The elephants in Vancouver’s sustainable food movement

For many self-identified foodies, addressing whiteness and class in Vancouver’s local food movement is about as comfortable as owning up to silent public flatulence.


Unlike the proverbial gassy elephant in the room, this sensitive matter probably won’t dissipate unless we call out the issue more candidly. Nor is it as straightforward as pegging foodie endeavours as racist and elitist.

That would ignore the long history of many people of colour, indigenous movements, as well as economically marginalized folks who have worked to create a food system that better meets everyone’s needs.

While the Metro Vancouver region aims to be a trailblazer for sustainable food advocacy in Canada, many feel that certain voices are missing from conversations about food sustainability.

One doesn’t need a tally counter to notice that people frequenting farmers markets, local food celebrations, and food policy meetings are pretty unrepresentative of the region’s ethnic and economic makeup. But does this matter?

At a recent public presentation at UBC, author and sociologist Alison Alkon discussed her book Black, White, and Green: Farmers Markets, Race, and the Green Economy. Much of Alkon’s discussion on January 22 explored how sustainable food activism could more effectively adopt the concept of “food justice”.

Food justice is about understanding how institutionalized racial and economic inequality affects people’s access to healthy food. She called for a shift away from efforts centered on shopping for social change, and toward “allying with those who are most impacted by the industrial food system” through broader decision-making and policy channels.

Alkon’s talk resonated with Renfrew-Collingwood Food Security Institute coordinator Stephanie Lim.

“The discourse around ‘local’ is deeply problematic when we speak to and about newcomer and immigrant communities, as well as indigenous communities who have been displaced by colonialism and settlement,” Lim said. “‘Buying organic’ tends to pit farmers’ livelihoods against consumers’ high cost of living. I agree with Dr. Alkon when she said the resolution lies at the policy level.”

Colin Dring, executive director of the Richmond Food Security Society, also supported Alkon’s call for mobilizing communities at higher levels of government.

“It’s fair to say that we neglect the engagement of other voices in the dominant alternative food movement discourse, particularly those that are disenfranchised or disempowered,” Dring said.

Dring’s organization has been leading a civic engagement process that aims to meaningfully involve Richmond’s diverse communities in crafting a food charter for the city. During a recent focus group with East Asian and Southeast Asian mothers as well as Punjabi seniors, “we found the articulation of food issues as seen through cultural and personal ways of knowing to be inspiring, well thought-out, and well articulated,” Dring said.

On the evening of Alkon’s lecture, the Vancouver Food Policy Council hosted a panel discussion on current threats to the Agricultural Land Reserve. One of the invited panelists happened to share comments that some felt were racist.

“It caught everyone off guard,” said Zsuzsi Fodor, cochair of the Vancouver Food Policy Council. “It taught us and is teaching us that regardless of the exact words or intention behind it, there wasn’t a mechanism to respond when people were not feeling safe or something was in the air.”

The incident illustrates how tensions around broader processes of exclusivity in food activism—as elsewhere—tend to go unnamed and overlooked unless they crystallize as individual acts of discrimination. People (especially white folks) often feel awkward navigating conversations about institutional and historical discrimination, let alone heading off everyday racist comments.

While the idea of different biological “races” has long been debunked, as a social construct, race often has a huge bearing on our lives. Many well-meaning people believe that colour-blindness, or acting as if race doesn’t exist, will naturally generate more a more equal society. However, color blindness ignores the way that racial privilege still shapes Canadian society in profound ways, including how we produce, distribute, access, consume, and dispose of our food.

Fodor contrasts the mainstream food movement in Canada with U.S. initiatives focused on food justice, such as those Alkon writes about.

“The Canadian approach—and I’m guilty of this too—tends to be to talk about ‘multiculturalism ’ and ‘inclusion’ and ‘welcoming’, so issues like racism and inequality that are hidden beneath the surface don’t get called out,” Fodor said. “This creates an urgent call to be very self-reflexive and critical about who’s leading and who’s governing.”

To tackle the toots of the elephant in the foodie room, budding local food justice initiatives are underway to address diverse forms of inequality and exclusion.

