When Ed Burt and his family sit down to Thanksgiving dinner this weekend, they will eat turkey raised and slaughtered on the family farm, along with butternut squash, sweet potatoes, a salad of cauliflower and broccoli, and Yukon gold potatoes that Burt grew organically in his garden.
For dessert, there will be Burt's famous apple crisp, made from apples he grows on his Manitoulin Island property with a topping made from flour he mills himself.
It's a scenario that will be repeated in only a tiny percentage of homes in Canada, though it might have been much more common in the 1950s and 1960s.
Still, most Canadians will indulge in reasonably healthy, domestically produced food, and crash into bed under the weight of turkey overindulgence.
For the millions of Canadians who experience some form of food deprivation, however, Thanksgiving dinner may come from a food bank, or from a can or package of imported food laden with additives. In the case of especially hard-hit families, there may be no feast at all.
Just how did we get to the point where a G8 nation that happens to be the world's largest exporter of grains and so-called "pulse foods" —high-protein, high-energy products such as beans, chickpeas and lentils that grow so well here — one out of four Canadians is obese, type 2 diabetes rates are accelerating, children go to school hungry and fresh, whole, nutritious food is either too expensive or unavailable.
A 2012 study supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, "Household Food Insecurity in Canada," found "four million individuals in Canada, including 1.15 million children, experienced some level of food insecurity." This can mean anything from buying less or cheaper food to skipping meals to going for days without food. Invariably, food insecurity is related to low income, but lack of proper nourishment is now occurring among students and people with jobs.
The way that food insecurity, along with an overabundance of processed, high-sodium, high-sugar food, impacts the health-care system is evident in Public Health Agency of Canada figures from 2009 to 2011. They indicated 26.2 per cent of Canadians over the age of 18 were obese and, among those 20 and over, 4.2 per cent had elevated blood glucose and 7.8 per had elevated blood pressure.
A 2011 study by the Public Health Agency found the nation rate for diabetes had risen from 3.3 per cent in 1998-9 to 5.6 per cent in 2008-9.
Diana Bronson, who as executive director of Food Secure Canada is the face of the movement for secure and healthy food in Canada, is campaigning for a cohesive national food policy operating across three levels of government that would link health, environmental, social welfare and agricultural issues to fight a common cause.
Our less-than-sustainable food industry, she argues, means that "roughly half of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada involve some aspect of our food system."
We are losing farmland as retiring farmers sell their land for development rather than pass it on to younger farmers, who recognize that farming in the current climate is a brutal way to make a living.
According to statistics gathered by Food Secure Canada, farms are growing bigger but less numerous. Food policy analysts such as Wayne Roberts and growers such as Dan Jason cite data on the way the federal government boosts big agribusinesses, thereby encouraging monocrops, in a way that favours trade and economic goals over biodiversity and better food better distributed in Canada.
At the retail level, Food Secure Canada reports, "55,000 farms sell essentially to four or five retailers who supply 85 percent of our food." And 96 percent of the meat supply in Canada is controlled by four companies.
Perhaps the worst news to come out of the food movement is the monopolization of the seed supply, whereby 75 per cent of seeds sold commercially in Canada are controlled by 10 companies, according to Food Secure Canada, and most of those seeds are proprietary, meaning that farmers and gardeners must buy them every year.
Saltspring Island seed grower Dan Jason gets a little hot under the collar when he thinks of the disadvantages of being a small- to medium-sized organic farm. He says big corporations such as Monsanto that capture most of the market in the U.S. and Canada benefit from generous government subsidies.
According to a Farmers Weekly report cited by the Organic Consumers Association in the U.S., nearly 70 per cent of U.S. soybean value comes from American government subsidies to soy farmers planting genetically modified varieties of soybeans.
"Anybody trying to grow organically, in a sustainable way, without pesticides, chemical fertilizers and genetically engineered seeds, is penalized with a costly, time-consuming certification process," Jason laments.
