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Building Canada’s food security

Professor Sarah Duni

As 2015 drew to a close, the new federal government released the plans for their next four years. For the first time ever, the Minister of Agriculture was responsible for developing a national food policy, one that “promotes healthy living and safe food.” It was a striking change, and it was more than a decade in the making.

The move towards a federal food policy was especially interesting for Sarah Duni, a professor of Family and Community Social Services at the University of Guelph-Humber. Prof. Duni is researching issues around food as part of her doctoral studies at Ryerson University where she’s supervised by Dr. Mustafa Koc, and says this is a change that’s long overdue.

“Right now, there are 4 million Canadians with varying levels of food insecurity,” she says. “That means they don’t have consistent access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food.”

The problem of food insecurity was brought into particular focus earlier this year when Canada entered its “Cauliflower Crisis.” As the Canadian dollar fell, the cost of importing food rose, and so the price of produce spiked across the country. Cauliflower, once a relatively affordable crop, surged to more than $8 per head. A national food policy would aim to soften these changes, which Prof. Duni says often affect the most vulnerable.

“We’ve seen food prices rise by 4-5% in the last year alone, which amounts to a $340 spike for the average family’s grocery bills,” she says. “While that might be manageable for some, it can be devastating for those living in low-income communities.”

Prof. Duni hopes that a national food policy can have safeguards in place to create a buffer against changing food prices. Her research has focused not just on the policy’s terms itself, but on how the idea even got on the table. She’s been looking at how Food Secure Canada, a coalition of non-profit organizations from across the country, banded together to nudge the government in the right direction. The biggest question she hopes to answer is just how so many different organizations managed to cooperate.

“This is a unique case study that I think can give us insight into how non-profit organizations can affect policy. There are different food policy discourses in the field, but many non-profits have adopted the community food security framework,” Prof. Duni says. “When the new coalition came together, they advocated for an altogether different framework called food sovereignty. I’m interested in how this framework was met and how it shifted their policy recommendations in advocating for a national food policy.”

“Right now, there are 4 million Canadians with varying levels of food insecurity. That means they don’t have consistent access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food.”

While the community food security framework primarily focuses on availability and accessibility, food sovereignty shifts its attention to getting people healthy and culturally appropriate food, produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods. Within the field, it represents a different way of viewing the problem and its possible solutions. If there’s a better grasp of how Food Secure Canada has cooperated and compromised as a non-profit organization, Prof. Duni says it can lead to more successful policy initiatives in the future.

“By conducting this research, I’m hoping that we can understand more about how coalitions form, emerge and mobilize to advocate for social policy. How do they try to achieve goals and overcome challenges? And of course, non-profits are typically tight for resources, so how did that factor in?”

Adding a food policy to the federal agenda is a big step in the right direction, but Prof. Duni says it won’t be time to celebrate until the new policy is in place with the right conditions.

“Ultimately, we want a policy that aims for a sustainable food system that produces healthy and safe food while getting us to zero hunger,” she says. “Everyone needs food, and everyone should have a chance to get enough of it.”

Learn more about Family & Community Social Services at UofGH.