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Breaking bread in a hungry world

Eight stories that will give you food for thought

By Various Writers

Beyond food banks: Handing out non-perishables fills bellies, but many charities are finding new ways to engage their clients

One Tuesday this past summer, I spent the morning thinking about the characteristics of a bad apple, and put those conclusions to literal use while sorting fruit. Was a pin-sized bruise acceptable? What about a funny shape? If you were shopping for apples at the grocery store, what would you pick up or put down?

These questions mattered because I was, in a sense, shopping for about 600 other people. Every week, 15 to 20 volunteers gather at the warehouse of a repurposed high school building in west Toronto to sort and pack fresh produce into boxes that are then sold at accessible prices. Run by a local organization called FoodShare, the program delivers nearly 4,000 Good Food Boxes, as they’re called, to homes across the city every month. Each week’s box brings an assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables sourced as locally as possible, from bunches of kale to bags of Ida Red apples grown in Norfolk, Ont., hand-packed one week by yours truly. The “bad” apples don’t go to waste, either: while a bit too bruised to serve as a snack, they taste just as good in the fantastic apple crumble FoodShare’s kitchen prepares for staff, volunteers and school lunches.

As I quickly learned as a part-time volunteer there, FoodShare is not a food bank. The community non-profit is largely funded through program sales and foundation donations, and has a wide range of initiatives addressing food-access issues, from high school gardening programs to community kitchens and nutrition classes.

FoodShare is not alone in this approach. Over the past couple of decades, organizations across Canada have started to address hunger in ways beyond the traditional food bank model.

In Calgary, there’s Community Kitchen, which hosts its own Good Food Box program in addition to cooking clubs and elementary school workshops. Vancouver has Fresh Roots, which offers an urban gardening, cooking and market program in secondary schools across the city. And in Toronto, there’s also Not Far From the Tree, an urban fruit-picking program, and The Stop, a food bank that has reinvented itself as a community food centre.

Common to all of these organizations is a wider philosophy: that long-term hunger can’t be solved with food hampers, that the charity-style model excludes from the process the very people being helped, and that if we’re going to get anywhere in addressing a problem that affects four million Canadians each year, we’re going to have to get political.

The concept of helping people who go hungry may be age-old, but the food bank as an institution is actually a child of the 1960s. John van Hengel, a soup kitchen volunteer from Arizona, is widely considered to have founded the first food bank in North America in 1967.

Canada’s first food bank opened in Edmonton in 1981, a response to the economic recession at the time. Within four years, there were 95 food banks in Canada and, by 1989, a national organization. Today, Food Banks Canada represents about 450 food banks that distributed 9.5 million kilograms of food and other products in 2013 alone; about 350 more exist independently.

Last year, food bank use in Canada was 23 percent higher than it was in pre-recession 2008 and only slightly lower than Food Banks Canada’s record usage numbers in 2012. A little over 830,000 Canadians accessed a food bank each month in 2013, and nearly half of total visits were from people who hadn’t been to a food bank before that year.

“Do we want to get rid of food banks? Absolutely,” says Marzena Gersho, director of communications and national programs at Food Banks Canada. “Food banks on average are giving only three to five days’ worth of food a month. We know that food banks aren’t able to provide that full need because it’s significant.”

In his recent book, The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement, Toronto-based activist Nick Saul describes what it was like to be a new director at the downtown food bank back in 1998. Working at The Stop had its frustrations: despite a team of dedicated volunteers, there was always a scramble to keep the doors open, never enough food and ongoing conflicts over the ethics of handing out boxes of predetermined items with a beggars-can’t-be-choosers mentality. Saul describes seeing two women trading hamper items for what they needed most — bananas and canned corn for laundry soap. Another difficult scene unfolded when Saul had to ask a volunteer to stop bringing in leftover produce from local grocers because it was often bruised and wrinkled. “Would you eat this?” he asked. The conversation didn’t end well.

“Food was a pure commodity, the thinking being, ‘We need to get food into people’s bellies,’” Saul says of those times. “We have to think about it not as a commodity. Food is a public good.”

Over the years, Saul introduced programs to The Stop that emphasized participation, giving members opportunities to have a hand in the benefits they received from the organization. First, a community garden began supplementing hampers with fresh, locally grown produce. Then, partnerships with neighbouring non-profits allowed The Stop to connect members with housing and legal services.

With grant money, Saul hired fundraising and support staff to expand the scope of the organization’s programming. Cooking classes, kitchens and a farmers market followed.

Today, The Stop is an internationally recognized two-location centre that employs 40 people, houses an 8,000-square-foot garden and runs a weekly farmers market that sells more than $2 million worth of local food each year. In 2012, Saul left The Stop to found Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC), a national organization that hopes to help non-profits across the country customize The Stop’s community model to their own local needs. As of this year, the CFCC has successfully partnered with seven organizations in five provinces. Saul hopes to have 15 partnership centres in total open by 2017. “What makes us continue to get up in the morning and come to work is just how the model we discovered and built at The Stop is portable,” says Saul. “It has legs at other places.”

