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  • Vicky Huang

Practicing Engagement: Food Justice (Project Serve Spring Program 2019)


Published to bMarch 22, 2020 - but written on November 12, 2019:


This week is International Education Week! Hahaha it so happens that I'm in Beijing still, writing to y'all :P


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Here's a link to my facebook post, complete with 22 pictures & videos from the trip! :)

This past April, the week after exams - after I finished my final year of undergrad! - I got the opportunity to spend a week on the Project Serve Food Justice Spring Program in Guelph. I've participated in Project Serve programs all four years of my university life, but this one was my last (although my first Spring Program). It seemed only natural for me to go on this program; after all, food sustainability, accessibility, sovereignty, security, and justice are all topics that I feel strongly about and try to educate folks (including and especially my own self) on.

Trust me though, I have not always been conscious around the impacts and importances of food. Before university, I was just a happy-go-lucky gal who ate a whoole lot of everything (my family literally called me a "rice bucket (ι₯­ζ‘Ά)" because I loved and ate so much rice (I still do LOL)); never picky but also never really gave a second thought to where my food came from, and why that mattered. It tasted good, everything tasted good, and that was the end. Although I was still strongly against wasting food, that was as far as my ethical and environmental perspective went.


Food justice was something I'd only started thinking about in university. In first-year, I was honoured to have a roomate who was vegetarian-transitioning-to-vegan; she became a great friend and one of the first people who made me really think about the impacts of my food choices. After 17 years of brushing those impacts off, I felt so empowered when I realized that by simply pointing my finger at another dish in the cafeteria, I could make a difference. How was I, a self-proclaimed environmentalist who'd been part of eco-teams the past 6 years, to brush off the environmental impacts of my personal actions three times every single day? I've always prided myself on living by my values, and if sustainability is to be an important value of mine (which it is), then my actions - including my food choices - needed to reflect that too.

So, thus began my one-year-long transition from omnivore to flexitarian to vegan, which I've been now for over three years. Every meal I am reminded of my stand for a sustainable planet, which has not only motivated me to educate myself, but to positively empower and educate those around me as well, through various clubs and initiatives. While it's so easy to just pretend that there's nothing wrong and your actions are tiny and don't actually make a difference (positive or negative), let me tell you this - it's not as hard to unpretend ;)


BUT - oof, I still had (and have) so much that I was pretending! You know, it's very easy when you're a-little-educated about a topic, to let your ego say "well look at you, you're more informed than other people, you're doing great, good enough!" and to just think you know it all. It takes stepping outside your comfort zone to learn and question even more, however much you love the topic.


I consistently observe that we like to feel satisfied with simply knowing that something is an issue; to use the fact that we are aware of the issue's existence as an excuse to not need to know more about it. "Oh, I know that there are people suffering from food insecurity." "Oh, I know that food waste is an issue." "Oh, I know that indigenous people aren't treated very well, that there are missing and murdered indigenous women, that their water quality is not held to provincial standards." "Oh, I know that homelessness, that poverty, that unaffordable housing is a thing." "Ah yes, I know that wars in other countries are bad and exist." β€œMmm, yes, we do produce a lot of garbage don't we."


Most people stop there. As if knowing that something is an issue is enough. As if knowing that a problem exists is enough awareness. But...a gentle reminder 😜 awareness doesn't equal engagement, doesn't equal action.


Most don't consider going deeper - *why* is this an issue in the first place *What* causes it? *How* did it come about, what *actually* happened and is happening? *Why* is it important? *Who* does it impact? How many people, where, *how* does it impact them? How does it affect my daily life, or that of others? How does it tie into other systems? And what is actually an effective way to make a difference?


The next time you brush a topic away simply because you know of its existence, ask yourself if you really understand it, and if not - take the opportunity, open your mind to learn about it. πŸ™‚ Question it. Think about it.


Hahaha, even though I say these things, I need to take my own advice too. For example, sometimes I pretend that I know what sustainable eating is, that because I know my actions make a difference, that because I'm eating plant-based, that because I know that food waste and insecurity and inaccessibility are issues..."I'm good".


