Hey! Do you eat food? I sure bet you do. Food sovereignty might seem like a strange, distant, foreign policy situation that you don’t have the time to understand. But guess what, it’s super relevant to you personally, it is to all of us. And it’s only getting more important.

Grab a box of anything: frozen dumplings, perogies, cookies and look at the ingredients. We can probably guess what half of them are. The rest are strange preservatives, colorings, dehydrated things, powders. Automatically, when we can’t pronounce the things let alone know the origins of what we’re putting in our mouths and bodies, we lose a bit of power.

All I know is, the more I start to educate myself, the more I spend time making things from scratch in my kitchen, the less I begin relying on products from the grocery store. I don’t need to buy frozen pizzas, tomato sauce, bread or ice cream. Not because I don’t enjoy those things and am too good to eat normal food.

I learn to make things from scratch because I gain a little more sovereignty, education and joy from making them myself. I start to learn about the ingredients that go in things, learn how to purchase them from a source that isn’t harmful, substitute them or even create new ingredients altogether.

The more convoluted your list of ingredients gets, the harder it is to ever figure out. We don’t truly know the impact we have when we spend our money on certain foods. We seem to care a lot about GMOs, animal rights, and how food impacts our own, personal bodies.

But I think it’s time to start expanding our gaze and looking at how food also impacts other real, human lives.

We lose our power when we let other people decide what is acceptable as food. When things are pre-made, we lose a bit more of that power than if we had made a pizza from scratch for example, because we know where we’re getting the cheese, flour, tomatoes, oil. Oh wait… do we? And did we know we’re part of a wealthy, elite few in the world who could make a pizza from scratch if they actually wanted?

Having access to a variety of ingredients is unique to people living in well-off communities, and even then we still don’t know where or how most of our food is actually being produced. This doesn’t just happen by choice.

What happens when you try to guess where these ingredients came from? Who grew the 5$ bag of avocados? Who produced the cheap sugar, the cheap tea? What do the factories look like that bag our rice, lentils, beans? What are the conditions people work in to produce the items we often take for granted?

This starts to beg another question… why are some of these ingredients so cheap? Why is it that a jar of cocoa that’s been harvested, fermented and dried in Africa then shipped all the way to Canada is only five bucks? On Nestlé’s website, one of the biggest chocolate producers in the world, they fully just admit that they use child labor and are working on it. What the flying fuck?!

They state, “In 2019, we announced our aim to source 100% of cocoa for Nestlé confectionery through the Nestlé Cocoa Plan by 2025.” Okay, so what’s the cocoa plan? They state:

Child labor is a complex and challenging issue in our cocoa supply chain, affected by many factors, including poverty, demographics, education, infrastructure, and local culture. We work with supply chain partners and local communities in West Africa to address the causes of child labor. 

They also use this infographic:

They then say, “Our remediation work has helped us get around half of all children involved in hazardous work to stop performing those tasks.”

So basically there are over 43,000 kids that they know about still performing dangerous work to get us our cheap chocolate. They then go on to say how much they’re helping the African communities by teaching them how to save money, educate themselves and farm better. This is a form of colonization. White people coming into a place they don’t originate from and telling people how to live, and it’s racist.

This is where capitalism goes wrong. We value profit over lives, we don’t see a company as a group of people collectively harming another group of people, instead we see a box of Smarties, with no information besides that it’s a box of Smarties.

And when you start to look into how many products Nestlé stocks your local grocery store’s shelves with, it might start to scare you how much of a monolith this corporation is, how much power they have. A corporation that is a separate, legal entity distinct from its owners. Which makes it incredibly difficult to hold any specific people responsible.

Food Sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.

La Via Campesina (In English: The Rural Way, an International Peasants’ Movement. 180+ Organizations in 80+ countries. Voice of the peasants, Indigenous people and rural workers since 1993.)