One of those places is Regent Park, a central Toronto neighbourhood that was built as a social housing project in the 1940s and is now being redeveloped into a residential area diverse in both socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. Last fall, the CFCC partnered with the Christian Resource Centre, a United Church outreach now known as the CRC, to expand its local community food centre.

“The neighbourhood is changing into a mixed-income community,” says food centre manager Liz Curran. “In that context, there’s a lot of opportunity to use food to bring the older residents and the newer residents together in that change.” After six months of consulting with Regent Park residents, Curran was able to hire extra staff, break dirt on two new community gardens and expand the CRC’s food skills program.

Some food banks themselves are catching on to the practice of offering more than just food hampers. “Food banks are at the front line and see what’s happening in the economy faster than what some economists might be seeing, but they also need to adapt,” says Gersho. Close to 40 percent of Food Banks Canada’s members, for example, offer skill-based programming.

But neither Gersho nor Saul would describe community food centres or food banks as a cure-all solution to hunger. A cooking class, for example, can teach people how to prepare healthy, inexpensive meals, but it’s not of much use to a single parent whose time is crunched between two jobs, transit and child care.

“It’s imperative that organizations see that private food charity is not an answer,” says Saul. “We have to think about food insecurity and hunger through a political lens.”
Measuring hunger is a tricky business, and food bank numbers tell only part of the story since many people without secure access to food don’t visit food banks. “What people understand as the problem — absolute deprivation — is simply the thing they’ve been exposed to, which usually comes from ads and appeals for donations,” says Valerie Tarasuk, a nutritional sciences professor at the University of Toronto and one of the country’s top researchers on food insecurity and policy.

Food insecurity, which has only been measured specifically and consistently on the Canadian Community Health Survey since 2005, can mean a sliding scale from worrying about next week’s grocery budget, to buying mostly canned goods instead of pricier milk and vegetables, to skipping meals entirely. All three scenarios are a problem; the latter two have significant health consequences.

Numbers from the 2012 survey suggest that close to four million people in Canada experience food insecurity of some sort, with 1.15 million of that group being under the age of 18. More important, Tarasuk points out, is the fact that more than half of the households that identified as food insecure in 2012 were also in the workforce, but still couldn’t afford to eat well. 

“Clearly, our system isn’t working,” says Tarasuk. “I’d like us to call for something else: a national household income.” While the idea of a guaranteed basic income (that is, topping up salaries that fall below a minimum line) has recently made waves in public policy circles, the examples Tarasuk points to are familiar ones we’re already implementing: Canada’s Old Age Security pension and the Guaranteed Income Supplement. A 2013 University of Calgary study on senior households found that the prevalence of food insecurity for low-income single people dropped by nearly 50 percent between those in their early 60s and those in their late 60s.

“Seniors who rely on a guaranteed household income . . . they are the one group that time and time again surfaces as protected [from food insecurity],” says Tarasuk. “By the time someone turns 65 . . . there are drug benefits, discounted transit fares — the private sector participates actively in benefits to seniors.” While these programs may not necessarily translate to a retired life of wealth, they do make things comparatively more comfortable. The poverty rate among seniors in Canada is currently 7.2 percent, putting us ahead of many developed countries, including the United States and Switzerland.

During my time as a FoodShare volunteer, I met a woman named Toni Panzuto. Now on staff, she started out as a volunteer with the organization in 1995. Then a single mother who had just graduated from a social work program, she learned that FoodShare needed volunteers for their Hunger Hotline (now called FoodLink), which connected people in emergency hunger situations with programs across the city. It seemed like a perfect fit: the work was in her field of study, and volunteers received a Good Food Box each week.

“My life had taken a turn then — I ended up with two chronic illnesses. I was on ODSP [Ontario Disability Support Program] and had difficulties feeding myself and my son. It was a great opportunity to volunteer somewhere I was interested in, and [the box] definitely supplemented our food bank diet.”

Panzuto has since been involved in a number of FoodShare’s programs and now works as a co-ordinator for the organization’s many volunteers. She understands the need for emergency assistance but isn’t a fan of food banks. She’d love to see minimum wage legislation get passed and is fascinated by some of the solutions working in Brazil, such as publicly funded farmers markets.

“The way out is not going to come [from] any one model,” she says. “It has to come from outside the box.”

Chantal Braganza is a journalist in Toronto.

Lise Caron/Getty Images
Lise Caron/Getty Images

Thanksgiving: What does it mean to be grateful amid suffering?

As I think about Thanksgiving and the feasting it inspires, I relive a conversation that took place some time ago. “It’s hard to feel thankful to God sometimes,” says Amelia. Over coffee, she tells me about a Thanksgiving Sunday a decade ago. The minister had enthused about all the blessings for which we ought to give God thanks, counting them off on his fingers — good food, homes, families, health, clean water to drink, freedom. Then he asked rhetorically, “How could we not be filled with gratitude to God?” Amelia stood up and walked out of the sanctuary. She hasn’t been to church since, nor has she has prayed.