But let me tell you - I learned so much during my Project Serve Spring Program. Although I've done a lot of work on sustainability and food-related topics, there were still things I was misinformed about. I saw how there were so many variables in determining a "just" food choice, and different ways where what appears more sustainable or "better" may not even be. For example, the hours that local farmers drive every day to farmers' markets or that people drive to local farms (i.e. to pick up weekly produce) may use more fuel for transportation than if that same produce was transported in mass/bulk. More sustainable options are often less accessible (i.e. distance and cost-wise) and can be hard to support even if the consumer wishes to support it. "Whole" foods does not mean that it's ethical, nor does "local" automatically mean more sustainable; the sole fact that it is less processed or grown closer has nothing to do with its farming practices. To sell in Guelph (or any) grocery chain stores, produce from Guelph (or any) farms need to be transported to Toronto's Ontario Food Terminal, just to be counterintuitively transported back to Guelph again, because grocery stores can't buy directly from farmers. A fully plant-based crop field doesn't necessarily mean it's more sustainable than one with animals - in fact, a farm can't be sustainable without any animals at all; vital aspects in determining sustainability are beyond just the crop types, but include farming practice, processing methods, and transportation methods too. And so. many. more.

I learned that a lot of times, the culprits aren't "them" but rather, us. How a third of what gets produced doesn't even get eaten. How around half of the waste in restaurants is "plate waste": food that we don't finish. How in Canada, 47% of all food waste occurs *at home*.


I learned that many regulations make it hard to be sustainable. Sometimes, these regulations are sensible (in the most frustrating way lool). Like how it's policy in nursing homes to give the seniors choice in their meal (makes sense), so they need to prepare enough food each day in advance to account for each senior choosing any of the options. How everybody needs to receive a fully-nutritionally-complete meal in full portion sizes, even though the seniors consistently barely finish (and the workers know it). Sometimes, they're non-sensible. Like redundant trade, for instance our agreement with Europe to trade beef with beef, so that we get "European beef" while they get "Canadian beef." Sometimes, they're misleading. Like how there are two types of dates on food; one for the distributor to know when to sell by (often encoded to prevent consumer confusion), and one for the consumers to indicate when it's 'guaranteed fresh' by. In other words, passing a "Best Before" date simply indicates that the product might lose some freshness and flavour - nothing to do with the food's actual safety. Yet, it makes up 60% of why people throw out (good) food. How expiry dates, on the other hand, are the dates that correlate to food safety - and how only 5 items in Canada require an actual expiry date (i.e. infant formula). And sometimes, regulations are just plain sad. Like how in many places, restaurants and grocery stores don't donate extra food due to standards and concerns regarding food safety and health, resulting in immense amounts of waste. Like how there is so much public support and recognition for food banks, even though at their core, they're only a band-aid solution that is neither sustainable nor a way to create real change. For example, the Guelph Food Bank overpowers all the other local food-related initiatives (that are trying to shift away from a charity model) in terms of resources and support, because policy only allows one single 'official' food bank in the city.


I learned about the myth of consumer choice, about permaculture and ecological gardening, about day-to-day tweaks that can reduce my ecological 'food'print. I learned how to make and preserve applesauce, how and why to trellis tomatoes (basically tie them to the roof of a greenhouse), and how to unravel huge hay bales [see pictures :PP].


But most of all, I saw how there were so, so many things that we don't even understand yet - that nobody does, and that we're trying to figure out. There are honestly oftentimes more questions than answers. Should we put more effort on making a food-systems change a responsibility on the individual level, or on a government level? How do you even know the farming practices used for a stalk of broccoli at your local store? Shouldn't public services that are funded by our tax money be for the better public good? And if so, what is the role of the public sector - our healthcare and hospitals, schools, jails, institutions - on the link between food, learning, and health? Why are hospital food options not designed to be the healthiest options, when they're at the core of healthcare? Why do corporations not educate consumers on the huge misunderstanding over best-before dates? Why is public policy impeding the sharing of food and cultural knowledge, instead of facilitating it? Why?


In some ways, there are historical and political contexts around this. For instance, World War II hardships left families wanting to feel secure, and having food was part of that. After the war periods, food was not to be a worry anymore. Industrialization and the Green Revolution came about, and food was produced at rates never seen before. Consumers started expecting produce all year-round. Portion sizes steadily increased dramatically. Governments found opportunities in the food system. I learned how governmental policies and regulations played a huge role in shifting food preferences and usage. Like when fat was deemed detrimental to health and milk was increasingly skimmed, the large amounts of fat left over were turned into cheese, its market pushed by the government and happily consumed by the public. Like when corn became easy and cheap to grow, was then heavily subsidized by the government, overproduced and as a result, and put into almost-literally everything - from hot dogs to pop drinks to fuel, dog food, toothpaste. But many times, it is ultimately institutions and corporations who are heavily influencing our relationships to food. These contexts are usually hidden from our day-by-day view.