Sovereignty = complete control. You’d think that the people who grow and produce the food we eat have a say in how it’s produced, how much they sell it for, what conditions the laborer’s need to live in to produce it, how much their laborer’s make, who owns the land that it’s grown on and how producing that food affects the other people living in and around that land. I could keep going (the list goes on and on and on…) But the more you research, the more complicated these questions seem to get.

Food deserts, or more aptly, food oppression can be defined as a group of people who have inaccessibility to fresh fruits, vegetables and whole ingredients. This can look like an Indigenous reserve with the only grocery store around being an hour’s drive, with very slim-pickin’s. It can look like a single mother, who is time poor, cash poor, without the means to make a healthy lunch for her kids because she’s working two jobs and is in school.

Wealthy neighborhoods, white neighborhoods, have four times as many supermarkets as black neighborhoods do. Without access to a variety of foods let alone to be able to compare prices, poorer and minority communities don’t have as much of a choice. Drop in a McDonald’s and a liquor store, guess who’s going start making some cash.

This starts to make you think about who is making these decisions and why do they not care? Why are convenient stores lumped in as “retail food outlets” when they don’t have any way to supply real, fresh ingredients at fair market prices?

Now let’s take a look at what active vs. inactive farming means. Active means a farmer runs an operation and is engaged in the day-to-day farming activities that earn income. Inactive means farming income is earned by a farmer who rents out his land for cash or crop share and is not involved in the day-to-day operations of the farm.

According to Food Secure Canada, active farmers make up less than 1% of the population. Out of those active farmers, most of them are over the age of 60. This begs the question, what does it look like to work on a farm that isn’t yours?

A very popular quote amongst non-meat eaters: “If slaughter houses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian.” Valid, very valid. So what if we got a roll-back of the entire life of every food item we buy? What if we saw the 8-year old kid forced to work to put the palm oil in our box of Oreos? The prisoners that were beaten to peel our garlic? The hundreds of thousands of people working in human feces to provide our cup of Tetley’s? The child who severely injured themselves trying to machete down cocoa for our chocolate bar?

Former prisoners say the pungent acids in the garlic can melt detainees’ fingernails, exposing stinging flesh. Those who can no longer use their hands bite off the garlic skins with their teeth.

Financial Times

I know this might be daunting. I’m not trying to overwhelm you or scare you away from food. I’m hoping to encourage you to start asking more questions about your food, where it originates and who’s really benefiting when you buy certain products.

We’ve been obsessed with ingredients for a long time, rather than focusing on how these foods may impact only ourselves it’s time to start raising awareness on how the foods we buy impact other people outside of ourselves.

This is where the conversation needs to start going. Rather than obsessing over how “clean” the ingredients are in our food, what the “micros and macros are”, how many calories – we could start wondering how the fuck this food was created in the first place and who does it impact other than myself.

I am not saying that I have knowledge of every single ingredient I use. I’m sure we could easily drive ourselves nuts trying to figure it out. But that doesn’t mean you just give up. This is huge, and it’s going to take a lot of free-thinking, conscious people to start making things change.

How do we make this not so overwhelming? Start with your kitchen. Go through your cupboards and fridge and just observe, simply look at the types of foods that you’re buying. Is there anyway you could start to gain control of the products you’ve become dependent on? Could you try and bake your own cookies next time, with fair-trade chocolate? How badly did you need those cookies?

When you start to expand your awareness of food’s impact not only on yourself – you start to think about how it impacts others. When you buy packaged, sugar-laden drinks, do you think about where that water came from? Who or what might have been able to use that fresh water to survive rather than having it turned into a can of pop?

I know you’re busy. But what if I asked you to slow down and just take a little extra time today to think about what you could do differently. This is a huge undertaking, but together, we can start to make things change. By shining a light on things we might otherwise not want to know about, we expose the injustice and can start to vote with our money elsewhere.

I recommend doing the quiz on this website to get an idea of what your personal impact might look like. According to the app, I own 27 slaves.