Her two-year-old daughter, Sarah, had died the previous month. “All I could think was that if God gives us all those good things, then why take Sarah?” she tells me. “I was supposed to feel thankful? What about people who don’t have food, people who are hungry? Why doesn’t God ‘bless’ them?” Amelia places air quotes around the word “bless.”

Meister Eckhart, the 14th-century German theologian and mystic, said, “If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.” Sometimes saying thank you feels like too much.

Suffering — our own or others’ — can make it hard to feel grateful. God’s grace can feel capricious. By following to its logical conclusion the premise of a God who “blesses” us, we arrive at a God who also fails to “bless” (or simply ignores) the woundedness and the injustices of the world. Gathering around the turkey and giving thanks to that sort of God can leave me feeling uneasy, particularly when we pray our gratitude “for food in a world where many walk in hunger . . . for friends in a world where many walk alone.” Am I thanking a God who has blessed us with food and friends while leaving others without?

Watching criminals being marched to the scaffold, John Bradford, the English evangelical and martyr, is reported to have said, “There but for the grace of God go I.” If God’s grace spared Bradford that day, did that same grace fail him when in 1555 he was burned at the stake?

The harvest feast can easily become an unintended rationalization for the belief that God — rather than the vagaries of a genetic toss of the dice, a privileged home life or a head start on the unlevel playing field of capitalism — is the cause of our good fortune.

Theologians and philosophers far wiser than me have wrestled with the unpredictable nature of God’s blessing. I find no satisfactory theological twist in their conclusions with which to comfort Amelia or to account for the brutal injustices of this world.

Only this: on Thanksgiving weekend 2007, our extended family borrowed the lighthouse keeper’s home in Tobermory, Ont. At the time, my body was depleted by six months of aggressive surgery and radiation treatments for cancer. In fact, on the way to Tobermory I had collapsed onto the floor at the airport. When we arrived, I climbed up the stairs and into bed.

By morning, influenza had besieged my radioactively compromised immune system. For three days, I curled in a fetal tuck, tangled in wet sheets, swinging wildly between blazing fevers and teeth-rattling chills. Nausea rocked me like a landlubber on the high seas. And I was filled — blessed — with gratitude.

You see, it rained all weekend. It was the sound of the rain that got me through, that brought peace to my soul and images of the crimson, orange and yellow leaves to my mind. The gentle patter of raindrops on the roof, like the voices of my family downstairs, comforted me. God felt near. Here it is, seven years later, and the sound of that rain is still with me.

When I remember the rain that comforted me, I remember too Jesus saying, “and [God] sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5.45b). God’s grace is for everyone. I am indeed grateful, for the turning of a leaf, the smell of wet earth or coffee in the morning, the taste of wine and the sound of geese overhead, for skin touching skin and for tears of both joy and sorrow. I am grateful for Jesus, who said that sun and rain — signs of God’s love and grace — are for us all. I have not arrived at any truly satisfying resolution to the universal question of suffering. But I know that to feel and to express gratitude is itself a blessing. It is at the root of the compassion I feel for those like Amelia, whose hearts are breaking. Giving thanks is the source of my deep longing to participate in God’s blessing.

Very Rev. David Giuliano is a former United Church moderator and a minister with St. John’s United in Marathon, Ont.

Dream79/Shutterstock
Dream79/Shutterstock
Fixated foodies: My generation is interested in where food comes from — and how quickly we can post what we eat on social media

Like any food-blogger meet-up worth its (artisanal) salt, you could tell the event venue was hip by the utter lack of signage out front. It took me three tries before I managed to locate the right door, but eventually I got inside, took a seat at the long communal table and introduced myself. I was excited to have the chance to share a meal with people who are really interested in food, who write about it, cook it, style it, photograph it. Our common interest helped us break the ice, and soon enough, polite chatter gave way to more interesting conversation.

When the platters of waffles, fried chicken, biscuits and fruit arrived, the tone of the afternoon suddenly shifted. One of the event organizers came around with a portable light wand to help illuminate each of our dishes. Every single person present whipped out his or her smartphone and obligingly began to photograph the meal. As the brunch grew ever cooler before us, I watched my new companions temporarily abandon all pretence of conversation to focus on sharing their photos online.

Some vestige of restaurant etiquette made me feel that it would be rude for me to eat before they were finished, so I sat in hungry silence and wondered, How did it come to this?

Whereas my parents’ generation learned to cook from their parents before them, my own generation — the millennials — mostly learned how to cook from the Internet. Our parents might have thrown a few basic recipes our way, sure, but generally if we wanted to learn how to make something, we Googled it. We grew up in the age of the Food Network, with reality TV shows pitting top chefs against each other in fierce competitions, creating a new culture of celebrity chefs for us to idolize like Hollywood actors. Almost every single cooking technique — from boiling an egg to freezing berries in liquid nitrogen — was available for us as a video tutorial on YouTube.

