The Politics of Food – Part 1

In the next three issues, food writer Jill Van Gyn investigates the complex web of beliefs, values and opinions surrounding our food and its sources. In this, the first part, she delves into the many definitions of food insecurity.


Food is political. Let’s just get that out of the way right off the bat.

It is a commodity we take for granted, one whose availability is subject to any number of variables, including, but not limited to, climate, geography, government regulation, market forces, war, peace and treaty. For many of us, our experience with food is limited to the surface of thought. Those who have access to food have the luxury of thinking about food in the abstract. We limit ourselves to what is going on the table for dinner, should we try that new food truck, are spaghetti doughnuts dumb or not, etc. Access grants us the power to enjoy, indulge and play with our food—to be expressive, conservative or regimented. We have this freedom.

More than 1 in 10 Canadians do not have this luxury. They are considered to be food insecure. For these people, food is difficult to access, and even when food is accessed it is often low quality and lacking in nutritious essentials. When considering Aboriginal populations, that number can rise to close to 30 percent, with Aboriginal women almost twice as likely to be food insecure. In Canada’s North, particularly in Nunavut, that number is closer to 46 percent, with almost 60 percent of children living in food-insecure households. As lovers of food, as those who hold our food in high regard and as those who commit themselves to understanding our food landscape, we must be willing to dive a bit deeper in investigating what food means to all people.

So what is food security and what does it mean to be food insecure?

There are a number of different definitions, the most common of which comes from the World Food Program, which defines food security as having “availability and adequate access at all times to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” There is some debate over this, as some policy researchers tend to see food insecurity more as an economic problem than a food specific problem. In this case, food insecurity is defined as “inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints.”

I tend to side with the former. It is a broad definition that remains open to context. To put this in simpler terms—I may have money to buy food, but if I live in an area where fresh food is hard to obtain or my knowledge of nutrition is limited, I may opt for high-sugar drinks and cheap pre-packaged foods. Further, the broad definition gives us context for geographic issues, as well. If we look to Canada’s northern regions where food is expensive and of poor quality, the fact that I have an income that might be above Canada’s average minimum wage may not necessarily grant me access to healthy, nutritious, or even safe food.

A 2016 Vice magazine article reported that even though fresh food is available in the North it is often still out of reach, with fresh grapes running about $26-$28 per bunch and a bag of Gala apples priced at approximately $12. The issue then is both economic and political and carries with it a more complex set of variables such as financial constraints, access to safe and nutritious food and standard of living. Recently I interviewed northern food activist and lawyer Stephen Cooper about the cultural context of food. He noted one further complexity—the types of fresh and nutritious foods available in northern regions. Many of the fresh foods that northern Aboriginal populations are presented with are unfamiliar to them (Cooper mentioned seeing large surpluses of carambola, a fruit indigenous to Southeast Asia), leading many to opt for less nutritious but more familiar and affordable packaged foods.

You might be wondering how this applies to Victoria. We are certainly fortunate to be living in an area that boasts some of the best produce and seafood in the world. We have a high standard of living and have regular access to safe and nutritious food. If you are reading this magazine, then you are likely well informed on your food choices. You know that when you put kale in your basket you are eating a nutritious food, and when you toss a bag of cookies in you understand that this is a treat to be eaten in moderation. For many Canadians, indeed for many in Victoria, this may not always be the case. If we look at broader definitions of food security, then we must look at the types of foods people are eating and why they make these choices.

The Canada Food Guide has been widely criticized as one of the key factors in obesity rates with its outdated and confusing information, a vague approach to processed foods and the influence of organized food industry groups. A hefty dose of grains and dairy are still recommended, and processed foods receive little or no comment in the guide, falling under the category of “other foods.” Yet, according to a recent article in the National Post, processed foods comprise more than one quarter of the calories Canadians are eating. So, here we have added yet another potential layer to the definition: A lack of concrete information or the inability to make informed and educated choices on our nutrition may also render us food insecure.

Understanding food security as a component of the politics of food is important. Most of us know that our food is more than just daily sustenance, more than just a thing to be styled, flavoured, praised or dismissed. But it’s nice and easy and pleasant and worry-free to think of our food as something we simply need and thankfully have more than enough access to. Of course, we regularly marvel at and express our gratitude for the access and the bounty of food we have available at our disposal, particularly here in B.C., but this often negates our responsibility to investigate our food further. “We should just be grateful for what we have” is, to me, the death of all conversation and discourse around the politics of food. Why do we do this? Why do we turn our backs on deeper conversations about food that investigate its wider meaning beyond what we experience here in Victoria? Well, because it makes us uncomfortable. When we are pushed to investigate our food further than necessity or the allure of a pretty Instagram photo, we are forced to confront our privilege, our sense of entitlement, and often our ignorance on some of the deeper and more divisive aspects of our food.

As a food writer, I want to know everything about food, including the things that make me uncomfortable with my own habits, preferences and opinions. In our next two issues, I intend to take a deeper look at the politics of food and see just how uncomfortable I can get. I hope you’ll join me.

~ Jill Van Gyn

~ Illustration by Brittany Molineux

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