Canadians have a love affair with food.
Its integral role in social activity is reflected in the rise of foodies, budding chefs, reality cooking shows, gourmet food magazines and experiences as diverse as spaghetti dinners, food festivals, restaurant adventures and dinner parties.
Our love of food is also widely visibly on social media. Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest are awash with food videos and pictures of food and recipes, while food blogs have become an internet staple.
We also love to talk about food, despite the fact we know little about where it comes from and how it ends up on our plate.
At the Broadbent Institute’s Progress Summit in Ottawa April 2, delegates were invited to share their thoughts on food and food issues over a brown bag lunch.
The session is organized annually by Food Secure Canada. Over the past two years, it has grown to be one of the most popular events of the three-day conference.
For an hour, delegates eat and chat in small groups about a variety of food issues: labelling, food security issues in Canada’s North, school lunch programs, food in Parliament and climate change.
This year’s lunch attracted 120 people, all eager to share their concerns and propose ideas about the future of Canada’s agriculture industry.
Many of the suggestions were to be expected, given that most of the folks in the room would fall on the left, or even the far left, of the political spectrum.
Some spoke of their own budding green thumbs, sharing stories about growing food on their balconies, apartment rooftops and in community gardens.
Several argued strongly in favour of local food with a heavy preference for organic and small scale agriculture, although several acknowledged Canada’s seasonal and geographic challenges.
“Think about it. If we followed a local diet, we’d never be able to eat oranges again,” one man mused.
Yet the biggest worry was access to affordable, healthy food, of which there were many definitions.
Several in the room shared stories about individuals on fixed incomes unable to buy food.
One woman from Newfoundland told the group she routinely sees seniors and young parents at the grocery store scanning the shelves for the cheapest food items available, “while looking longingly at items like fresh produce that they simply can’t afford.”
“I often seen people pick food up, look at it and then put it back knowing they simple can’t afford it,” she said, with several nodding in agreement.
Several insisted it was high time Canada had a national school food program, which would ensure all Canadian children have access to healthy breakfasts and lunches.
The program, which Food Secure Canada has been pushing for for several years, would ensure Canadian children have access to and know how to prepare nutritious food.
Meanwhile, with the Liberals promising to create a National Food Strategy, another table proposed the formation of a new federal department.
The ministry of food and water, the group suggested, would be made up of key players from the ministries of health, agriculture, fisheries, and environment and climate change.
It would also encompass the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and work closely with industry and the provinces to come up with an all inclusive food policy.
While the idea may seem a bit far fetched, the group’s firm grasp of the complexity of the task ahead was admirable.
Any national food strategy can easily become nothing more than “everything and the kitchen sink.” Finding a way to focus and manage both the discussion and expectations, be it via a roundtable, ministerial leadership, a special committee or council, will be key.