Have you been to talk on food justice issues lately? Have you attended a conference? A presentation? If you have, you are probably pretty convinced that food justice is an important issue. Indeed, nearly all of the events that I have attended on food issues have been populated predominantly by the converted, those who are already concerned. It is a whole lot easier to find an audience if they already agree with what you’re saying, so that’s where we spend most of our time. This weekend, however, I had the opportunity, for the first time, to address a mixed audience – some were aware of food justice issues, others not. An audience that included everyone from an inner city social worker to the president of a major multinational agribusiness. I began my presentation, which was to be an introduction to food security issues in Manitoba, with a story from my time living in Zambia. I had visited a region that had been devastated by flood. All the crops had failed, people were hungry, food prices had doubled. I was asked if I could talk with relief organizations to acquire food aid for the region. This is how we often think of food issues: hunger somewhere else. We see horrific images, likely from Africa, and are appalled that people could live in such circumstances. We have decided to recognize a problem, but that problem is safely distant from ourselves. It does not affect our lives (except, perhaps, for the guilt-ridden cheque we put in the mail) and we don’t seriously think about it. Hunger is safely a problem for somewhere half way around the world.
While we don’t have children suffering from kwashiorkor on our streets, it doesn’t mean that we don’t have serious food issues here. Over the last year I have stressed in a few talks that we need to stop thinking about food as an issue for somewhere else, somewhere other than here. There are plenty of food issues to be addressed right here in Manitoba: hunger in our inner cities and northern communities, a struggling agricultural sector, environmental degradation, and so on.
So it was interesting to me how, after making my presentation, some questioners tried to distance themselves from food issues even here in Manitoba. Quickly, some people moved to make things a northern issue, an Aboriginal issue, or an issue of personal responsibility (such as: if people on income assistance knew how to spend their money they wouldn’t go hungry). Even when the issue was brought closer to home, people’s first reaction was to distance themselves from it. It was, once again, somewhere else. Not here. Hunger was ‘othered’ – it was not seen as a reality that was important to grapple with in our own communities.
The majority of questions were valuable queries from people who were interested in learning more about food issues in our community. It was the quickness, though, to distance ourselves from hunger, even closer to home, that struck me the most. It also shows that even if we convince people that food security is an issue in Manitoba, we have to do a better job of explaining to them why that matters to them, why it can’t be passed off as a problem for somewhere else.