Eat Think Vote event in Charlottetown one of many held across Canada

As the federal campaigning roars into full gear, many forums, rallies, and debates are being held across PEI. On September 23, a non-partisan public forum, Eat Think Vote, was held in Charlottetown at Carrefour de l’Îsle-Saint-Jean.

The event was part of the Eat Think Vote campaign coordinated by Food Secure Canada to encourage communities to exchange ideas with their federal candidates about how we can improve our food system. Their mandate is “to make sure that food is an election issue, and that the next government develops policy that encourages a food system where no one goes hungry, where food is healthy and respects the environment.”

Organized in part with support from Food Exchange PEI, over 40 people attended the event which began with a meal prepared by the school’s chef, Pierre El Hajjar. The vegetarian lasagna and salad used produce that had been grown in the school’s garden by its students.

After the meal, facilitator Colleen Walton began with introductions of the local Charlottetown candidates. Attending the forum were Joe Bryne (NDP), Sean Casey (Liberal), Darcie Lanthier (Green), and Fred MacLeod (CHP). PC candidate Robert Campbell was invited, but was unable to attend.

Community members who are actively involved with food insecurity issues, school food programs, organic farming, healthy eating/food educational programs, and eliminating poverty first addressed the candidates. They spoke about the issues that they each see on a daily basis with their work, whether it’s a child going to school hungry or the need to guarantee a basic income. Then the candidates were given an opportunity to speak to issues surrounding food.

Casey referred to the new Food Policy for Canada which the Liberal government released in June frequently in answering some of the questions. In particular, when asked by Heather Mullen, vice-president of the PEI Home and School Federation, as to the parties’ plans to implement a cost-shared school food program, he replied, “It’s in the national Food Policy…not only do you have my personal commitment to ensure that a re-elected Liberal government implements all aspects of the national Food Policy, you have our party’s commitment that’s in the policy now.”

Lanthier, MacLeod, and Bryne all committed to working towards a national school food policy, with Byrne bluntly stating, “let’s just get it started.” Lanthier emphasized that such a program would need to have foods that were “not processed foods, that they are culturally appropriate foods, that they are local, that they have the full nutritional benefit that our kids should have.” MacLeod linked proper food and nutrition to children’s ability to learn with the simple statement which all attendees agreed with, “it’s very important.”

Part of Food Secure Canada’s mandate is to make food a part of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Matthew D MacDonald, a policy analyst for the Native Council of PEI, had submitted a question which facilitator Colleen Watson posed to the candidates in his absence: “Certain communities are disproportionately affected by food insecurity. For example First Nations people living off-reserve are 2.7 times more likely to face food insecurity compared to non-Indigenous adults, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. In PEI, the hunger counts in 2016 with Food Banks Canada found that 13 percent of food bank users were Indigenous, whereas only two percent of the province is Indigenous, and approximately 80 percent of PEI Indigenous people are living off-reserve. This data signals high food insecurity among off-reserve Indigenous people in PEI that must be addressed. What will your government do to address food insecurity and support culturally relevant off-reserve Indigenous food systems in PEI?”

Lanthier spoke first to this question, stating, “Indigenous populations are disportionality harmed by most of our systems. They’re disportionately harmed by poverty, they’re disportionately harmed by racism, they’re disportionately harmed by inadequate housing. Our systems have just been set up to fail our First Nations communities, both on- and off-reserve.” She linked PEI fish kills to affecting culturally relevant food systems. “Fishing’s not the only solution to First Nations communities, obviously, but it’s a big part of what would have been a culturally-appropriate diet, and it’s just not there the same way as it was before. Poverty is not equal, it is essentially racist and that needs to stop.”

MacLeod suggested that government “start with the people” and needs to ask Indigenous people “what they eat and what they need.” Bryne acknowledged the difficulties in developing a strategy that will work, due to the vast differences of First Nations populations across the country but he also linked any strategy to “how we begin to right the relationship that the majority population in this country has with our Indigenous peoples, it’s not going to be separate from that.”

Casey stated, “I think you’re going to find the four of us in violent agreement here. As Joe said, I think the starting point is ‘nothing about us, without us’. The real key to advancing this issue is coming into it with the right mindset….there are ongoing discussions with Indigenous people on issues that are directly or indirectly related to food security, in particular in the fishery.” He gave some examples of the Liberal government’s work with existing treaties, and ended by stating “the most important thing is attitude, and that’s what needs to underlie our approach to righting the traditional wrongs.”

Karen Murchison, chair of the Charlottetown Food Council, as well as a Research Coordinator for the PEI Certified Organic Producers Cooperative, questioned the candidates on their party’s policies with regards to climate change and how it relates to creating strong local food systems with sustainable production practices, local processing, and reliable access to locally produced food.

Attendees enjoyed a meal before the forum
Photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

Macleod suggested that more programs need to be in place to ensure proper crop rotation of our land, as well as acknowledging the issues with the loss of our soil, “Land use and soil health are definitely big [issues] on PEI. We can lose our fields, we can lose the rivers along with the fields.” He said that creating systems to allow our local food to be stored here on PEI and not shipped away was key to our sovereignty as a province.

Bryne joked that the question posed was a complex one, saying, “Thanks for the question Karen, I feel like I should have a dissertation ready for it.” He further iterated that “the economic system that brought us global warming is incapable. Incapable, and unwilling to get us out of it. If we continue to rely on concentration of wealth in this capitalist system, with no holds barred, where those that are the wealthiest get to set the rules, we will not solve this problem.”

In answering the question, incumbent Casey spoke to the Liberal’s government’s “price on pollution”, that was “critical to our environment and climate change and therefore food insecurity…we don’t think that pollution should be free.” He also spoke of the government’s commitment of $100 million in investing in agricultural science and research, “with a specific focus on climate change and water conservation” along with working with farmers to “greening their practices.”

“Climate change is the overarching concern of not just all human life on the planet, but all life on the planet,” Lanthier said. “We’re quite selfish when we talk about what we need to change for us as we lose biodiversity by the minute.” She referred to building our infrastructure and our agricultural infrastructure to be sustainable and suggested that in 2030 “The [Green] vision for PEI would be that much of the food that we eat is locally sourced, it’s produced organically, and thanks to import-replacement policies, instead of this constant support for export, we will enable young people to take up farming. Urban agriculture would be thriving, including community and school gardens, and urban farms like the Farm Centre.”

Additional questions from the audience gathered rounded out the evening’s forum. It was evident that the issues Eat Think Vote aims to address in the upcoming election are complex and overlap in many areas. Stephanie Palmer, the organizer of the event, said, “There’s so many issues to pack in, and so many people doing great work. It was great to scratch the surface.” She further explained, “We definitely have to be thinking about the long-term future that we’re looking for and how all the pieces fit together…all of the links between food security in this case, and health and the environment and the economy and the well-being [of Canadians].”

About Cheryl Young

A “Jill of all trades” describes Cheryl to a T. From operating her own handyperson company, to selling luxury cars, to working as a film and TV crew member, her resume is diverse. But her dream as a kid was to be a journalist and she started down that path many years ago at CBC Charlottetown. Returning to her journalism roots, she’s excited to be editing Salty’s content and occasionally writing herself.

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