In many ways, the millennials’ growing interest in food has been beneficial. We recognize food as a source of stories and community, as a means to come together over a shared experience. Our generation wants to know where our food comes from and how it is made, and we’re willing to boycott brands that disappoint us. We strive to support local growers and producers who use environmentally sustainable methods. What’s more, we’re reclaiming food-preservation techniques, such as canning and fermentation, that have been on the decline since our grandparents’ generation. You’re as likely to find us brewing beer in our bathrooms as browsing the produce at a farmers market.

Unfortunately, the benefits generally stop there. More often than not, the “foodie” movement exists to generate hype and to exploit our generation’s most widespread social anxiety: the fear of missing out. Bombarded with an endless stream of restaurant buzz from sites like Eater.com and Toronto Life’s The Dish, and inundated by photos of the meals our friends are consuming while out, we are easily persuaded to feel that we, too, should be visiting these restaurants and stuffing our faces. And when we manage to snag a seat at the hottest new bistro, we snap a shot of the already-famous, most-raved-about-online dish and upload it to our social medium of choice with a note about how thrilled we are, before we’ve even taken a bite.

Thorstein Veblen, the 19th-century American economist and sociologist, used the term “conspicuous consumption” to describe the upper class’s habit of purchasing needlessly expensive items as a means to announce their wealth. These days, the behaviour is more broadly performed by any old schmuck with a smartphone. Instead of purchasing flashy cars and mink coats, we buy meals at one of David Chang’s more expensive restaurants, then upload photos of each dish as it arrives to the table.

I have to confess: as a food stylist and photographer by trade and a food blogger by hobby, I am guilty of playing into the worst aspects of this culture. Foodies, gastronomes, epicureans, obnoxious dinner guests — whatever you want to call them, these are my people. By the time I visit a restaurant, I’ve usually read all the gossip and buzz surrounding the owner, I’ve checked out the reviews on Yelp.ca and blogTO.com, and I’ve waited for an endorsement by a newspaper’s reviewer. Last year, I drove a friend crazy while we grocery shopped for a cottage weekend, as I insisted on buying only Ontario-sourced food, even if it meant visiting several different grocery stores. I doubt there’s a foodie trope in existence that I haven’t played into at least once or twice.

But that food-blogger brunch event, with its oh-so-illuminating light wand, was the first time I felt as though my life had become a satire. For one thing, the food hadn’t actually been that good. And even if it had been overwhelmingly, superlatively tasty, a revelation to the world of brunch, it was still just food. We would consume it, we would digest it, and eventually it would all end up in the same place. It wasn’t that I suddenly felt as though food itself didn’t matter; rather, it was my new understanding of exactly how much food did matter that rendered our little scene so absurd.

Those of us interested in food would like to believe that the foodie movement is characterized by the words “sustainable” or “organic.” But the word that most accurately describes it is “privileged.” Canadians spent $54.9 billion on restaurant meals in 2013. That same year, Food Banks Canada provided food assistance to more than 800,000 Canadians each month.

In 2012, Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the right to food, presented his report on food insecurity in Canada, and the results were unexpectedly grim. His findings indicated that about 1.9 million people in Canada aged 12 or older lived in food-insecure households, meaning that they could not be sure if or when the next meal was coming.

The report criticized the Canadian government for failing to create or implement a national, coherent food strategy to promote and protect the “right to food” for its citizens. In response, then Immigration Minister Jason Kenney called the report a waste of UN money, and added, “It would be our hope that the contributions we make to the United Nations are used to help starving people in developing countries, not to give lectures to wealthy and developed countries like Canada.” But the very fact that Canada is a wealthy, developed country only helps to underline De Schutter’s point: what excuse do we have for allowing the situation here to become so dire?

Our recent infatuation with food and food culture might be a good thing, but at the moment, the scope of our interest is fixated on our own stomachs, no further. The tremendous current interest in food provides us with the opportunity to talk about our food system at large and what we can do to improve it.

Unless we expand our current food discourse to include legitimately pressing food-related issues, our self-professed love for food will remain superficial — nothing more than the cheerily lit Instagram photo of a lousy brunch plate, long gone cold.

Alanna Lipson is a food stylist and photographer in Toronto.


Photo by Nicole Bohnert
Photo by Nicole Bohnert
Sustainability: Gary Kenny explains why food isn’t just a commodity — it’s a public good

Gary Kenny is an emergency response and international development co-ordinator for The United Church of Canada whose portfolio includes food justice. He also grows organically certified cash crops on his Ontario farm.

Q What’s the difference between food security and food sovereignty?

