Monday, December 11, 2006

Food Charters

Less than a century ago, we ate what we could grow locally. By this time of year, pantry shelves would be crammed with mason jars of preserved fruit, pickles and vegetables, while the root cellar would be full of potatoes, squash and other produce that would keep over the long winter months. The idea of eating fresh strawberries, or any other fresh fruit in December, was simply unheard of.

Today the world is our oyster, kiwi, kumquat, or whatever exotic food we choose to consume. However, with that global diversity comes a fundamental instability. Unlike our ancestors, we have very little food security because we have no control over where, how and when our food is grown. A catastrophic event on the other side of the globe could easily jeopardize our food supply. (Those old enough to remember might recall the killer frost in Florida many years ago that wiped out much of the state's orange groves and sent the cost of orange juice skyrocketing.)

In order to have food security, we first have to acknowledge the vital role that food plays in our lives. Next to air and water, food is critical to our survival. Despite this, we consistently fail to institutionalize the protection of our food system.

As Dr. Wayne Roberts points out, within the Canadian framework, there isn't a single department, within any level of government, specifically devoted to food. We have agriculture and health departments, land use and planning departments, but nowhere do we have a Department of Food.

Dr. Roberts made his comments at Food Charter Visioning Day recently held in Durham Region. As coordinator of Toronto's Food Policy Council, and primary architect of Toronto's Food Charter, among other notable accomplishments, Roberts was invited to provide some insight and inspiration. Toronto is one of a handful of Canadian communities that has developed a Food Charter.

A Food Charter is a declaration, much like the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom and the US Declaration of Independence, which defines a common ideal. While the latter define personal rights and freedoms, a Food Charter articulates a common approach to food security. It is carefully crafted by the community and encompasses all areas that are related to food production, consumption, distribution, equity and quality.

Food Charters are tools for social justice and change. They identify the rights of all residents to adequate amounts of safe, nutritious, affordable and culturally acceptable food and foster environmental stewardship and sustainability.

Food Charters are also key to economic stability. As Roberts pointed out, one-sixth of the average municipal budget is spent directly on food. This includes the one-third of the garbage budget that is used to haul food waste. An astounding 20 percent of all in-city car trips are made to buy food and the food service industry is a major employer and source of revenues for most cities. In Toronto's case, it's the largest employer, generating jobs, disposable incomes and other financial benefits.

According to Yes! Magazine ("Food to Stay", by Gary Nabhan, Winter 2007) buying locally, from local producers, has a dramatic ripple effect on the community. "For every dollar spent at a local business, 45 cents is reinvested locally. For every dollar spent at a corporate chain, only 15 cents is reinvested locally."

The environmental impact of buying local is even more dramatic. Supermarket produce travels up to 92 times farther than locally grown produce. The result is that the average food item we consume has traveled over 2,400 km. In addition, according to a recent report by Transport Canada, truck traffic in Canada has increased by one-third since 2000. The primary reason is "just-in-time" delivery practices. Truck trailers are a cheaper way to store food than warehousing it. As a result, thanks to this "just-in-time" delivery, even the wealthiest citizen is only a three-day food supply away from hunger.

With climate change being identified as the single greatest threat to our global environment, developing a local Food Charter that encourages local agriculture and reduces the number of trucks on the road seems like a no-brainer.

Ironically, there are very few food charters in Canada. In addition to Toronto's policy, to date only Prince Albert, Saskatoon, Vancouver, the Greater Sudbury Area and the province of Manitoba have, or are developing, Food Charters.


For more on Toronto's Food Charter, visit .

To read Yes! Magazine online, to order a free copy of the current issue, or to order a gift subscription (the perfect sustainable Christmas gift) go to


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