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What’s on your plate?

How Concordians are helping to define and create more equitable food systems
March 16, 2021
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By Maeve Haldane, BFA 91

Virginie Lavallée-Picard, MA 14 Virginie Lavallée-Picard, MA 14, is a food systems coordinator with the city of Victoria, and runs Wind Whipped farm in Metchosin, B.C. She collaborates with Victoria residents to help them plant, develop and harvest their own food across the city.

A walk through Victoria, B.C. neighbourhoods reveals a variety of food trees and community gardens. Beyond the sustenance they provide, they’re doing something else for the city. They’re building community. 

The residents who tend to the gardens and collect their harvest are part of a growing movement of people who want to know how their food is produced, processed and distributed. They are defining food systems and agriculture through environmentally sound and sustainable methods — steps towards becoming food-sovereign communities. 

How food gets from farm to table is fraught with challenges, and Concordia researchers are helping equip the next generation of leaders to create more just communities. 

While food sovereignty isn’t a new concept, it’s one that has been steadily gaining traction in Canada. In its 2019 budget, the federal government announced a five-year $134-million investment in a national food policy — its first ever — to address food-related issues such as food access, security and waste. The success of the policy is highly dependent on the collaboration of all levels of government and everyday citizens. 

Working closely with Victoria residents is Virginie Lavallée-Picard, MA 14. Following their call for increased urban food production, Lavallée-Picard was hired as the City of Victoria’s food systems coordinator to collaborate with residents to develop and sustain community and boulevard gardens, food trees and urban farms. 

“We need to encourage a bit of a decentralized process,” she says. “We need a more collaborative approach that would help us better see how food connects to climate change and all these other challenges that we’re facing.” 

Realizing municipalities could play a crucial role in growing equitable and regenerative food systems, Lavallée-Picard dove into a master’s at Concordia to better understand how rural governments work with farmers. “We need to re-envision and rethink how we feed ourselves,” she notes, adding that collaborative food governance and diverse, better-connected communities are crucial for tackling issues related to food systems and overall food sustainability.

food-liz-miller

Though people have been advocating for more sustainable and equitable food for years, the COVID-19 pandemic has made a wider public even more aware of weaknesses in our food systems, from food insecurity to health risks in meat-processing plants. 

“We start with transportation and the carbon footprint of food delivery,” says Elizabeth Miller, a professor in the Department of Communication Studies and documentary maker who teaches a course on media and the politics of food.

“We study questions like, ‘How far does our food have to travel?’ and ‘What’s the implication and impact?’” 

Miller also focuses on labour and gender issues around food, such as who picks our crops under what conditions, and who gets exposed to harmful pesticides.

“The history of food is the history of tariffs,” she says. “Understanding why and how things are cheap is a critical entry point to conversations about food.”

‘We have to figure out how to improve the world’

Erik Chevrier, BA 04, MA 11 Erik Chevrier, BA 04, MA 11 | Photo: Carlo Primerano

Erik Chevrier, BA 04, MA 11, a part-time instructor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, teaches about food through the lenses of sustainability and culture. 

A current PhD candidate, Chevrier has researched and catalogued Concordia’s campus-community organizations, creating an online archive (concordiafoodgroups.ca) of the student-run projects. He says that as a next-generation education and research centre, Concordia is a place “where we have to innovate, experiment and try to figure out how to improve the world.” 

Chevrier sits on the committee of the Food Advisory Working Group to help lead the university towards transformative approaches to sustainability and to become a food-sovereign campus, from production to waste management. He also chairs the Concordia Food Coalition, which looks at ways the university could run its own food services, involving students, staff and faculty. 

The university’s Sustainability Action Plan — which includes a long-term vision as well as five-year plans around food, waste, climate, research and curriculum — would have a tremendous impact on the larger community and would show students a new way forward. 

Chevrier is critical of food systems. “Agriculture is one of the most destructive forces,” he notes. “In Canada, the United States, Brazil and China, huge monoculture farms are destroying the planet — our soil, our air, and they’re using most of our water. “The roots of colonialism and racism also stem from our food system. African slaves were put to work on plantations and farms. Colonizers took over Indigenous land and disregarded traditional agricultural practices. Food is rooted in class-based systems that are extremely exploitative and still persist to this day.” 

This includes Canada’s use of low-paid migrant farm labour, which originated in the First and Second World Wars to inexpensively feed soldiers.

“The more you drive down costs, the less you pay for labour and the more social inequality is created,” remarks Chevrier, who would like the Government of Canada to grant migrant workers the same rights as permanent residents and Canadian citizens. “I’m not necessarily advocating for higher food prices, but we need to figure out how to pay for the true cost of food. We can’t externalize the environmental or social costs.” 

A fair trade? 

