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|reThink news February 2012|
Issue 15 February 3, 2012
By Alice Haasdyk
Do you want to improve your memory, boost your immune system, promote weight loss or perhaps defy aging? A trip to your local grocery store will reveal miracle foods that claim to do all these and more. How do we know if these claims are valid? With tens of thousands of Canadians dying annually from diet related diseases, we are in dire need of reliable nutrition advice. Canada’s Food Guide is a tool that was developed to help Canadians navigate the muddy waters of food choices and aid in improving health with good nutrition. It also is an official document of Health Canada with wide distribution, including use as an educational tool for school children.
Canada’s Food Guide was first developed in 1942 to maximize nutrition during war time rationing. The Guide was then called Canada’s Official Food Rules. While these food rules now seem rigid and unpalatable to some (they recommended eating liver, heart or kidney once per week), they aimed to optimize the health of Canadians and reflected the importance of human effort and the power of citizenry in war times. Since those first food rules, the food guide was revised seven times – with the latest food guide released in 2007. This latest incarnation of Canada’s Food Guide still focuses on keeping Canadians healthy and was developed based on the most current nutrition research and nutrient requirements for optimal health.
A common criticism of the current food guide is that there was significant lobbying from the agri-food industry during its development. In fact, the Food Guide Advisory Committee that created the 2007 food guide included representation from some food industries (dairy and oilseeds industries, for example). A prominent position on the food guide could be a very significant promotion for a food product and a cautionary message about a food could result in lost business. A conflict of interest results when for-profit food corporations and agri-food interest groups are involved in developing the food guide as they do not prioritize the optimal health of Canadians over their sales and profit.
It has been suggested that due to interests of the food industry, the food guide does not convey a strong enough caution for some foods and ingredients. In a 2003 report of the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization (http://whqlibdoc.who.int/trs/WHO_TRS_916.pdf) foods are identified that have demonstrated effects on health. For example, fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and fish are some that have been shown to be protective of health while free sugars, processed and red meat, salt preserved foods and salt have been shown to be detrimental to health. Yet despite strong evidence showing that salt and processed meats are linked to high blood pressure and cancer, respectively, the current guide does not emphasize limiting or avoiding these foods adequately.
Another similar criticism is that the food guide does not provide Canadians with a clear message of the importance of reducing “junk” foods, processed foods or treats such as pop, salty snacks and sweet treats or desserts. These foods that are high in calories, offer little nutritional benefit and are chock full of these ingredients that are detrimental to health. As the majority of Canadians receive 25% of their calories from these very foods, some argue that the food guide should be clearer in advising Canadians to avoid such foods.
At the same time, the food guide is also criticized because it has diluted the message that encourages intake of foods that have demonstrated health-protective properties. For example, the food guide may have suggested limiting red meats and dairy, replacing them with increased intake of beans, lentils and tofu. It is possible that there was some reluctance to demonize certain foods due to pressure from the food industry.
So now that we realize that the process by which the food guide was developed was compromised by commercial conflicts of interest and the guide itself is missing some important messages, the question must be asked: is there merit in the 2007 version of Canada’s Food Guide? Is the guide just one more way that the agri-food industry has infiltrated the lives of Canadians with the intent to get us to purchase their products? Can we trust the guidance found in the food guide?
As the saying goes, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Despite its challenges, Canada’s Food Guide does have some important advice for Canadians. It recommends that our diet be based mostly on vegetables and fruits and suggests that grain products should be whole grain at least half of the time. It recommends that if you choose to eat meat you focus on lean cuts of meats that are lower in saturated fats and suggests that Canadians eat fish twice per week. It also recommends low fat dairy products. As much as these recommendations may seem like common sense, in a country where obesity and diabetes are increasing and eating habits rely more and more on fast, processed foods, the reminder is essential.