A Food security is a goal in terms of people achieving sustainable, continuous food. It’s when all people at all times have physical and economic access to food that is safe and nutritious, and enables them to have an active and healthy life. This is a really worthy goal, but it doesn’t address the deeper questions of ecological sustainability. In particular, it doesn’t even begin to suggest how such a goal might be met.

Food sovereignty, by way of contrast, is the process of how you get there. It focuses on the idea that people must reclaim their power of decision-making in food systems by rebuilding relationships between people and the land, between consumers and producers — all these distances that have crept in over the years as we’ve developed more of an industrial food system.

Food sovereignty asks questions about how food is produced, what role we have in producing it, and what our rights are as consumers. It calls for a fundamental shift from food viewed primarily as a commodity to food that’s understood as a public good — an important concept. When we understand it this way, food can once again assume the role it once had: to strengthen communities, ecosystems and economies.

Q The United Church has a long history of advocating for food justice. Can you tell me a bit about this?

A In Canada, the United Church has spoken out in support of small family farms and has also advocated for exercising caution with new technologies such as GMOs [genetically modified organisms] and agro-toxins that may be harming the natural environment and human health.

Globally, the United Church has supported low-tech agro-ecological approaches to farming undertaken by partners in all regions of the world. When people gain more control over their circumstances, they can begin to lift themselves out of impoverishment — it’s moving more down the food sovereignty road than the food security road.

Q The United Church’s longtime partner, the Canadian Food-grains Bank, is mainly focused on food security — getting food to hungry people. How does the CFGB fit in with the denomination’s efforts toward food sovereignty?

A An overlap occurs with the CFGB’s programming in conservation agriculture. For example, the organization promotes the use of local inputs that result in greater yields. Instead of external inputs such as hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizers and synthetic pesticides, conservation farming would generally involve open-pollinated seeds, manure or homemade compost, and natural weed and pest controls such as crop rotation. This enables farmers to earn cash on local markets that they can use to improve their livelihoods. In other words, farmers can achieve more power and control over their circumstances, including having a say in the food systems in which they participate.

Also, as a result of a workshop on food sovereignty that the United Church organized for the CFGB last December, more and more members are showing an interest in food sovereignty programming. However, we’ve some distance to go and work to do before the CFGB adopts a program specifically using food sovereignty as a foundation.

Q Many United Church congregations are taking on small-scale initiatives related to food sovereignty. What are you seeing?

A There are some tremendous things happening, including hosting a farmers market, agriculture programs, saving seeds and linking with rural congregations and farmers. One of the things the General Council is going to do through its three-year food sovereignty campaign [Seeding Life: Breaking Ground for Food Justice] is to build an interactive database [of United Church initiatives]. We want to reach all United Church congregations and ministries so they can learn from and mentor one another. That’s our work over the next few years — to make food sovereignty really understandable to congregations in concrete terms.

Q Parting words?

A We created the industrial food system; we can create something else.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

— Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko


Combines harvest soybeans near Springstein, Man., to raise money for the Canadian Foodgrains Banks in October 2013. The project brought together five local churches. Photo by Amanda Thorsteinsson/CFGB
Combines harvest soybeans near Springstein, Man., to raise money for the Canadian Foodgrains Banks in October 2013. The project brought together five local churches. Photo by Amanda Thorsteinsson/CFGB
Farm help: The church-supported Canadian Foodgrains Bank gets a boost from billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates


The Canadian Foodgrains Bank is probably best known for grain donations, farming projects and food aid. But in addition to feeding 1.3 million people and delivering about $40 million a year in food assistance and development programs, the CFGB also advocates to governments to help end hunger.

That work got a big boost in July from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which awarded the CFGB a three-year $1.5-million grant to persuade the Canadian government to invest more money in programs to help small farmers move out of poverty.

The 31-year-old Foodgrains Bank first became involved in public policy research in the late 1990s when it recognized the effect of global trade treaties on food costs and hunger. Its recent Harvest of Letters campaign, for example, encouraged supporters to ask their members of Parliament to do more to help small farmers adapt to climate change.

The Gates Foundation grant will go further and allow the CFGB’s three-person public policy unit to expand its staff and work. The unit will pull together research on the effectiveness of supporting small-farm agriculture and also look into political strategies for getting those resources in place.

“It’s agriculture development funding as a means to reduce poverty and . . . provide livelihoods to vulnerable people, and as a means for economic growth,” says Paul Hagerman, the CFGB’s director of public policy and a former United Church overseas worker.

The United Church is a founding member of the Winnipeg-based CFGB, which now has 15 member churches and church agencies. United Church supporters made grain and cash donations worth $1.4 million in 2013-14. With 4-to-1 matching funds from the Foodgrains Bank’s annual $25 million grant from the Canadian government, the church had the potential to generate up to $7 million in projects.

The Gates Foundation, which has $40 billion in assets, recently zeroed in on agricultural programs as a likely solution to global hunger.