Meanwhile, as Toronto food policy writer Wayne Roberts, author of 2008's The No Nonsense Guide to World Food, pointed out in an interview, there are no programs to support for small-scale organic farming of fruits and vegetables.
Meanwhile, organic, sustainable farms producing clean, healthy food are undercut by their own government's trade policies. Jason gives a familiar example: garlic. "Trade deals with other countries mean we get the crappiest, cheapest food. The garlic sold in most stores they charge 15 cents for because it comes from China. We can grow garlic and it's far, far better, but we have no access to the big supermarkets."
In recent years, there have been numerous tainted food scandals in China, including melamine in milk, rice containing cadmium and, this summer, expired meat that had been relabelled as fresh.
Canadian governments hugely support the food industry through subsidies to transportation, marketing boards and trade deals in a view of food that has nothing to do with keeping the population healthy and everything to do with making profits for big business, argues Roberts.
In his view, any food policy that tackled obesity and food-related chronic diseases including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancer would start with reversing the paradigm that food is a production item and primarily an integral part of our economy.
"We should be thinking about the end purpose of food, which is health, first in the population and then in the environment," says Roberts, who will be a speaker at the Food Secure Canada conference next month in Halifax.
"Food is an enormous opportunity or an enormous problem."
It's a problem when it contributes to chronic health problems.
And it's a problem when its production and transportation result in huge carbon emissions. Journalist and author Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) claims it takes 26 ounces of oil to produce a double quarter pounder with cheese. He calculated the fossil fuel required for the pesticides, fertilizer, transportation, packaging and other items down the line to the McDonald's consumer.
"The hidden opportunity food represents is in renewable energy, reduced waste and better growing conditions," Roberts contends. "For example, what if you compost your food scraps, thereby reducing the size of methane-producing garbage dumps and put them on your garden to create better soil for the food you can grow yourself?"
Food, he says, could deliver double the bang for the buck if governments simply thought about it as life-enhancing instead of a money-making commodity.
In response, perhaps, to a growing awareness about how to feed ourselves better — a trend to purchasing locally produced food, farmers' markets in urban settings and the spread of community gardening — in the last federal election the Conservatives, Liberals, NDP and Green Party all had references to food production in their platforms. All have formed or are developing some kind of food policy.
No doubt they will address at least some of the problems raised in Food Secure Canada's 2012 report "Resetting the Table: A People's Food Policy for Canada." The report calls for measures that would:
Ensure that food is eaten as close as possible to where it is produced and support food providers shifting to ecological production.
Implement a federal policy to eliminate poverty so Canadians can afford healthy food.
Fund a national program for children that would create meal programs, school gardens, food literacy education.
Build public awareness and bring the public into decisions that affect the food system.
Liberal agriculture critic Mark Eyking and his counterpart in the NDP, Malcolm Allen, as well as Green Party leader Elizabeth May, agree on one point: the main obstacle to getting a food policy for Canada is a lack of political will.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was out of the country and unavailable for comment. A spokesperson for Agriculture Canada was unable to obtain answers on policy questions before press time.
May's party has the most specific food policy, including more and better monitoring by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency so that it detects a problem first rather than learning about it from U.S. authorities, as was the case in 2012 with concerns over possibile E. coli contamination of meat from Alberta's XL Foods.
May happens to serve a constituency, Saanich and the Gulf Islands, where some of the most promising kinds of farming are going on, and where interesting community-based projects — such as the establishment of a local abattoir so that animals do not have to be ferried to slaughter — are underway.
"It's very clear what needs to be done," she told the Star. "Canada needs to reverse its mandate and instead of focusing on food exports, protect the health of its citizens, so there are no more nightmares such as occurred in the XL meat plant."
Diana Bronson is predicting food will be an issue in the 2015 federal election. If she's right, there should be a lot more Canadians going to the polls next October demanding more accountability for what's missing in their daily diet.
Susan Walker is a freelance journalist and editor based in Victoria and Toronto.