Changes in food systems over the last 50 years have resulted in a global agro-food system (GAFS) that arguably benefits nation states in the Global North and multinational corporations at the expense of indigenous food systems everywhere. High profile crises such as Mad Cow disease, Listeriosis, and now Swine Flu highlight health risks associated with a GAFS also criticized for its adverse environmental impacts and inability to mitigate widespread poverty, as evidenced by the recent global food crisis. While a central exporter of agricultural commodities, Manitoba is one of the provinces most challenged by poverty and food insecurity in Canada. These failures underlie a growing interest in alternative food systems (AFS) – both here and around the world.
Interest in AFS has rapidly grown with increased calls for foods that are safe and sustainable. Local Food Initiatives (LFI) reconnect consumers with their food, re-embedding it in social and cultural relationships and reducing dependence on energy inputs. Yet, with little emphasis on social equitability, LFI fail to meet the needs of most marginalized groups, arguably leading to a two-tier food system. In contrast, community food security (CFS) recognizes that all should have unconditional access to culturally acceptable and healthy food, decentralizes decision-making, and contextualizes these consumer needs within a regional agro-food system. Yet CFS and LFI are generally still driven by consumer priorities and have been undermined by a limited capacity for local food production in prairie and northern regions, in turn reflecting low population densities, short growing seasons, and limited resources. These challenges point to the importance of control over food production or food sovereignty (FS) in these regions, an approach that is generating excitement across the globe but which often under emphasizes the role of consumers. Yet, rather than working at cross purposes, we contend that all three approaches are key for achieving food justice in the prairies and northern regions of Canada.
The overall goal of the Manitoba Alternative Food Research Alliance (MAFRA) is to explore the combined roles of LFI, CFS, and FS in fostering alternative food systems and food justice within and among rural urban, and northern regions in Manitoba and beyond. Our specific objectives are:
- to identify and address food-related needs and priorities within each of these three regions
- to network with and learn from AFS in other prairie provinces and other parts of Canada
- to facilitate new and enable existing initiatives in all three regions in Manitoba
- to network and exchange ideas, knowledge and products among the three regions
- to explore how these outcomes benefit other low population density regions, especially as they relate to vulnerable groups.
We will used a mixed methods research approach that is participatory and action oriented. Our work involves four basic research designs (ie case study, ethnography, discourse analysis, and action) and incorporates many forms of data collection (ie asset mapping, participatory video, individual and group interviews, questionnaires, workshops, and a policy forum). Importantly, these activities will be reflected in community projects conducted in all three regions. Community partners will have an equal voice in determining the direction of all stages of research, education, and outreach conducted through MAFRA.
The short-term or within-project outcomes of MAFRA are:
- increased capacity for food provision within all three regions
- increased access to local foods for vulnerable populations
- food related projects that meet the often unique needs of the three regions
- increased exchange of ideas, knowledge, and products within and among the three regions
- increased food-related networking in the prairies and northern regions of Canada.
The long-term outcomes are:
- increased consumer awareness and involvement in AFS
- increased intra- and inter-regional food justice
- increased control over food systems within all three regions
- increased policy support for AFS at all levels of government.