Food for thought

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McGill Reporter
March 2, 2006 - Volume 38 Number 12
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Food for thought

McGill Institute for the Study of Canada chews over food practice and policy

Just as we each have our own definitive recipes for family favourites, everyone at the recent "What Are We Eating: Towards a Canadian Food Policy" conference had their own opinions on Canada's food systems.

Caption follows
The opening-night event was a roundtable called the Ideal Meal Challenge in which chefs were asked to discuss the best budget and blue-sky meal possibilities. Left to right: TV chef Ricardo Larivée, Santropol Roulant director Jane Rabinowicz, and TV host Hélène Laurendeau, moderator. Other participants included restaurateur Fred Morin (who suggested soylent green as the most efficient food source), Gourmet Sauvage founder Gerald LeGal, and spice maven Philippe de Vienne. Concerns included heeding nutrition, conviviality of the dining experience, flavour, and taking the time to appreciate food. Heavily processed foods were shunned, natural foods were lauded. There are not good excuses for not eating well. It can take the same amount of time for the pizza delivery guy to arrive as it does to prepare a simple but good meal.
Owen Egan

From February 15 to 17, the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada hosted members of parliament, industry representatives and academics to chew over a topic so dear to our hearts and bellies.

Conference participants debated issues such as the rising rates of obesity, food production, sustainability of food sources, the culinary de-skilling of a culture, the availability of information about ingredients and nutritional value, the role of advertising, even the availability of food to all Canadians.

Queen's University professor Elaine Power said that between 2 million and 4 million Canadians are food insecure, which means they worry about how to find the means to feed their family. As well, if a family is short on resources, healthy foods are the first to fall out of the grocery basket. While high-income people think of health as something you can and need to put in a bank for the future, low-income people live for how to get through today. They want to make their kids happy by feeding them what they like; they can't afford to try a new food that might get thrown away if no one eats it. To create the conditions in which healthy food is mainstream and affordable, we need social and environmental change, she said.

Bob Friesen, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, pointed out that farmers are willing to be responsible to the environment and would be happy to meet consumer demand for healthier fare, as long as they are able to make some profit. (One joke goes that at a meeting of poultry farmers, a supplier became excited about marketing half turkeys, to which one farmer said, "We've tried to grow them but they keep falling over.") As patient as farmers are, Friesen said not to expect innovation if they're on their knees.

And they very nearly are. Darrin Qualman, Director of Research of the National Farmers Union, showed charts indicating a farm income crisis. Farmers' current revenue is effectively lower than it was during the depression. Though prices for pork chops, corn flakes, and beer have risen considerably over the past three decades, the price farmers are paid for hogs, corn, and barley has stayed pretty much stable.

Christina Blais, Department of Nutrition, Université de Montréal, was one of many speakers concerned about the loss of cooking skills in Canada. She quoted Chris Kimball from America's Test Kitchen "cooking is destined to be primarily a spectator sport in the 21st century. We like the romance of it but lack the skill to succeed."

We suspect unskilled cooks eat less nutritiously, but we don't really know, Blais said. And though there are healthy convenience foods, she does believe "providing individuals with cooking skills might just empower them to eat a healthy diet."

The loudest applause of the conference was saved for Paul Finkelstein. The upstart culinary arts teacher is the mastermind behind Screaming Avocado Café in the Stratford Northwestern Secondary School. Students get credit for working in the kitchen and learning how to cook rabbit braised with olives, duck confit, and Morrocan couscous; tending to the organic garden in the school courtyard; and baking their own bread. Cheap good lunches are sold for just a few dollars. "Screaming Avocado is educating just by being," Finkelstein said. As progressive as the program is, the café still competes with the typical fried-food school cafeteria and the 12 vending machines students must pass every day upon entering the school.

Diane Finegood, scientific director of the Canadian Institute of Health Research, said "Obesity's not rocket science; it's much more complicated." The many facets and complexity of factors that go into poor nutrition must not be underestimated.

Though people may liken the battle against bad food to that against smoking, Finegood said that this battle is not so easy. The anti-smoking crusade had the rights of non-smokers on their side, and smokers became social pariahs. Further, no one needs to smoke, but we all need to eat.

Finegood showed her commitment to resolving the problems with Canada's food policies - participants had identified many possible areas of regulation, such as marketing to kids, price incentives for healthy food, and rewarding sustainable practice. At the end of the extremely full two days of talks, Finegood threw down the gauntlet to all who claimed to take the matter seriously, by pledging to give money for a follow-up conference and inviting others to do the same.

Nathalie Cooke, conference chair and the Canadian Studies program director of MISC, said the event was a success. "This conference has generated an overwhelming response from the community. The topic clearly struck a chord: Canadians are concerned about their food, and representatives from a wide variety of sectors have - like Diane Finegood - already identified themselves as committed to participating in next steps. We already have plans for a follow-up meeting, and a course titled "Food in Canada" to be offered through the MISC in 2006-7." The more that food practices are examined, the better able Canada will be to put truly useful food policies in place.

For conference details and (coming soon) audio recordings, see www.misc-iecm.mcgill.ca/conf2006.

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