Mike Milne is an Observer staff writer.


iStock/meteo021
iStock/meteo021
Front-yard foraging: Discovering that dandelions are edible transformed me into an earth mother

I’m an earth-mother wannabe. I envision myself as one of those nurturing types whose yard looks like a rainforest and smells like fresh-picked veggies. But each summer, I look at the stunted and half-dead plants rotting in my garden and must face the depressing truth: “You will never be a gardener.”

Recently, though, I’ve had an epiphany: I’m a great dandelion grower. Judging by my lawn, an expert. I did some research. It was exciting. Dandelions are edible, medicinal, chock full of vitamins. In France and Italy, they are practically a delicacy!

One afternoon, I called a family meeting to give “the talk.” After reminding them that dandelions have been eaten for 25,000 years, I noted how until the 1800s people would pull grass out of their lawns to give the little yellow flowers more elbow room. They were a prized medicinal plant! “If you’re sick, just go to the store and get a Tylenol, Mom,” replied my eldest.

Turns out that friends and acquaintances share his stunning lack of appreciation. At the park, we ran into an old friend. I excitedly showed him the “treasure” I had gathered. “Oh, look what you’ve got there,” he commented politely, shooting an inquiring look at my partner at the time, who quipped, “Yep, too bad she didn’t snag us a squirrel. We could have had a complete meal.” Awkward laughter.

My sons won’t go to the park with me anymore. They think the binoculars, field guides, snips and bags are too much.

I’ve become fond of quoting the ever-wise Ralph Waldo Emerson: “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” I regale them with beautifully logical arguments: “I’ll be handy in a food crisis. Foraging is free. Found food requires a deep appreciation of the world God made. It’s spiritual.”
“If you want to be spiritual, just go to church, Mom.”

Foraging takes thick skin. I plow on. I’ve mixed up the most marvellous recipes: roasted garlic and dandelion slaw, deep-fried dandelion florets. I even brewed dandelion root coffee.

Admittedly, I’ve become a tad judgmental. No sooner did my beloved dandelions crown than my neighbours waged chemical war on them. There’s nothing like a few innocent yellow flowers, a patch of clover or (gasp!) a thistle to send people into a tizzy. Tiny, rectangular lawn-care signs cropped up all over the neighbourhood. I watched gas-guzzling lawn-care trucks circle the block.

I began preparing for one of the lawn-treatment specialists to pop by and offer a quote with the same thoroughness with which I prepare for the water-heater guys, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and telemarketers who call during dinner. When they showed up, I took them on a lawn tour, pointing out all the edible “weeds.” I flummoxed them with facts like, “Suburban lawns receive more pesticides per acre than agricultural land.” When they started to retreat to their truck, muttering about how they just work for the company, I presented them with a jar of dandelion jelly. “Here, taste what you are killing.”

The jelly idea was so perfectly subversive that I cooked up about 50 batches, distributing them to the neighbours, targeting the ones who spray their lawn. I’m sure they are still clucking.

I’m not going to pretend that my foray into foraging has been all roses. There’s a reason why the French word for dandelions is pissenlit — dandelions are a fierce diuretic, as I learned after overindulging.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been expanding my repertoire. I’ve tried coltsfoot, spotted dead nettle, yarrow and chicory, and have experimented with different recipes. Spicy cream-cheese-stuffed milkweed is to die for.

I don’t know what it is about foraging that makes me happy. I’ve always liked being in the forest. Turning a corner to discover something surprising and sustaining makes Creation more wondrous; it’s like being let in on a secret hidden in plain sight. There’s always more to learn.

The best part of foraging is that no matter how bleak your yard looks, how badly you failed biology or how deep your propensity for cultivating death, you can still reap a harvest. Nature will do the work.

Sit back and let the dandelions grow free. You aren’t being neglectful, unneighbourly or eccentric. If your family or friends balk, tell them the plain truth. You’re an earth mother.

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.

Waste not, want not: We have more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet. Too bad much of it gets tossed.

There’s nothing like cleaning out your fridge to force you to confront the moral disaster of excessive food waste in a world where nearly a billion people are chronically undernourished. “Au revoir, mouldy orange. Goodbye, runny brown leftovers. Out you go, expired yogurt.” On the floor, you’ve got a compost bin full of once-tasty slop, and in your heart, a sinking feeling.

Home refrigerators in high-income countries are just one place food goes to die. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 1.3 billion tonnes of food is lost and wasted each year on farms, through poor storage, and by industry and consumers. That represents one-third of all food produced in the world — and more than enough to feed every hungry person. Some more facts:

• The average person needs about 2,000 calories daily. Enough food is currently produced worldwide to feed everyone on Earth over 2,700 calories per day.

• Politics, poverty, conflict, climate change and lack of access to land all contribute to hunger.

• Canada loses and wastes 40 percent of food produced in the country each year, representing $27 billion. That’s almost five times Canada’s annual spending on international assistance.