We’re not immune to these sorts of human rights issues right here at home. Just a few months ago, more than 400 Mexican migrant farm workers in Southern Ontario tested COVID-19 positive due to overcrowded, unsanitary housing and unsafe working conditions. So yeah, just because it’s LoCaL doesn’t mean it’s ethical. Honestly, it just kind of wants to make you throw up your hat and just give up all-together doesn’t it?

This isn’t about you single-handedly fixing the entire global food system. But it is about us, starting to think of ways that we can personally make a difference.

I’m going to line you up with some concrete, real steps you can start to take to gain food sovereignty and therefore contribute to less harm on other people, on the earth, and the living creatures we share it with.

This is where the real meaning of food sovereignty comes in. The more I start to think about it… the more I realize how little of it I really have. The system is incredibly complicated and to be able to trace your food all the way back to the humans who made it can be nearly impossible, unfortunately, this is not an accident.

What we can do is break down our food sovereignty into bite-sized steps:

Gratitude. Be grateful for the food we do have. I’m not here to make you guilty, to make you feel bad. Whatever it is you’ve got in your fridge and in your cupboards, give thanks, and make sure it doesn’t fucking go to waste.

As mentioned earlier, start doing your own research. Look into the brands of food products you buy most often, see how they’re made, if you’re not happy with the information (or lack thereof.) Can you find another brand or product with more transparency in their production?

I’m not saying binge watch every episode of Rotten on Netflix… unless you want to have your eyes opened the fuck up. This is happening everywhere, all over the place, in unimaginable ways. We can’t dig our heads into the sand anymore and say “well, I didn’t know.” We have the internet, we have people specifically creating this content to educate us.

Donate. Your time, food (if you have the resources), money (if you have some to spare.) Food banks in the city are being used right now at an all-time high.

And most importantly, advocate. Look into your local food banks, community programs and initiatives and see how you can help. Donate to the awesome community fridges popping up across Toronto. Advocate so that they don’t get dismantled, like Parkdale’s almost did.

We’re in a food insecurity crisis, we need to increase social assistance rates, programs, raise the minimum wage, create long-term rent relief, increase affordable housing. Advocate for politicians that care about these issues, write to your city councilors, vote.

Avoid food waste. Canada’s surplus food waste is enough to feed 15 million people a year, far outpacing the 4.4 million Canadians who are food insecure. Make a meal plan, take stock of your fridge and use up what’s going to go bad. Buy the minimum amount of ingredients you need.

Yes – big corporations and massive scale farms are a big root problem with food waste. But so are we, the individual consumers. We are responsible for nearly half of all food wasted. Best Before dates are A GUIDE FOR QUALITY NOT SAFETY. I eat week “expired” yogurt all the time. It’s perfectly fine, I’m fine.

Lastly, can you support small-scale farms directly? Farmer’s markets aren’t happening in my neck of the woods anymore but we do order a weekly, $40 organic produce bin from Mama Earth. I think this company, and others like it, are incredible. For my partner and I, $20 a week on fresh fruit and veg is more than affordable and we get plenty to work with throughout the week.

Do some more research, see if you can get CSA farm-shares, there are plenty of small-scale farms and companies that want your business. Find them.

I don’t want to overwhelm anymore than I probably already have. But this is a start. It took me weeks to write this article because honestly, I didn’t even know where to start. I know though, that there’s a lot of information out there about what’s wrong… and it feels like there’s just not enough info going around about how to take the right action.

I hope this article has laid out some practical, real steps you can take to start addressing the issue of food sovereignty that’s only going to become more apparent and real as we navigate this historical moment in humanity. Because if a global pandemic wasn’t enough shit to deal with… we really don’t need a global food shortage to come next.

Please drop any helpful resources or advice on how to help find food sovereignty in your home and communities below in the comments. Any helpful information is welcome. Talking about this more is the only way we’re going to start making some changes.

Edited by Caitlin Pupillo.

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