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.”