As a society, we are getting more and more removed from our food. We don't see the food until it's put in front of us, until it's perfect. We are increasingly furthering ourselves from the raw material. Whereas it was essential before, most of us nowadays don't know how to turn raw material into food. Not only do we not see it being sown, grown, harvested, processed, washed, packaged, and transported...the newest trend is that we don't even need to cook it ourselves. Food delivery services, although convenient, are removing us even more from our food. If I showed you a chicken, would you be able to tell me which part of the wing you eat? If I asked you what an almond looks like on a tree, would you be able to tell me? If I asked you how bananas, ginger, broccoli, peanuts grow - would you know? I can tell you that I sadly can't answer all of them either.


We need to teach cooking skills. We need to re-instill the value of food back into our lives, to view food not just as its physicality, but as creations that fuel us, make us grow, let us spend time with friends and families, let us connect with others, let us smile and laugh and lick our lips. As creations that enrich us socially, culturally, and emotionally. Food comes from the earth, from water, sunlight, air, soil, nutrients, from time and care and love and *work* - not from plastic packaging and paper boxes and machines. We need to reclaim our relationship with food. 🌿


Don't get me wrong, there is great progress. There is great movement. There are great folks doing great work to increase food accessibility, security and sustainability. During the week, we all got the honour to meet some of these folks. The closest to home, our own Hospitality Services UofG, showed us how they are a (rare) leader in university-level food sustainability. Their partnership with the Guelph Centre for Urban Organic Farming, our 1-hectare certified organic farm right on campus, means that some foods are only 924m from farm to table. The farm then composts our on-campus coffee grinds and food scraps, using them to grow more food for our students - a pride-worthy circular economy. We visited The SEED Community Food Project in Guelph, who (amongst many other initiatives) puts on a weekly community food market, working to increase access and affordability of fresh produce through a sliding scale pay-what-you-can system. We spent a day at 10C Shared Space, where we had insightful group reflections and learned how to build self-watering container gardens that promote urban agriculture (and also where I became so inspired by their space that I applied and worked there this past summer :'D). We visited Zocalo Farms and the North End Harvest Market, where I felt how much hard, hard work it is to grow and provide food. I also learned how costly and hard it is to become organically certified, and how many smaller-scale farms can't afford to be certified, even though they're pretty much organic in every other way. In Toronto, we went to the Black Creek Community Farm and The Black Farmers Collective Toronto, two farms at the forefront of grassroots, urban food justice. I saw how many farms have created produce subscription programs, allowing local households to buy a weekly box of produce from them directly. And of course, we also made a stop (:P) at The Stop Community Food Centre, a foodbank-turned-community-hub and leader in promoting food skills, food access, and food literacy.

Aaaaah - speaking of food literacy. 🍏 This is a topic that I do feel strongly about, because it's so important yet so undervalued. Food literacy to me can be summarized as understanding your food's "story" so that you can make informed food choices. To me, it includes knowing how/where/when to source, access, select, store, prepare and eat good, healthy, quality, safe, nutritious and affordable food - all the while working within your socioeconomic status. It includes knowing how to cook efficiently, nutritionally, and flexibly. Knowing the values of different types of food, and how to stay healthy even on a budget. Being able to cook for yourself with what's available, without always being constrained to a recipe book. It is resilience and empowerment to maintain a positive lifelong relationship with food. And it's not taught.


Not really. Sure, it's kind-of taught in our homes, by our family, if we're lucky enough. There are nutrition classes in high schools and food science classes at universities, if we take them. For most people though, it's taught experientially, culturally, personally. I remember watching my mom cook every day after school, mesmerized with her chopping skills while she told me about the different ways she does her kitchen-magic. I remember being so proud of my first meals I made, and my countless mistakes which then became the foundation to my love of cooking (and experimenting ;D). But with the ever-increasing fast-paced world, we are spending less and less time with food, learning about food, appreciating the value of food. The food-human relationship is strained. And to be honest, I'm uncertain what the future of this relationship holds.


πŸ‘ We πŸ‘ need πŸ‘ to πŸ‘ shift πŸ‘ values. πŸ‘


From profit to wellbeing. From quantity to quality. From convenience to mindfulness. From detachment to understanding. From short-term gains to sustainability.