Jordan Lebell Jordan LeBel

Jordan LeBel, a Department of Marketing faculty professor at the John Molson School of Business, grew up on a small farm in rural Quebec, where he saw how little profit went back to the farmers. Now LeBel wants his students to be aware of the effect they have as consumers. 

“If you want to eat avocado toast, good for you, but don’t pretend your choices don’t have an impact,” he says. “In Chile, communities have been devastated and can no longer afford to eat avocados themselves, which is one of their staples. A pineapple from Costa Rica is $1.99, which doesn’t even begin to cover the true cost. The farmer probably gets pennies for that.” 

Even ostensibly progressive ways of working with farmers don’t always help. LeBel has studied the cacao trade extensively and has even lived with farmers, acquiring a keen sense of their struggles.

For instance, while fair-trade arrangements help farmers demand fair prices, they may only be paid long after delivery, or with vouchers until a prescribed weight of beans has been fulfilled. This can sometimes take months between big harvests and obliges many farmers to accept predatory loans to survive. Farmers will not necessarily drive new developments in the future, LeBel points out. He notes with skepticism the influence wielded by venture capital and technology firms, many of which have no agricultural experience.

“Some are improving our lives, but when it all comes with ridiculous profit-making expectations you have to question it,” he says. “They want to invest in the next startup ‘unicorn,’ the next big thing.” 

Chevrier thinks many of the latest so-called advancements are part of the problem. The pursuit of higher yields with genetically modified organism (GMO) technology, he believes, is unnecessary because ample evidence exists to prove that natural methods can be just as effective. Chevrier takes pride in teaching his students about action research, a form of inquiry grounded in social justice and community participation. 

Overhauling the system

Jennifer Gobby Jennifer Gobby

When you look at our collective food system, common themes emerge. Farmers and labourers aren’t getting fair treatment. Consumers are unequally served. Environmental problems are rife. Most acknowledge that the system is broken — but can it be fixed? 

Activist Jennifer Gobby, a Department of Geography, Planning and Environment postdoctoral fellow who focuses on social movements, sees capitalism as a major part of the problem. “Our system is organized around principles and goals that prioritize economic growth above all,” she says, “regardless of whether or not that contributes to a liveable planet and people who are taken care of.” 

Gobby adds that crises often spur powerful social changes. Although the effects of COVID-19 have been global, the pandemic has had the most impact on people vulnerable to and marginalized because of racism, sexism and classism. In a year that also included worldwide anti-racism protests, inequality and social justice have been front of mind for many. 

This places political pressure on elected officials, says Gobby, who notes that when governments neglect or are slow to address systemic problems, resourceful people seek out new pathways. When it comes to food, this can take the form of alternative markets that better meet people’s needs. Still, formidable challenges persist.

“Generally, the people most affected by social or environmental problems are systemically or structurally excluded from decision-making processes,” Gobby says. Another obstacle is that many efforts are siloed. Some groups are focused on sustainable agriculture, others on distribution logistics — but do they coordinate or collaborate? More broadly, we would do well to remember the intersectionality of climate change, income inequality, racism and food security. 

The way forward

Gobby is full of hope. She spent 15 years off the grid on British Columbia’s Lasqueti Island, before returning to Quebec, and academia, to better articulate her political vision. 

Even amid the pandemic, or perhaps because of it, Gobby thinks social movements are getting better at working across silos and building networks of mutual aid. She also believes that more people, who aren’t necessarily activists, are recognizing “cracks in the system” and are increasingly supportive of radical solutions and change. As a result, maybe they’ll turn to local food growers, join a gardening co-op in their neighbourhood, or vote for more progressive candidates. 

Virginie Lavallée-Picard’s primary interest is in how municipal governments make decisions around food. Many believe that equitable and regenerative food systems must be place-based. 

Municipal food system planning touches, in part, on the “nitty-gritty of regulatory and compliance measures for landuse planning: zoning bylaws, business permit bylaws,” she adds. 

Yet another important key to planning, according to Lavallée-Picard, is asking what collaborative food governance looks like, as well as how we can work and think creatively together to grow equitable and regenerative food systems. 

Just outside Victoria, Lavallée-Picard runs Wind Whipped Farm — a certified organic market garden — with her partner. She feels lucky to have feet in both municipal governance and farming. “It’s a lot of work but it’s a treat to be able to grow food for your own community. It contributes to better, stronger, more resilient communities,” she says. 

Erik Chevrier sees collective gardens as an important piece of the puzzle. When the pandemic hit, his Concordia work slowed down and the safest place to be was outside. An experimental backyard farmer, Chevrier got involved with a SPIN (Small Plot Intensive) farm near social housing in his Montreal borough of Lachine. The project quickly flourished and provided cheap, fresh food for residents.