Canada’s Food Guide can be a relevant tool for Canadians to start making smart and healthy food choices. Of course there is more than one tool in the tool kit. If you don’t know what the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is, check it out: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/hbp/dash/index.htm. The diet is low in sodium, can help to limit calories and is high in fibre, protein, calcium, potassium, and magnesium – a recipe for a healthier lifestyle in addition to a means for getting blood pressure under control.
Another accompaniment to Canada’s Food Guide is the Mediterranean diet, a style of eating that focuses on plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds and has been shown to improve heart health (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/mediterranean-diet/CL00011).
And don’t forget your Registered Dietitian, a licensed nutrition professional. In Ontario you can contact a Registered Dietitian free of charge by checking out EatRight Ontario at www.eatrightontario.ca or toll-free at 1-877-510-5102.
You can also get reliable nutrition information at the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (http://www.cspinet.org/canada/) and through their fantastic magazine, the Nutrition Action Healthletter. This is an organization that works for you, the consumer by holding the government and food industry accountable for the health of Canadians and interpreting scientific research for Canadians. If you want to find out if that cereal really does boost your immune system, they will be able to point you in the right direction.
If you do want to take your nutrition seriously (and show the agri-food industry that you don’t need them) get a jump start on one of the first recommendations of Canada’s Food Guide: increase the number of vegetables and fruits that you are eating. You can do this by getting to know and support your local farmers. Visit your farmer’s market or go to Eat Local Sudbury to purchase foods raised in the Sudbury area. You can also visit www.eatlocalsudbury.com for a list of farmers in Northern Ontario. You’ll be eating more fresh vegetables and fruits and fewer processed foods and if you choose your farmers well you will also be cutting back on pesticides and chemicals. And not only will you be getting fresh, tasty foods that are good for you but you will also be saving the environment by reducing the distance your food travels.
Then go one step further and try growing some of your own food in your back yard or on your patio or balcony. If you have no space for plants look up a community garden in your neighbourhood. And whether you buy from your farmer or grow yourself, try saving some produce for the winter by freezing or canning.
Just remember, you don’t need to get all of your nutrition information in one place. Don’t let the food industry tell you what to put in your fridge. Use Canada’s Food Guide but also choose fewer processed foods and check out other reliable sources of information. Stand up to the food corporations by sitting down to eat better choices than they have to offer.
By Scott Neigh
It manages to be both obvious and difficult to wrap our minds around: In order to have a greener impact on the planet, we have to think about doing things differently far beyond the kinds of individual choices that are more green or less green but that leave the shape of our lives and communities otherwise unchanged. For instance, choosing to take public transit rather than drive on an individual occasion is certainly a positive thing, but a shift towards sustainable transportation that is sufficient in its reach and equitable in its consequences means going beyond encouraging more people to make that choice under current conditions. It also means thinking about what we need to do socially to make it more possible and more reasonable for more people to choose to take transit more of the time, probably in ways that will end up making our lives and our communities work differently than they do now.
I want to make the case that one kind of difference that can foster greener outcomes is supporting local co-operatives, which means embracing a different kind of relationship to the organizations in our community than those demanded by regular businesses. At the moment, I’m working with an organization called Eat Local Sudbury (ELS), which is organized as a co-op and is currently figuring out how to bring its ways of doing things more in line with the strengths of that particular organizational form. This means that what I have to say is largely focused on talking about the work that ELS does. However, 2012 is also the International Year of the Co-operative (see www.canada2012.coop), so it also seems like a good opportunity for people concerned with the environment to think a little more broadly about how co-ops can be part of building communities that are sustainable.
ELS has a storefront at 176 Larch Street where you can buy food that has been produced locally, in many cases using green methods. Many people who are concerned with their impacts on the earth are already aware of the benefits of eating locally. The closer food is produced to where it gets eaten, the less fossil fuel it requires to get it from farm to table, which is good for the environment. The money paid for local food is more likely to go to support producers who have smaller operations and who are part of our communities, rather than huge businesses. When food is local, it is often possible to have a much better idea of how it was produced in terms of processes, environmental impacts, and the wellbeing of the animals and people involved. More of the money spent on local food stays in the community, as the producers in turn pay workers and buy supplies closer to home.