• In Canada, individuals are responsible for about half the food wasted (51 percent). Farms lose nine percent; processing and packaging 18 percent; distribution three percent; retail 11 percent; and food service (restaurants, etc.) eight percent.

• In Europe and North America, individuals waste between 95 and 115 kilograms of food per year; in sub-Saharan Africa and south and southeastern Asia, individuals throw away only six to 11 kilograms a year.

• Global food losses and waste per year are roughly 30 percent for cereals; 40 to 50 percent for root crops, fruits and vegetables; 20 percent for oil seeds, meat and dairy; and 30 percent for fish.

SOURCES: The United Nations’ Save Food: Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction; Value Chain Management Centre, an agri-food business consultancy based in Guelph, Ont.

— Pieta Woolley


Seeds, Inc.: Corporations control most of the seed market. Will we reap what they sow?

“Good seed makes a good crop,” says the 16th-century proverb, an age-old, self-evident truth. But who owns the seed that makes the crop?

When I was a kid growing up in the Saskatchewan breadbasket, we all owned the seed. It was humanity’s birthright. And farmers kept their best seeds to plant for next year’s crops, gloating over the glossy kernels they stored in vast bins over the winter, awaiting spring furrows. But these days, the answer to who owns the seed is not nearly so obvious. It’s rapidly shifting — and fraught with consequences. At stake is nothing less than billions of dollars in corporate profits and the health of billions of citizens.

The seemingly humble seed has wielded extraordinary power over human civilization since we began domesticating wild plants about 10,000 years ago, painstakingly coaxing them to make bigger or tastier fruit or ones that were less poisonous, notes the scientist Jared Diamond in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Peas, he writes, were domesticated by Stone Age farmers around 8000 BC, but strawberries had to wait for the monks of the Middle Ages.

Agriculture led to respite from famine and starvation — at least sometimes. Communities could store farmed food in quantities impossible in a hunter-gatherer society. And that security led to population growth, leisure, the buildup of standing armies, intellectual enlargement and the concept of long-term planning, and eventually to reading and writing and the explosion of the arts and sciences. In other words, agriculture laid the groundwork for our modern civilization with its books, computers, cellphones, medical advances and seven billion citizens.

Today the seed, this foundation of civilization, is being recast as a unit of highly valuable, expensively researched, tightly controlled technology — something like a living computer chip — the first link in a massive global business relying on intellectual property, patents, licensing agreements and marketing. The International Seed Federation says that the global commercial seed market is worth US$45 billion, and the ETC Group, an international civil society organization based in Ottawa, calculates that slightly more than half of that market is controlled by just three companies: Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta. In all, one in every five seeds planted anywhere in the world is owned by a corporation.

For big business, controlling the sale of seeds is the key to also controlling a complex food-production chain that includes not only the seeds and the pesticides and fungicides deemed necessary to grow them, but also the companies that process them into food. Three other companies – Nestlé, PepsiCo and Kraft – control nearly a fifth of the global processed-food market, which uses the crops. This means farmers are squeezed between behemoths at both ends of the food chain, in thrall to high costs for the seeds and low prices for the produce.

For some, this new seed market is a social advance. It means high-tech companies have the licence to develop genetically modified, proprietorial seeds that will help humanity by delivering greater amounts of healthier and safer foods. Patty Townsend, chief executive of the Canadian Seed Trade Association, which represents some of these corporations, said in an interview from Ottawa that the new biotech seeds are “really exciting tools” for the future that can lead to healthier oils and starches in crops and even remove allergens.

Ulrich Hoffmann agrees. The head of trade and sustainable development at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Hoffmann writes in a 2011 report that in a world altered by climate change, biotech seeds could greatly help us grow enough food for all. Citing a 2008 World Bank report, he notes that biotech seeds were responsible for as much as 50 percent of agricultural yield growth in the 1980s and 1990s, feeding as many as
15 million children who would otherwise have been malnourished and protecting millions of hectares of forest and other wilderness from cultivation, an environmental boon.

Yet the phenomenon of corporate-owned seeds is controversial. A 2006 UNCTAD analysis notes that the increasing corporate control over seeds represents “a move towards unprecedented convergence” among the three key segments of the agricultural market: the inventions themselves (developed by scientists who modify seeds’ genes to create specific traits, including resistance to pesticides), the seeds, and the chemicals used to grow them.

The UNCTAD secretariat calls this concentration of power, particularly on the biotechnology side, “very problematic” because it gives corporations “unprecedented power” and affects farmers’ age-old rights to save and replant the seeds they grow.

Why does it matter? For one thing, intensive industrial agriculture, where company-owned seeds are mainly used, requires two to three times more fertilizers and one-and-a-half times more pesticides to produce a kilogram of food than just 40 years ago, according to Hoffmann. Modern agriculture also uses 10 times more energy than non-industrial agriculture and expends 10 calories of energy (in fuel, mainly) for every calorie of food produced. That’s economically possible because taxpayers heavily subsidize fossil fuels, he notes. It flips the whole, ancient idea of what agriculture is for — banking energy against future demand — on its head: “Agriculture has thus been turned from a historical net producer of energy to a net consumer,” Hoffmann writes.

