of my feelings back to just in terms of she asking me "do you think he'll be a good greeter?" and I'm just thinking this man is an engineer. I mean this is someone who hired and really was sort of the height of his career in Turkey and now you're asking me if he would be a good greeter at Walmart. But I mean, that's a typical sort of story for a lot of the people that we see at the Stop and in general and in the garden.

 

JS: Charles relates the community garden to the topic of today's program - that of creating more sustainable access to local food.

 

CL: One of the greatest things about the garden is we see some of the people who are the most marginalized, people who are homeless. At the same time we also see students, we see people who are professionals who are coming on their weekends, on their nights because they just love being in the garden. One of the greatest things about the garden unlike the food bank or the meal program people get to work together. You know, it really is moving from a system of charity where people with money are donating to people without money to a place where people are coming together as a community to really build something and build something that's sustainable.

 

JS: We're presently hearing clips from a recent conversation I held with Charles Levkoe - the Urban Agriculture Coordinator at The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto.

 

As is the case with many of the guests on this program, Deconstructing Dinner, they often are representing non-governmental groups who are creating and operating incredible examples of how food can be grown, produced and accessed in far more sustainable ways than is the current trend towards industrial and transportation reliant methods.

 

The unfortunate side to these groups is in some cases various levels of government dismiss their work and their efforts, and in other cases, these levels of government simply turn their backs. But the impact that these groups are capable of having on the greater population is immense, and Charles spoke with me about government support for groups such as The Stop Community Food Centre.

 

CL: I think that's one of the biggest challenges around community gardening and I think food justice movements in general is there really is not a lot of government support for this stuff and we've been struggling a lot. And I think the United States has done a somewhat better job in terms of trying to make headway into getting government support for the work we're doing. Right now there's very little, almost no funding for this kind of work.

 

You know, when we do our fund raising we're looking primarily towards foundations, private foundations, sometimes corporations to get the kind of money we need to do this stuff. The money who are getting comes generally from municipalities and groups like the Toronto Food Policy Council, or the Vancouver Food Policy Council are momentous successes in terms of trying to get into government.

 

I just worked on a study actually with the university of Toronto and the main question we're asking for the study, we asked food security leaders all around Canada questions around how do you get food policy? How do you make food policy something that can exist in the first place? And when it does exist how can you get it to be beneficial to the community groups that actually need it or to the projects that are actually going on? And it was a question that we got answers anything from its impossible, it's never going to happen to people like when we talk to groups like the Food Policy Councils really talking about finding champions and ways to really get into the government because as you say there's a lot of wonderful projects that are going on in Canada and there's a lot of amazing examples of ways that we can sort of move forward and really make some sort of lasting impact. But I think the challenge is to really highlight some of these things and to find ways to tell our stories and to show some of the wonderful examples in a larger way because right now a lot of the people that are doing things are sort of doing it on their own and they're happening in isolated parts of the country.

 

JS: As Charles mentioned earlier, his work has involved creating curriculums for students in the public school system. The presence of food and agricultural education will be an upcoming feature here on Deconstructing Dinner and during my conversation with Charles, he explained how great a success it was introducing this important education into public schools

 

CL: One thing I get calls all the time from organizations saying, how do you get into the schools? Because getting into a school is virtually impossible in Toronto. You have to know principles, you have to know teachers, people are sceptical, there's fear, right now the curriculums are so tight, you know with all standardized testing coming in, you know there's no space for this stuff. So, the fact that we've been able to over the last seven or eight years get into the schools is pretty momentous. And we get virtually no support from the ministry in fact I don't even know if the Ministry of Education knows we're in the schools because right now we're dealing with the local principles, the local teachers, trying to do our best to incorporate the existing curriculum into the work we're doing.

 

And I think it's a long and slow road ahead but it's something that if the food justice movement is really going to take hold and really going to make an impact we need to not turn our backs on government. We need to find ways to incorporate government, you know places like the Food Policy Councils. Toronto is very unique in that the Food Policy Council is actually part of the municipality. In Vancouver I don't think it is yet. It's still a community based group that is working with government but in Toronto it's right in there and it has given Toronto really an amazing advantage in terms of making inroads into the municipalities. Having said that municipalities don't have money. I mean they're so strapped for cash. The money is coming from the province and if we're really going to make those headways we need to be looking probably at the province. Even at the federal level. And that's why groups like Food Secure Canada which I mentioned is meeting in Vancouver in October, that's why I think those groups really, I mean that's where the future sort of lies and that's where we really need to put our energy.

 

JS: And that was Charles Levkoe the Urban Agriculture Coordinator at the Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto. You can find out more about the Stop at www.thestop.org. Charles is also on the board of the American Community Gardening Association and you can check out that website at www.communitygarden.org. And if you miss any of this information don't forget you can grab it all off the deconstructing dinner website at www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner.

 

WR: And we have a food system where the average molecule of food that we eat everyday travels 2,000km, where we have no more than three days fresh food in any city in North America at any given time thanks to just-in-time delivery and no one says we got to do something serious. We got to have a plan b for our food system

 

ending theme

 

JS: That was this week's edition of Deconstructing Dinner, produced and recorded in the studios of Nelson, British Columbia's Kootenay Co-op Radio. I've been your host Jon Steinman. I thank my technical assistant tonight Dianne Matenko.

 

All of those affiliated with this station are volunteers, and financial support for this station is received through membership, donations and sponsorship from local businesses and organizations.

 

For more information on the station or to become a member, you can visit www.cjly.net, or dial 250-352-9600. And should you have any comments about tonight's show, want to learn more about topics covered, or want to listen to any segments of this broadcast again, you can visit the website for Deconstructing Dinner at www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner.


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