Conversations about food justice filled the room at the fifth annual Transitions Conference
A passion for food and justice gathered people for the fifth annual Transitions Conference, organized by the Concordia Food Coalition. Workshops, discussions and film screenings dedicated to urban agriculture, food security and sustainability attracted a local and international audience from Feb. 2 to 4.
“Part of the activity today was to engage students and people from the community about how they see the food system currently, what, ideally, they would like to see [in the future] and how do we go and meet those needs,” said Erik Chevrier, a part-time professor at Concordia and PhD student focusing on food sovereignty, which is defined as the right to healthy food and a sustainable agriculture system.
As part of the Transitions Conference, Chevrier led group activities and events; “basically interacting with the Concordia community to develop ideas for a food sovereign campus,” he explained. Chevrier has also created an archive of all the student-run food groups at Concordia. “I’ve done close to a 1,000 interviews with people from all the different food groups,” he said. “You can see historical archives, people who founded People’s Potato and other groups, as well as people who are working there.”
On Saturday, Feb. 3, a “Food and Social Justice” workshop introduced issues plaguing our food system and potential solutions. The interactive discussion between the presenters and audience members was led by Mia Papp, an environmental science student at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, and Maya Provencal, a political science student at Concordia. “We are here to facilitate discussion. We just want to start a conversation on campus about how flawed the food system is,” said Provencal, who is also the outreach and engagement leader at The Dish Project, a Concordia-based group that lends out reusable dishes for events and meetings.
“As soon as I came to Montreal, I was so excited that I had actually picked a city that has all these sustainability initiatives,” said Papp, who is an Australian exchange student. What she has noticed in her time here is that “Montreal has an amazing urban agriculture scene, which we really don’t have in Australia, which is funny because we definitely have an environment that is more suited to that.”
To start off the workshop’s activities, participants compiled a list of the environmental and social problems associated with modern food systems. This list included polluted water, trade redundancies and waste, soil degradation and biodiversity loss, food insecurity and a lack of money in the agriculture industry as well as a tendency for unhealthy diets.
According to Papp, the significant lack of healthy food in certain regions is attributed to “food deserts,” where there are few easily-accessible supermarkets. “What are in food deserts are usually lots of fast food restaurants—there is lots of food, but it’s all unhealthy with no access to any healthy food,” she said.
The audience members also discussed how a lack of local farming and fair trade—due to centralized food systems—makes it difficult, if not impossible, for small farmers to enter the industry. “In Quebec, there are quotas on how much needs to be [produced on farms],” Papp explained. “There are small farmers that want to get in the industry, but since they can’t make these quotas, they can’t start these farms.”
The audience was then asked a central question: What is food justice, and what would a just food system look like? Participants came up with a list of important factors: educating the community about sustainable food practices; not throwing out misshapen produce; creating more affordable food options; and consuming food responsibly—particularly seasonal eating. “We’re used to having apples all year round, but there is actually a season for them,” Papp explained.
After the audience voiced their suggestions, Provencal and Papp presented a definition of food justice: “A food system that is inclusive, community-wise and participatory without the exploitation of people, land or the environment. It identifies significant structural connectedness that exists within our food and economic systems.”
Participants then gathered in groups to discuss how different social identities are impacted by the food system. In one group was Anna Luiza Farias, a Brazilian student from São Paulo studying forest engineering. “I am interested in agriculture and food, and I thought it would be really nice to come here and meet people to see what they think,” she said.
Farias explained that the Amazon rainforest is a prominent issue for Brazilian agriculture. “In the Amazon, it is illegal to remove forest land,” she said. “But they are taking this land to use it for cattle farms because the land there is cheaper. People don’t know that this land belongs to the Amazon.”
Although the workshop focused on the roots of our flawed foot system—notably colonialism, capitalism, industrialization, exploitation and overpopulation—it also explored solutions. Participants eagerly discussed projects geared toward community restoration, reconnecting youth with food, holding ourselves accountable for our consumption choices, supporting local businesses and farms, and initiating conversations about food sustainability.
According to Papp, she has never seen a student-led conference about food anywhere before. “It’s definitely an unsexy topic, but it’s one of the most important topics because we all eat, and [our current food system] is a huge contributor to climate change in the world.”
For more information on all Concordia student-run food groups on campus, visit: www.concordiafoodgroups.ca