Not only that, but this form of industrial agriculture has also drastically reduced the varieties of crops commonly grown, and without that variety, plants aren’t as resilient to climate change and dreadful weather.

What does this mean for the farmer in North America? If he or she wants to plant canola or corn or soy, for example, it’s uncommon to be able to buy seed not treated with a coating of neonicotinoid pesticide — which has been linked to massive bee die-offs and temporarily banned in Europe — often with added fungicides, sealed to the seed with plastic. These expensive, proprietary chemicals grow with the expensive, proprietary seed, infusing each cell of each tissue of the plant: stalk, leaf, flower, nectar, pollen and seed head. Farmers must sign legally binding contracts that govern how the seeds can be used, and they have to buy the seeds anew every year. Many of them are hybrids, meaning they wouldn’t produce decent crops again even if the farmer tried saving and replanting.

It’s different from the time-honoured system in place when I walked the fields of Saskatchewan as a teenager. My relatives sowed seeds from the crops they grew, watching as some of the seeds adapted to the local environment, and collecting the ones that did the best for replanting in years to come. This was evolution in the wild, happening field by field. It’s still the mainstay in developing countries, where 80 to 90 percent of seeds for future crops are collected in this way, and it’s still the way wheat and several other crops are handled in Canada.

The corporate-seed system is also a departure from Canada’s long tradition of public investment in breeding new varieties of seeds for the good of all. This storied history of public seed breeding — conducted at government research stations or at universities — was a cornerstone of Canada’s strategy to settle the West in the 1880s and develop a robust agricultural economy. It led to one of the most important seeds ever planted on the Canadian and eventually American Prairies: Marquis wheat. Developed in 1907, the wheat became a roaring success because it ripened three or four days earlier than other breeds and had shorter, plumper kernels. Its inventor, Charles Saunders, worked at the government’s Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa.

This plant-breeding work was a lucrative investment for the government, says a 2007 policy brief by the Canadian Agricultural Innovation Research Network (CAIRN). Intensive public support of plant breeding continued in Canada until about 40 years ago, when the trend toward more private investment began. Eventually, laws were established to allow intellectual property rights and patents over new plant varieties — typically held by companies, who can then sell the seeds to farmers at hefty profits.

To Pat Mooney, founder of the Ottawa civil society group ETC, this shift toward company-owned seeds concentrated in a few multinational corporate hands has happened remarkably quickly. When he first examined the global agriculture system about 40 years ago, there were roughly 7,000 seed companies in the public and private spheres, none of which had a significant market share, he said in an interview from Ottawa. Today, three companies control more than half of commercial seed sales, and 10 control about three-quarters of them. The public-sector involvement in seed breeding has collapsed, he said, and the companies that are now in control of global seed breeding are focused mainly on 12 major crops, including rice, soy, corn, canola, cotton and beans. Nearly half of all private-sector research is in a single crop — corn — because it is heavily used in all those processed foods.

Because the climate is changing so rapidly, farming conditions are also changing, Mooney noted. And that means, more than ever, crops need to be diverse, nimble and poised for adaptation, the opposite of the uniformity currently on offer by corporate-controlled monocultures. “We’ve made ourselves incredibly vulnerable,” he said.

In Canada today, the flashpoint in this complex story is Bill C-18, the Agricultural Growth Act, an omnibus bill aimed at, among other things, making sure that seed companies operating in Canada have as much legal protection over their inventions as those in most other countries. The bill has wide support among some farming organizations. Patty Townsend of the Canadian Seed Trade Association said it will give farmers access to varieties of seeds they can’t get now, an important benefit.

But Ann Slater, vice-president of policy for the National Farmers Union, said in an interview from her farm in St. Marys, Ont., that her organization opposes the bill on the grounds that it will concentrate the seed industry even further in the hands of big companies, possibly even encouraging them to take over the king of crops: wheat. The United Church of Canada has also publicly stated its concerns about the bill.

I was back in Saskatchewan this past summer, surrounded by fields of canola, tracking the work of a scientist who is looking at how pesticide-coated seeds are affecting this rich ecosystem. The prairie potholes dotting the fields are laced with pesticide residue throughout the year now. There’s mounting evidence that the chemicals are killing off even the good bugs, and this means some birds are going hungry. Other scientists are on a race to figure out whether the chemicals are affecting creatures that keep the soil healthy.

I had to wonder, standing there with the hot sun on my face and the wind rustling my hair, whether we’ve really thought this through. Whether we really want big corporations, certainly good at making profits, to be the ones making so many decisions about the future of the planet’s food and life-support systems. Wouldn’t it be sensible to have other voices in this discussion, too? Voices that had something to say about the long term, about food justice, about the common good? 

Alanna Mitchell is a science journalist in Toronto.


Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
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