The benefits of buying local food are many, but those of you who shop at ELS already know that a commitment to eating locally means making some changes in how we relate to buying food. Given how busy our lives are and the ever-increasing pressures to work more and more to make ends meet, it is no wonder that the pull of supermarket buying is so strong – one-stop shopping to get whatever we need, and if the food we buy comes from 3000 km away and we don’t really know what happened to it before it got to us, well, we’re too busy to do too much about it.
An outlet that focuses on local food, in contrast, cannot have everything and cannot be a one-stop solution. ELS is working all the time to expand the range of products that it offers, but there are lots of foods that are simply not produced near Sudbury or even in Ontario, or that are available only at certain times of year. Moreover, dealing with small, local producers rather than massive, transcontinental supply chains means that not everything will be available all of the time. Our local environment has rhythms, people’s work has rhythms, and to buy locally we need to recognize that our buying and eating need to have some rhythms too. Eating local means making changes in our lives beyond picking X over Y.
There are other aspects of ensuring there is local food on your table that are less visible. Any food that you buy not only has to be produced by someone and sold by someone, but it also has to get between the producer and the seller. Industrial agriculture has large-scale distribution systems that span continents already in place. Yet the infrastructure to get food from the farmer down the road to your table is still developing. In fact, it is one of the priorities of a newly-formed provincial network of local food co-ops to figure out how best to support the growth of robust local food distribution systems – how to fill in the “missing middle,” to use one of the buzzwords. Though it is not usually visible to people who want local produce, local meats, or local processed food, doing this means making new connections, building new relationships, and figuring out new ways of doing things. That is, it is another way that having greener impacts requires making changes and doing work that is social.
Eat Local Sudbury
My role at ELS is to contribute to a process of organizational development which, in part, involves shifting how we do things to be more in line with the fact that we are a co-operative. As the work has unfolded, it has become clearer and clearer that the way we need to think about it is “different food in different ways” or even “better food in better ways.” The co-operative form offers advantages that will allow the local food system in Sudbury to grow and thrive in the years to come.
Despite the fact that many Canadians are members of co-operatives, whether it is their community credit union or a retail giant like Mountain Equipment Co-op – as well as, of course, ELS – many of us do not really know what they are or how they work. While different co-ops can look and operate very differently, all are enterprises that are owned and democratically controlled by the people whose participation as consumers, producers, or workers, or some combination, make the organization a reality. There are co-ops that engage in almost every kind of activity, not just retail and financial services but also childcare, agriculture, manufacturing, and much more.
Rather than being legally obligated to focus entirely on maximizing profit for shareholders, co-ops are organized around meeting the shared needs of members. Rather than being controlled by whoever has dollars to sink into an organization, co-ops are governed on a one member/one vote basis. The guiding principles of co-operatives mandate attention to social and community needs. Their democratic, member-controlled structure allows for a kind of responsiveness to the needs of the ordinary people who constitute them and the communities that nurture them that massive businesses simply cannot match.
The key to a vibrant co-operative, particularly a smaller one, is a mobilized and engaged membership. Though co-ops have to navigate many of the same pressures as for-profit businesses, their commitments to organizational democracy, to the wellbeing of members, and to strengthening community mean that active participation by members – or member-owners, as they are sometimes called – plays a much more significant role in shaping co-ops and driving them forward than the relationship between a consumer and a business.
Within those broad parameters, different co-operatives can do their work in many different ways. Currently, ELS is organized as a hybrid of a producer co-op and a consumer co-op – a joint, co-operative venture between those who produce food locally and those who wish to buy local food. In the coming months, we want to get people talking about what it might look like to get member-owners more actively involved in making decisions, promoting local food, engaging the broader community, and bringing ELS to life, in a way that fulfills the co-operative goals of democracy, support of members, and strengthening community. We envision an organization that is community controlled, community supported, and not dependent on grant funding for survival. We imagine building a dynamic, responsive local food distribution system that is networked with such systems elsewhere in Ontario, and we imagine turning more and more people on to the advantages – personal, environmental, community – of eating local food.