For example, the Vancouver Food Policy Council has been actively supporting a call led by Downtown Eastside community members for a transition from charity to food access based on dignity and justice. Some of the city’s neighbourhood food networks have also focused on using programming such as community kitchens to bring together long-time residents and newcomers in intercultural dialogue.

The Vancouver Food Policy Council intends to dedicate future meeting time to discussing oppression and discrimination in the food system and is inviting community members to take ownership over this process. Lim is hopeful that the recent incident at the Council meeting can be a “watershed moment.”

“It’s an example of how racism silences people, and also pushes the question of whose responsibility it is to address these sentiments,” Lim said. “In my opinion it’s a collective responsibility.”

Comments (25) Add New Comment
Please Elaborate
What are some specific racist, discriminatory and opressive things going on in our local food system?
Rating: +22
Colin Dring trotted out this bullsh*t rhetoric in the Richmond local paper last week. Time for these guys to quit trying to interject race into the issue of food. Food inequality is based on economics and nothing else. I see lots of rich asians having no problem with their food issues, and I see lots of poor whites struggling to find good, quality food - which they can't access because of $$$, not race. The only "inequality and exclusion" is based purely on economics and has nothing to do with race. To say otherwise is a slap in the face of people of all races who struggle for good food choices. To the people who support this group, I say open your eyes and ears, quit believing the leftwing liberal crap you've been taught by the bc teachers union, and tackle the real issue -- income inequality, not race. White people suffer too.
Rating: -4
@Please Elaborate, Why would they want to let details mess up a good argument?
Rating: 0
cuz - way to deflect and deny power dynamics

great article - it's about time we start bringing these conversations to the dinner table and deconstruct the structures that hold these unfair systems in place. classism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, ageism, speciesism, sizeism, etc.

on that note, using the word 'blindness' as a metaphor is ableist - in that it equates being blind with ignorance. call it for what it is.
Rating: -14
What does sustainable food have to do with racism or inequality? This is another useless article meant to create controversy where there is none.
Rating: -2
Okay I'm confused. Where are they selling elephant meat?

Also, I buy my food at Buy Low, does this make me a racist? If yes should I burn the store down? A little help would be appreciated.
Rating: +8
Did this article get to the point? Maybe there are not that many ethnic groups going to Farmer's Markets because they aren't set up in areas where there are dominant. Or they don't need to go to the Farmer's Market cos they are already shopping at their local Chinatown or produce market.
Rating: +4
Maybe I need an introduction to this conversation. I can't figure out what the author actually said, beyond that there is an elephant in the room.
Rating: +2
Bill Hicks
This could be the whitest article written on the subject. It could also have otherwise been titled "White People in the Vancouver Food Policy Council Desperate to Have "Racy" Conversation (Between Breaks in Unproductive Bureaucratic Wallowing)". I think we can leave the young white writer out of it, for the most part.

Someone in this string nailed the issue by saying that the problem with income inequality is systemic. That's something which more fortunate young white people should write about while in the fortunate breeze of post-secondary education, about other fortunate white people's amassed sums of money. Indirectly, this conversation was previously nailed by the guys who did "Stuff White People Like" - see article #101, "Being Offended".

There are a number of ethnically-centered food initiatives under way in Vancouver, and they sure as hell don't coordinate relevantly with the Vancouver Food Policy Council, because of s**t like this. They're out there doing - bless'em - while white people are content to continue talking. What was it that Yoda said - "Talk? Do, or do not...there is no talk..." (or something like that).
Rating: +7
John m
I find the article does not report any examples to demonstrate the point the author is trying to make. The piece speaks of an racist incident at a meeting but doesn't say what happened. In addition, I don't think the author was successful in defining the problem with respect to race and food. It seems as if they are speaking around these things in order to avoid saying anything offensive or politically incorrect. I would like to understand the point they are trying to make but cannot. There must be a way of speaking about race in any context while using plain language. I don't think the author succeeded in communicating.
Rating: +10
Another faux rail-against-racism click generator. Sigh.... It got me.

Went to the Farmers Apprentice on Saturday with my (asian) wife and, gasp, half the clientele was yellow. Oh when will the ever gassy sustainable food movement address its yellowness?
Rating: +12
Thank you for your article. What you speak about is something I have noticed for years and it is refreshing to have it spoken about so openly.

