Well, if you’re anything like me you forgot that significant date… the one that comes in February every year, where we celebrate something we often take for granted every day…
Yes, February 8th, Canadian Food Freedom day.
Canadian Food Freedom day is a marketing exercise of sorts, developed by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture to highlight the productivity and efficiency of Canadian farmers. The idea of “Food Freedom” is that by February 8th, the average Canadian household’s income is no longer dedicated to food spending. ie: Canadians spend on average 10.9% of their earnings on food and we are now 10.9% of the way through the calendar year… It’s sort of a strange abstraction, but meant to point out how relatively inexpensive our food here is in Canada. Given our sheer landmass of arable soils and well financed, high tech agriculture, one would expect nothing less.
There are only a handful of countries with “Food Freedom” days so early in the year, and are all either “First World” agricultural juggernauts like the USA and Australia, or exceptionally wealthy, small nations like Singapore and Switzerland.
(Percentage of household income dedicated to food spending)
It’s easy to imagine that in most of the grey areas on the map they’re too busy figuring out what to eat to be collecting statistics. What’s interesting about a lot of these places is not that it’s difficult to produce food there.
Some of these places are actually quite fertile, with abundant water and year round growing seasons. Take a moment the next time you’re in the produce section at the grocery store this time of year and note where the fresh beans and melons come from, or the pickles and canned fruit.
So, while much of the rest of humanity focuses on how to put food on the table, North Americans enjoy the mixed blessing of food abundance (and excess). This has resulted not only in obvious outcomes like obesity, but also in eating disorders, broad cultural “fussy-ness” regarding food, and the tailoring of restrictive diets to conform to personal identity and political ideology: true “First World Problems”
I can’t help but laugh at my friend’s grandmother, a lifelong peasant in the mountains of the Bosnia, who when she learned his bride didn’t eat meat, arrived at the logical conclusion that “she must have grown up *really* poor”…
Another aspect of having unlimited cheap food lies at the heart of the truism “you get what you pay for”. Yes, mass produced calories are cheap. Are they tasty? I guess that depends on how you’ve trained your palate… Are they healthy? Evidence suggests ‘no’. Do they support families in your community and create a diverse and beautiful landscape? Not generally… although I am reminded of the retail displays they had in the Annapolis Valley, where potatoes were grown and a Frito-Lays plant operated: you’d see signs over Doritos and chips that proclaimed “Eat Local!!!”
The impressive technological development of agriculture and the largess of our food system has not led to a renaissance in cuisine or economic growth in the forms of artisanal small businesses producing high value products… rather it has led to booms in other sectors of the economy which barely existed in our grandparents’ time. So while we can afford to spend very little on food, we do find a way to spend it all anyway: whether that’s housing, insurance, taxes, communication, entertainment or debt servicing. A great deal of what we direct our energy and spend our money on today are not actual “things”, but often abstract fees we don’t derive much benefit from.
Grinding poverty is in no way enviable or desirable (on the contrary), but it does make life simple, and one’s purpose very clear. “Give us this day our daily bread” is also the default setting for most of human history, and so on some level we seem to require that sort of clarity.
I think that this lies at the heart of what we are all doing together with this “local” thing: forming personal relationships around the tangible aspects of our world. And not only having a practical and cooperative social network, but using food to magnify that within our own households: making the hearth, the family, the dinner table, the grounding point and centre of our day to day life through the thoughtful preparation and sharing of food.