If you aren’t an ELS member, I encourage you to become one. If you haven’t bought food at our store, or you haven’t done so recently, I encourage you to come in and take a look. And if you are a member, I encourage you to become part of the conversations that will shape ELS’ co-operative future. ELS members are invited to come to the Environmental Resource Centre (176 Larch Street, back entrance) from 1-3pm on Saturday, March 3 or 7-9pm on Thursday, March 8 to learn about co-ops, to offer your input as ELS changes, and to start thinking about how you can be a part of those changes.
By: Arik Theijsmeijer, reThink Green Vice-Chair and FedNor Agri-Food Lead for Northern Ontario
When I eat chocolate now, and especially at Valentine’s Day, I often think about a cocoa farmer I met last year named Mr. Eladio Pop in the village of San Pedro Columbia, in Belize, Central America. He was probably the happiest and most peaceful man I’ve ever met. I think of him at Valentine’s Day partly because I also spent time with his wife and 17 kids. There was a lot of love in that family!
Last February I had the chance to visit his small cocoa (cacao) farm, along with other small coffee, orange, and sugar cane farms in Guatemala and Belize, as part of an Agricultural Study Tour. Eladio’s farm is called the “Agouti Cacao Farm”, and it’s really more of a rainforest than a farm. Gringos like us probably wouldn’t have even realized it is a farm, as we hiked through its 31 acres of beautiful jungle he pointed out more than 40 different products he harvests from different plants and trees on his property.
The main product though, the one he actually sells, is cacao. He actually has a fair trade contract as part of a local grower’s association, that consolidates their product and ships it to Britain for processing and sale internationally (yes even in Canada) as part of Green & Black’s organic chocolate line (link includes a video about Eladio’s association on the Green & Black website).
Eladio grew up near that property, though his father wasn’t a farmer himself. What makes Eladio so happy is that he loves his work so much. Eladio takes a spiritual approach, praying as he maintains the forest/farm with the cacao trees growing under the larger shade trees (cacao trees like part-shade). He prides himself on his relationship with his land and the forest on it; joyful in its energy. He sees himself as more custodian than farmer, preserving the biodiversity of the rainforest above all. He plants trees for shade and wildlife habitat as much as for products that can be harvested. The agouti, the squirrel-like rodents after whom the farm is named, are just one example of a helper that provide fertilizer and seed planting for him.
After our tour of the forest/farm, we helped his wife roast, shell, and grind a basket of dried cacao beans. With hot water and sugar it was an incredibly rich and delicious hot cocoa drink. We had the chance to buy crafts that the family had made. The kids loved seeing pictures of our own families, especially those showing the snow we had back in Canada (only a 50 degree temperature difference between the two places at the time). I brought a chunk of cacao paste back to Canada and made a batch of cocoa for my own family.
We weren’t the first ones to visit of course, this is what they call “sustainable agri-tourism”. Supplementing his farm income with ‘tourist’ visits is a big help to their family.
I paint a rosy picture, though don’t get me wrong he works very hard farming and gardening all by hand. Their family doesn’t have much, just a simple shelter where they all sleep in one big room. Eladio definitely doesn’t think about productivity and global markets as much as we would. He only leases most of his land from the government.
There is debate about fair trade and how fair it is, and there are now corporate efforts by the biggest companies in the world to consider farmers welfare as part of their product value-chain.
My point though is that there is a real person somewhere who was responsible for growing every bite of food you eat. It could be someone that loves what they do, and just wants to keep doing it. So to me it’s worth thinking about our choices, about where our food comes from. Maybe you too can now think of Mr. Eladio Pop, praying and joyful as tends his cacao trees and provides for his family.