Our cities are what we eat

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

Elbert van Donkersgoed is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Canada. CFFO is supported by 4,500 family farmers across the province of Ontario.

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May 6, 2004: Canada’s debate about a new deal for our cities is focused on infrastructure, on the assumption that the billion dollar investment in Toronto’s subway system is representative of this new arrangement. Not everyone agrees.

A number of voices, my own included through my involvement with the Toronto Food Policy Council, have sent a message to Toronto MP John Godfrey, Parliamentary Secretary for Cities and Mike Harcourt, Chair of our federal government’s new Advisory Committee for Cities – this message: improved urban life means better food solutions.

Food plays an important role in the economy of Canada. Food choices account for some 20 percent of retail sales and of service jobs, ten percent of industrial jobs, 20 percent of car trips and traffic, 20 percent of chronic diseases, 25 percent of fossil fuel energy and air pollution, 40 percent of garbage, 80 percent of sewage.

Food is about economics: it influences our health and productivity, and our culture. More than with any other of our biological needs, the choices we make around food affect the shape, style, pulse, smell, look, feel, health, economy, street life and infrastructure of our cities.

There's an old saying: we are what we eat. It is equally obvious: a city is what it eats.

Food habits determine the character of our cities:

  • Whether our main streets are fast-food strips or lined with spots that breathe local flavor and character.
  • Whether there's a Little Italy, Little India or Asian Village anchored by restaurants and groceries that nourish entrepreneurs and cultural cooking traditions
  • Whether the poor, elderly and physically disabled can access nearby grocers that sell fresh nutritious produce.
  • Whether backyards are splashed with the green hues of vines, squash and corn, or sport fence-to-fence grass.
  • Whether people treat food scraps as garbage or as valuable compost.
  • Whether highways are clogged with refrigerated 18-wheelers transferring produce across the continent or local farmers bringing in the day's harvest on pick-up trucks.
  • Whether our health systems are forced to deal with expensive diet related crises such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, or cancer.
  • Whether low incomes families have a place at our bountiful table.
  • Whether the money spent on food stays in and near the city to create more jobs here, or leaves town overnight to create jobs there.
  • Whether shoppers drive to pick up convenience foods from box stores or walk to neighborhood outdoor markets for locally grown fresh and homemade products.

A new urban agenda for Canada cannot only be about public transport and infrastructure. Our cities are what we eat, as well as what we build.



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