The details of what was said is not the central point; things are always said. Thank you for beginning a difficult conversation. I hope to be part of what comes next.
Rating: -12
'openly'? she didn't actually say anything specific... nothing. WTF are you talking about?
Rating: +9
Alan Layton
WTF!!! I just went to the link where this alleged racist made some remarks (he's a middle-aged white man) and the author of the column (Alex Tse) said this about the incident:

"Old white guys are gonna be old white guys. There’s not much you can do for a determined racist."

Can you effing believe it? When somebody challenged her about her obvious racial and ageist slur she responded:

"But if old racist white guys don’t want to be called old racist white guys then maybe they shouldn’t be."

I urge everybody to go over to her racist column and challenge her on her bigotry.
Rating: 0
S. Tan
@Alan Layton

Already did. Racists gonna be racist (named Alex Tse). Nice how this tight little circle of like-minded nitwits love to validate each others views, extremist, racists and just plain bizarre as they may be. Nothing like being open-minded.

Note to self: make special trip to Richmond to but strawberries next season. Tip well.
Rating: 0
@vee, obviously, most of the readers think you guys don't have a clue. Not one person from this organization has noted even one incident about food being a racist issue. FYI, Colin Dringe is not white. If you read his article in the Richmond paper last week, you will find the same lame use of big words with no logical argument behind them. Meanwhile a lot of people are in need of help, while these guys want to talk and spout unintelligent nonsense.
Rating: -5
I'm not a researcher, maybe there are sinister systemic forces oppressing not-white foodies, but I haven't seen any. I would expect to see them, being that I am not white - my money has always been fine at the farmer's markets, tasting gatherings, sustainability lectures, wild produce walks and other such yuppie/foodie hangouts.

As for farming being increasingly not-white in BC, are you kidding me? That's news? My family was in the orchard biz for 60 years. Has the author been to a BC berry farm in the last 20 years?

Of course, race is totally a factor in agriculture in BC. Immigrants are eager to join low-paying family businesses in agriculture because life in BC is more desirable than doing much the same type of work under a 40 degree sun in Jalandher or Chandigarh.

Immigrants always accept this tough life to get the ball rolling for themselves and their families in Canada. It's not that skin colour consigns them to this work, it's because of where they are in their entrenchment in Canada.

Give it a couple of generations - their kids will be fluent English speakers and have aspirations to get out of the sticks and into the city like me and my cousins: we all said to heck with digging rocks, we're going white collar.

And then another influx of new immigrants might take that farm work over, assuming that we haven't destroyed all of the soil.

This is a far cry from the claim that there are racist white people who form barriers to foodie culture. If there is a barrier, it's because the wild mushroom forum hikes and whatnot happen to be hosted by English speakers. If people don't think they can participate because it's in English, well, there's a real obvious solution to that problem.
Rating: +5
Many of those commenting should ask themselves the following question:
1) Does racism exist because those using the markets for locally grown food does not represent the various ethnic groups in Vancouver?
2) Does sexism exist because women are not represented in the ranks of management in proportion to the general population?
3) Does racism exist on 'Indian' reserves because their population does not represent the general population of Canada?
Rating: -6
John m
I find the article does not report any examples to demonstrate the point the author is trying to make. The piece speaks of an racist incident at a meeting but doesn't say what happened. In addition, I don't think the author was successful in defining the problem with respect to race and food. It seems as if they are speaking around these things in order to avoid saying anything offensive or politically incorrect. I would like to understand the point they are trying to make but cannot. There must be a way of speaking about race in any context while using plain language. I don't think the author succeeded in communicating.
Rating: +1
Harold Steves
I didn't get it either. I can't comment on the racist remark at the meeting if I don't know what it is. Is there a problem if not as many people of Asian origin shop at farmers markets? Maybe they get their food elsewhere, or maybe they grow their own, or maybe they have a problem with English. Every fall on our farm we open up the gates and give away free manure to gardeners. While their English isn't very good, 80% of those digging in our manure pile for compost for their gardens are people of Asian descent. I don't have a problem with that.
Rating: -2


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