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  • Photograph by Chain Reaction Urban Farm

Canada must 'grow' its capacity for health and food security

Fruits and vegetables, the necessary foods that keep us healthy, are getting more expensive all the time. Hyper-processed foods, on the other hand, are too cheap. The game is rigged for unhealthy diets in Canada.

A trip down the produce aisle at your local grocery store comes complete with sticker shock these days.  As the Canadian dollar decreases in value relative to American imports, fruits and vegetables from California are increasing in cost. It takes more and more each month to buy the foods our bodies need. But what is the real cost of what people are eating?

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My office at Station 20 West in Saskatoon is above the now-closed Good Food Junction. The empty shelves are a reminder of the challenges so many face to access healthy food. People in this neighbourhood are now back to choosing between convenience stores and fast food outlets, or else make the long trip to distant grocery stores.

"The unhealthy reality of highly processed foods is that we are consuming them anywhere and everywhere."

Just a block or two away there are convenience stores and burger joints open all-night. There are vending machines in the local gas station, the hospital down the street and other nearby locations — so food is definitely available in the purely technical sense. But access to food that's  technically edible, and even tastes okay, does not make someone food secure.

Food Secure Canada recently released a Food and Nutrition Fact Sheet about the alarming implications of eating the wrong foods. Obesity, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and diabetes are among the leading causes of death. They found unhealthy diets to be the single highest risk for death and disability in 2013, estimated to have caused more than 50,000 deaths, 890,000 years of disability and 710,000 years shaved off of life spans.

One of the main reasons for poor diets in Canada is the overconsumption of hyper-processed foods. Most of us don’t eat enough ‘whole foods’ with the nutrients, vitamins and fiber our body needs. We fill in too many meals and snacks with ‘convenience foods’ that often contain lots of dense, empty calories. The unhealthy reality of highly processed foods is that we are consuming them anywhere and everywhere – in fast-food restaurants, at home in the microwave in place of food we cook ourselves, while watching television or Netflix, at a desk, and while driving. The research done to date shows clear linkages between these eating habits, and negative health outcomes including mortality rates.

Unhealthy diets cause our individual health to suffer in lots of ways, but they also have major costs for our communities, and even all of Canada. We know health care costs are higher than average for the four million Canadians in food insecurity, that have greater financial constraints and less access to the sorts of whole, fibrous foods that support a healthy life. 

"Increased food security through policy and programs that link health, agriculture and the environment can happen only if Canadians make sure this new government follows through on this commitment."

I joined the Saskatoon Food Council to work on these issues because while the challenges are rooted in an international system, the solutions can often be local. There’s so much we can do on the community level to improve these situations and make it easier for people to eat the foods that keep us healthy — even on the individual level. 

1. Educate.  Support programs that teach school children about the nutritional contents of food and the importance of a good diet to a healthy life — initiatives like Agriculture in the Classroom and CHEP Good Food Inc. are inspiring local examples, and there are others all over Canada. Be an informed eater, know where your food comes from and what your food choices will mean for your health.

2. Advocate. Talk to politicians about the importance of healthy food.  Before the next provincial election (April 4, 2016) ask candidates how they support good food policies and let them know you will vote accordingly!  Come out to the Eat Think Vote event March 14 at 7 pm at the Saskatoon Farmers Market, where you can engage with MLA candidates on issues of food security.  Promote food friendly City of Saskatoon policies by talking to City Councillors – now and in the months before our next civic election in fall, 2016.  Attend meetings hosted by the Saskatoon Food Council to learn more and to engage with political candidates.

3. ‘Grow’ your own capacity. Buy a freezer or raise a garden if you have the space, for cheaper and more reliable access to whole foods. If you don’t have the space, community gardens may be an option — CHEP is a good source of information on how to join one.

4. Buy local. Canada has so many rich agricultural traditions to take advantage of. Farmers across the country, and especially in the prairies grow nutritious and fibrous crops like lentils, beans and chickpeas — pulse crops like these are extremely affordable too. Seek out local growers at your local farmers’ market if you live near one, or ask for them at the grocery store. Support local businesses that grow healthy foods. In Saskatchewan, two great examples of these are Floating Gardens and Chain Reaction Urban Farm.

There are some encouraging signals coming from the recently elected federal government, like how they expect the new Minister of Agriculture to work with Canadians on developing a national food policy. Increased food security through policy and programs that link health, agriculture and the environment can happen only if Canadians make sure this new government follows through on this commitment.

 

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Gord Enns is the Executive Director of the Saskatoon Food Council.  He has worked for more than 25 years at issues of food and food security, including community development work in Zimbabwe, working as an agrologist for Saskatchewan Agriculture, and establishing the Canadian branch of Heifer Project International www.heifercanada.org. He supports local businesses growing healthy food.

Cover image courtesy of Quint Development.

 

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