Canada's Condominium Magazine

Local Food Bill highlights complexity of rich/poor divide

Kathleen Wynne, premier of Ontario and also the province’s minister of agriculture, re-introduced a bill on Monday that was drafted last fall when Dalton McGuinty was still premier. His proroguing of parliament put the bill to sleep for the winter, but now it’s back. The Local Food Bill is supposed to increase local food awareness and increase access to it wherever people buy food and eat: markets, schools, cafeterias, grocery stores restaurants, hospitals.

Studies show that people with lower socio-economic standing make poorer food choices because they can’t afford the more expensive fresh fruits and vegetables. But there’s also the fact that people, especially kids, like junk food.

One of the reasons, perhaps the primary one, that the government wants the bill to pass is that it will help farmers, and the economy. A think tank, the Martin Prosperity Institute, that studies the role of location and cities in global economic prosperity, said that if every household in Ontario spent $10 a week on local food, it would add $2.4 billion to the economy. Dalton McGuinty used slightly different numbers when he was promoting the bill last fall: he said “If everyone bought an additional $200 worth of local food it would create $2.4 billion worth of economic activity and contribute an additional $2 billion to the Ontario economy.”

How important is agriculture to the economy? A government fact sheet says that agriculture and food processing together have annual sales of more than $30 billion, making it the second-largest goods producing sector in Ontario. More than 700,000 jobs depend on it. About half of what is produced in Ontario is exported.

One fact that stands out is that North Americans pay less for food than people anywhere else in the world. Canadians spend about one-eighth of every dollar—12.5 cents—on food and groceries.

But how do we spend that 12.5 cents? For many years now, sociologists, psychologists, nutritionists and others have studied the connection between food and class. That connection between food and class, we can guarantee, will not be raised in any debate that might take place at Queen’s Park about this Local Food Bill, or any other bill. It is, as they say, the elephant in the room. And a bigger than average elephant it is.

A typical entry in the literature is an article published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, titled, “Does social class predict diet quality?” The article  makes the following statement:

A large body of epidemiologic data show that diet quality follows a socioeconomic gradient. Whereas higher-quality diets are associated with greater affluence, energy-dense diets that are nutrient-poor are preferentially consumed by persons of lower socioeconomic status (SES) and of more limited economic means.

To translate this into the vernacular, here is what a Newsweek essay from 2010 said about the same subject:

But modern America is a place of extremes, and what you eat for dinner has become the definitive marker of social status; as the distance between rich and poor continues to grow, the freshest, most nutritious foods have become luxury goods that only some can afford.

Newsweek, “Divided We Eat”

The socio-economic argument—poorer people eat poorly because they can’t afford the higher-priced fresh fruits and vegetables—gets some support from a Dutch study of consumers’ buying habits.

This six-month controlled study found that reducing the price of fruits and vegetables in supermarkets led to significantly higher purchases. The study, though limited in scope, nevertheless led to the conclusion that discounting fruits and vegetables “is a promising intervention strategy” because it was observed to encourage higher purchases of those items. “Therefore, pricing strategies form an important focus for future intervention policy.”

Isn’t it odd that there has never in history been more food available to more people, yet many are starving and many others are eating poorly? Obesity and diabetes are the defining diseases of our time. This topsy-turvy reality we live in has a lot to do with agri-business and its priorities, which are not necessarily consonant with the interests of consumers. An epidemiologist who has studied Americans’ eating behaviour says that lower-income families choose sugary, fatty processed foods because they are cheaper, and they taste good. And that is the way they are designed by the food industry.

You can get good local produce if you want to pay for it—there’s a thriving local farmer working out of a rooftop greenhouse in Brooklyn, New York, selling hydroponically grown spinach and lettuce to New York restaurants, for example—but that doesn’t help the low-income single mom at the supermarket down the street where it’s cheaper to buy a tin of something than a bunch of fresh spinach (which her kids might not like anyway).

As the locavore Michael Pollan puts it, “Essentially we have a system where wealthy farmers feed the poor crap and poor farmers feed the wealthy high-quality food.”

No less a healthy-food advocate than Michelle Obama seems to understand the problem.  She has made healthy eating one of her signature causes as First Lady of the US. One of the problems that has to be solved is the existence of so-called “food deserts,” those areas in many urban centres around the US (and we assume Canada) where it is impossible to find healthy food. Speaking about this, Michelle Obama said, “We can give people all of the information and advice in the world about healthy eating and exercise. But if parents can’t buy the food they need to prepare those meals … then all that is just talk.”

There’s more to this problem than economics, though. As Jamie Oliver famously discovered when he tried to get school children to eat healthier foods, often they just don’t like them, or even recognize what they are. Kids prefer chips and pizza slices to apples and grapes, and you really can’t force people to do what’s “good” for them.

A great place for information about growing food yourself, in the city, can be found here at Get Growing Toronto.

Auberge on the Park-Tridel


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