Thank goodness I don’t have to spend 40 days in this food desert

By Maggie Knight

It feels strange to write about food security and food sovereignty from what is essentially a food desert. Food–good, local, sustainably-produced, and affordable food–is incredibly important to me, and there isn’t much of that to be had around here. Food is central not only to physical sustenance, but to the essence of culture and community. Sometimes I wonder how much more effective negotiators would be if they were eating food that wasn’t so incredibly irrelevant to the local context.

For my undergrad Honours thesis, I’m studying food security policy in my hometown of Victoria, BC. There are four aspects of food security–socioeconomic access to sufficient amounts of culturally appropriate food, reliable access to food which is healthy and safe, resilience to shocks (e.g. climate change, floods, oil price spikes, etc.), and regional food self-sufficiency. Food sovereignty adds a political element regarding who has control over the land and what it produces.

While Vancouver Island used to produce 90% of its own food, it now produces only about 9% and is very dependent on the ferry system, having only three days’ worth of food on the Island at any time. Victoria also has a considerable homeless population and lack of affordable housing, which contribute to problems of a different kind of food security. As development pressures increase in the Victoria area, there is considerable debate about the importance of maintaining current levels of agricultural production when property values continue to be very high and there is demand for more residential housing.

Yet Vancouver Island is vibrant with local food initiatives (too numerous to mention here!) which celebrate the foodscape of the Pacific NorthWest. By contrast, this environmental conference is ironically cut off from all sense of the local foodscape. The fare available at the two conference venues does not have a Mexican flair (although croissants, espresso, and various typical Western and Asian meals abound). It’s also ridiculously expensive–80 pesos (a little under $8) for a sandwich or 60 pesos for a (largeish) slice of pizza. I considered it a great breakthrough when I managed to find a (small) plate of grilled vegetables and a (small) plate of cheesy mashed potatoes for 50 pesos each.

I’ve been spending most of my time here at the conference, leaving early after a small breakfast at the hostel and (after a trip to the grocery store this weekend) making it through the day on a homemade sandwich, muffins, or fruit. This is a drastic improvement on last week, when I never seemed to be home in time to make it to the grocery store and subsisted mostly on pizza of various degrees of greasiness. Luckily I haven’t gotten sick yet from anything I’ve eaten, but some of my fellow delegates have. So as far as the first two aspects of food security go, and any suggestion of food sovereignty, the UNFCCC is unfortunately failing dismally.

But I’m not writing this just to complain about the packaged, expensive nature of conference food. I’m writing to remind myself of all the beauty and importance of understanding where your food is coming from and how you fit into the foodscape. I spent a month this past summer eating only food from Quebec (where I live to attend university). While challenging at times and not practical for my busier term-time schedule, I felt wonderful. My boyfriend and I explored the local farmers markets, made time to make everything from scratch out of necessity, explored new recipes, and had a good time (and a lot of delicious pies). We also like to think that we impressed our friends with our Quebec-only pizza. We spent more money on food, but saved money on other forms of entertainment because we were having such a good time staying home to experiment in the kitchen.

We should care more about our food. It’s not just the massive peasant movement which has converged here in Cancun that has food sovereignty to fight for. Across Canada, local food movements are building momentum to build stronger regional agricultural systems and remind people how good food tastes when it doesn’t come out of a package. As the negotiations heat up, I’m only sure about one thing–whatever comes out at the end, I’m going to mourn or celebrate over a steaming bowl of delicious homemade local soup.

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