Urban farm in Lachine During the pandemic, Erik Chevrier helped develop an urban farm, where his students volunteered, to provide fresh food for local residents. | Photo: Kim Gagnon

“You name it, we’re growing it,” exclaims Chevrier. “Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, beans, amaranth, a whole bunch of different leafy greens, bok choy, arugula.” 

Hardy kale and broccoli grew into December and residents contributed to compost, which will help rebuild the soil. The project hopes to expand and has secured enough funding for three years. 

“We’re looking to become viable through the markets, and anything that’s surplus will be donated to food banks,” says Chevrier. His Concordia students volunteered on the community farm, gaining first-hand experience in organic gardening, food production and regenerative agriculture, while enhancing food security. They also mapped the neighbourhood’s food organizations online. 

“By interacting with the community, students can learn about food systems and also create tangible ‘things’ like maps, food, infrastructure like compost bins and recipe books,” says Chevrier. 

Urban farms may be limited in what they can grow (wheat and potatoes take up a lot of space), but the benefits are vast, from reduced transport costs and emissions to providing more densely nutritious food. 

Regenerative agriculture

Soil health — a major challenge in the face of climate change and monoculture — will be key to feeding our growing planet sustainably, experts say. A step beyond organic agriculture, regenerative agriculture focuses on methods that replenish and enrich soil, make soil resilient to droughts and floods, and even increase the nutrient output of crops. 

Jordan LeBel is excited about his work with Regeneration Canada, a non-profit organization that aims to catalyze systemic change in Canada’s agricultural and land management sectors. 

“With regenerative agriculture, animals can have a sustainable place in our system. It’s not only about not doing harm. It’s about actively restoring and healing our soils,” he says. 

Our planet is in rough shape because of harmful agricultural practices, a message LeBel is eager to get across. He’s equally passionate about proposing solutions. A recent brainstorm at a conference on living soils led the marketing expert to understand that in traditional agriculture, you pay the farmer for the product; in regenerative agriculture, you pay the farmer to take care of the soil. 

Some corporations are stepping up to the challenge. LeBel is a fan of B Corp certification, which compels profit-driven companies to “meet minimum fulfillments on key social, environmental, and in some cases, cultural metrics.” Powerful food conglomerates like General Mills include B Corp certified companies, and Danone is aiming to be entirely B Corp certified by 2025.

Retailers, too, can play a meaningful role, by asking suppliers hard questions and demanding accountability. “They’re at the end of the chain that gets food to customers,” says LeBel. “If they want sustainably sourced fish, it trickles back. If we had to investigate every purchase we made at a supermarket, it would take us a whole day just to go grocery shopping.” With the burden so heavily placed upon consumers, LeBel would like to see improvements in the areas of public policy and regulation.

With knowledge comes power

Universities can play a huge role in advancing food literacy and producing citizens who will change policy. 

Elizabeth Miller exposes her students to all kinds of ideas, from the juggernaut influence of large-scale businesses to the value of composting our own scraps. 

In summer 2020, concordia professors Elizabeth Miller and MJ Thompson taught an interdisciplinary course called Wastescapes In summer 2020, concordia professors Elizabeth Miller and MJ Thompson taught an interdisciplinary course called Wastescapes, a seven-day zero-waste bike challenge that invited students to engage critically with their own waste practices. The course also included self-guided bike tours to visit food and other waste sites around Montreal.

Miller — who spent last summer organizing bike tours of food waste sites around Montreal with MJ Thompson, associate professor in the Department of Art Education, and associate dean of Research in the Faculty of Fine Arts — likes to shake up how students absorb classroom theory. She assigns oral history projects and has received grateful notes from students who cherished the chance to record and cook a family recipe with an elder family member. 

Intergenerational flows of information are crucial to any future progress, says Miller, who relishes the aha moment when a student realizes older generations practised sustainability before the term was even invented. 

“Sometimes working in an intergenerational context can unlock a shift in thinking and a return to practices that have long been forgotten,” she adds. 

Chevrier encourages his students to increase their food autonomy by making sourdoughs and trying fermentations. “These are methods so many of us have lost over time. A lot of students don’t even cook for themselves.” 

As a communicator, Miller wants her students to understand how some colossal food systems are naturalized and perpetuated. “Corporations control media so it becomes difficult to contest the systems that commit labour injustices and generate health hazards for all of us,” she says, noting that with knowledge comes the power to disrupt these messages that entrench inequality and corruption. 

For every complex problem Miller lectures about in class, she describes multiple global campaigns working to solve it. She steers students towards collaboration, rather than competition, through projects that require trust, sharing and establishing contracts with one another. 

No matter what one person’s best practices might be, Miller wants her students to learn that systemic change only happens with collective action and cooperation. “We have to stage rehearsals of the world we want to see,” she says. “The classroom is a powerful place to do that.”



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