Saturday, August 27, 2011

Food Insecurity? What food insecurity?

There seems to be a giant disconnect between some members of the public who argue that "if you want cheap eggs, why not just go to the store to get them?"; and those of us who maintain backyard chickens are a necessary and realistic tool in the arsenal against food insecurity.

If you asked the average Windsorite whether we have food insecurity in our region, you should most probably expect either a blank look or frank denial from most people.

Food security is not something that is generally talked about, and most people would point to our grocery stores' filled shelves as proof that we have plenty of food.  Windsor's above average obesity rates would also suggest that food is the one thing we don't have to worry about.

And yet our system is much more fragile than you might think:
  • Most of the food lining grocery store shelves in Windsor-Essex comes to the region from across the border in Detroit or along the 401 from north-east of here, typically the London-Toronto region.  If anything ever happened to our highway system or even if there was a disruption in the fuel supply, we would soon discover the stores had no more than about 3 days of supplies.  We have no local dairies and all our eggs come from grading stations outside the region.  Although we are a food-producing region, the distribution system is set up so that almost all our food comes to us via the highway.
  • Many low-income residents do not have much food stored on their kitchen shelves, and they do not always have easy access to grocery stores.  If you don't have a car, it can be quite difficult to get to a grocery store, and you might find yourself more dependent on a convenience store for your calorie needs.  Typically, convenience stores don't sell much produce, and most of their food is prepackaged, which plays a role in the generally greater obesity rates and poorer health of lower income people in our society.
  • Children, girls especially, used to learn to cook at home, and schools also played a role in teaching them culinary skills.  Boys tended to learn how to fish, hunt and trap.  Every garden used to have a vegetable patch.  Nowadays, far fewer of us know how to prepare food from scratch.  Do you know how to preserve tomatoes or skin a rabbit?  Do you have a garden that supplies you vegetables?  I'd be the last to advocate a return to the highly-gendered teaching methods from long ago, but I do think most of us have a lot to learn when it comes to self-sufficiency.  Sadly, far too many people are reliant on fast food outlets several times a week, and even more people cannot cook a meal without the assistance of packages and cans.
  • The list of food recall alerts is astonishing in the amount of food-borne illness that it warns against.  This week, for example, the FDA issued an alert regarding potential listeria in packaged salmon.  This was the third listeria alert in August, in addition to two for salmonella and another for E coli O157:H7.
It's not surprising that some of us are worried about food security.  One way is to ensure the authorities pay better attention to addressing the risks in the system, and the other strategy is to take matters into our own hands where we can.

As regards the authorities, it is important for municipalities to take stock of food security gaps in the region, and take steps to address them.  This is a serious matter and not one to trivialize.  I am afraid that some of Windsor's councillors do not have a sufficient grasp on how tenuous our food supply potentially is.  What about councillors in the towns surrounding Windsor?  Are they taking it seriously?

But it's not just about the authorities.  There are also steps we can take ourselves, such as planting a garden, establishing relationships with local farmers so we can ensure a steady supply of trustworthy food grown close to home,  buying from farmers' markets and fruit stands, teaching our children to enjoy simple, unprocessed food, and ensuring they know where it comes from - and that's not the grocery store.

Lastly, a backyard chicken coop is an excellent way of producing a reliable and high-quality protein source.  It's not going to address all the risks that we face, but it's one practical step that goes a long way.

It's also a very important symbolic step, because when bylaws allow them, it's a sign that the authorities recognize the importance of residents taking control over their own food security. 

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Please keep the Windsor urban chicken discussion going! We love to 'read your constructive comments.