We need to understand that our expectation for all food to be perfect, pretty, always-available, long-lasting, cheap, and convenient comes at a huge price. The price of the environment, our healthcare, our personal and community well-being. A price money can't pay back.


We need to understand that we as a society, have many misconceptions about food. Illusions about food. Ignorance about food. Ideals about food. That our current food system is heavily flawed.


We need to understand that...we can change this. πŸ™‚ We can shift values. We can learn and unlearn. We can create new social norms. New policies. New initiatives. New practices. We have so much more power than we think, and our day-to-day actions affect so much more than we know. Whether that be being more creative and cooking with whatever you have, being more aware of what's in your fridge and creating an 'eat me first!' bin, looking at food labels to better understand what you buy, looking into and supporting your local food-initiatives, taking home leftovers, scoping out resources, visiting your local farm, starting a backyard compost bin or a small garden, sticking to your shopping lists and decreasing impulse-shopping, or simply not turning a blind eye and starting conversations about food - be empowered. ⭐

Like I said, we walk around as if knowing that something "is an issue" is good enough. I openly admit that I do too, with many issues. It's just so easy to! I'm not blaming anyone here - there are legitimate reasons why: you may not have the time, the energy, the interest, the resources, the opportunities, the privilege to learn more. Definitely not an easy feat! But maybe a deeper reason why is because in most cases, being aware of the problem is enough to seem like you care, to feel socially 'cultured', and to discontinue the conversation.


But it's not enough to make change.


Stopping at awareness and staying in your comfort zone may feel good.


But trust me, not stopping there...feels even better. :D


Friends, I am sooo, so, so, so, so not perfect - nobody can be - really! If everyone was conscious of everything they did and all of its impacts all of the time and aware of all the issues in the world and left to figure out how to leave only positive impacts and do zero harm and be a good and responsible citizen in all of the ways, well, we would just over-overwhelm ourselves and never do anything. Except that also has an impact - so really, we just couldn't live. There is no way on Earth that we can be knowledged on every single issue in the world...but surely, we can give an open learning mind to one issue, right? Most people have issues that they know exist and matter, but have little real knowledge about (an example off the top of my own head, issues with the welfare system), right? We often both come across and are able to create (!!) opportunities to learn more about our world, whether through a screen, paper, or in-person. Each time, we have the decision to engage and learn more - however deep or shallow.


Haha, did I say that I 'was' a happy-go-lucky gal who ate a whoole lot? Well, to clarify - I still am. :P I just...do so a bit more mindfully now. 😌 My rice still uses water, energy, fuel, hard labour during its growth, harvest, processing, transportation, packaging and cooking. There's no way to do zero harm, no way to make sure that your choices are the best. But what you *can* do, is just be a little bit more mindful. A little bit more aware, more knowledged, more present.


And if you have the privilege to be that much or little bit more educated (because it is a privilege to have more knowledge!) - what are you waiting for? π—¨π˜€π—² π—Άπ˜. :')


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#foodjustice #foodeducation #foodsustainability #foodsecurity #foodaccessibility #foodsovereignty #foodliteracy #foodsystems #experientiallearning #communityengagement #socialjustice #projectserveuofg


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Thank you soooooo so much to everyone who read this far ❀ Really :') I feel like I could go on about food forever. LOL!


⭐ If you'd like an experience of a lifetime during your Reading Week or the week after exams, make sure to check out Project Serve and their programs!! πŸ”₯πŸ”₯ I've personally been on three of the four Reading Week programs, and I can say that they have been priceless to my university experience. (And yes -- any Guelph student, including Masters students, can apply!!) This year, they have a brand new Climate Justice program that I am soooo jelllyyy about - I would looove to live and attend vicariously through one of you! :'D


Here's a link to learn more: https://www.uoguelph.ca/studentexperience/experiences/project-serve-reading-week


Experiential learning from the community itself is a gem that is so rare. I want to give a most heartfelt thank you to all of my fellow Project Serve teammates, the people behind the scenes who organized the program, and the leaders who have guided us to reflect and learn. ❀ Through Mississippi, Vancouver, Nawash and then Guelph, thank you for teaching me things I would've never learned elsewhere. 😌


(remember to check out my facebook post for descriptions of all my pictures and videos, I promise they're a good time 😝)