Does Victoria have a bright food future? Yes…if you can afford it.

This post is adapted from a speech given by panellist Kristina Bouris at the launch of Victoria’s Vital Signs® on October 2, 2012. Kristina is a Planner in the City of Victoria's Community Planning Division.

local agricultureAs someone who loves food, October is my favourite time of year in Victoria. The markets are full, the fruit trees are bursting, the last of the garden tomatoes are clinging hopefully to the vine… And, as Victoria’s Vital Signs report tells us, there is cause to celebrate: we have a healthy number of farmers markets and small farms, a growing diversity of products. It’s easier to buy sustainably-harvested seafood. Looking around the city, there are new restaurants, bakeries, street food, festivals. All of these point to a growing awareness of local food and thriving food culture, a resurgence of local agriculture.

So, when it comes to food, will Victoria be a good place for future generations? Yes…if you can afford it. Unfortunately, I’m not sure everyone will be sharing in the bounty.

Vital Signs identifies challenges

To me, there are three trends reported in Vital Signs that are particularly worrying when it comes to food: 1) the increasing poverty rate; 2) the increasing costs of living shown through the Living Wage; and, 3) rising food prices.

The rising food prices really stand out for me. It now costs $158 more to feed a family of four per month than it did in 2007. That amounts to $1896 more per year. This is more than double the rate of inflation. This is striking in a time when rent, childcare and other costs of living have also gone up in Victoria.

Research has shown us that income level is the strongest indicator of personal health. People living on low-incomes have shorter life expectancies and poorer health outcomes.  They are more likely to spend proportionately more on food, eat less fresh fruits and vegetables and dairy products; rely on cheaper, processed, nutrient-poor foods; and are at greater risk of obesity and diet-related disease such as Type 2 diabetes. For these reasons, reducing poverty and securing living wages are critical to better food security.

Let’s think for a minute about how the cost of food fits into all of this. For many different reasons, the cost of food is now higher. And, in the face of rising energy costs and climate change, those prices are likely to keep going up.  Those who have the financial means will adjust to higher prices; those who don’t will have an even harder time getting a healthy diet.

We have a fundamental problem with how the food system has evolved. Poor quality food is often the cheapest food.  Fresh fish costs more than frozen perogies.  I don’t want to oversimplify the issue:  being food insecure, and lacking access to healthy, affordable food, isn’t just about the cost of food. It’s about your education, skills, where you live, what your income is, whether you have time and the interest. With busy lifestyles, “convenience foods” – often high in fat and calories – are appealing. There are middle class parents who neglect a healthy diet for their kids.  And there are parents who are scraping by who put nourishing, whole foods on the table. But, at the end of the day, it costs more to eat well than it does to eat poorly.

What's the solution?

If we want our kids to have a healthy future when it comes to food, and reduce their risk of obesity and diet-related disease, we need to figure two things out: 1) how to encourage regular exercise; and, 2) how to make a healthy diet more affordable and attainable for everyone.

local agriculture - pizza gardenHow do we do this? Well, what about local agriculture?  There are wonderful community and ecological benefits that come from local agriculture, and a healthy local food sector is important to community’s resilience over the long term. But it is not the solution on its own to making food more affordable. Local food is expensive here because it costs a lot to produce food here. Asking the farmers – many of whom already live at the economic margins themselves – to lower their prices is not the solution.

We have to reduce poverty. And we need to get smarter and more creative in the way that we grow, buy and prepare our food to make sure that all of our citizens can access healthy food on a regular basis.  And where possible, and where it makes sense, this food should be locally-grown.

So how do we do it? Is it municipalities allowing parks and public spaces to be planted with food gardens? Is it community centres offering community kitchens, for people to share the cost and work of shopping and cooking healthy meals together? Is it setting up subsidized coupons programs for farmers markets so that both farmers and people on low income can benefit? Is it hospitals adopting policies to serve only healthy, healing foods to their patients? Is it starting community enterprises that turn cast-off vegetables into spaghetti sauce for sale, paying a living wage to workers? Is it beginning with shopping, cooking, eating with your kids, to instill in them a love of good, nutritious, fresh foods to last a lifetime?

Clearly, in the face of the trends in Victoria Vital Signs, we will to have work hard to make sure that all of our citizens – not just those who can afford it – can access healthy food. We have no end of possibilities, and all of the people, skills and expertise we need in our community to get there.