Why does Waterloo Region need a food charter?

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Before I started working at the Emergency Food Hamper program, I was very passionate about and involved with local food initiatives. I love community gardening and urban agriculture, going to the farmer’s market, and supporting local farmers. I’m still passionate about all of these things, but more and more I’m noticing that people on low income often don’t have the luxury of supporting local or organic food initiatives. Local and/or organic food is often more expensive and less convenient to purchase and prepare than conventional or processed food from the grocery store. I started doing research on the price of nutritious food versus how much a family makes on Ontario Works or even working a minimum wage job. I started to doubt whether supporting affordable nutritious food for people on low income and supporting local farmers were even compatible goals.

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Because of my change in perspective, I was very interested when the Waterloo Region Food Roundtable, a group of citizens and people in the food industry who talk about food issues in the region, drafted a food charter. Waterloo Region Public Health started the roundtable in 2005, and their mission is to champion a vibrant and healthy local food system. They do this through networking and policy-making. 18 people sit on the roundtable and are from a variety of sectors, from the local farming community, to advocates for those living on low income, to academics and public health professionals. The idea is that if you get many people who involved in the local food system together around a table, you can have better conversations about local food issues leading to more sustainable and comprehensive food policies.

As their newest project, people who are involved with the Roundtable have taken on the task of drafting a Waterloo Region Food Charter. The food charter is a way to look at food as a whole, from farm to table. In their words, “food charters define a vision for a just and sustainable food system.” The Waterloo Region Food Roundtable describes it like this:

 “A food charter is a statement of values and principles intended to guide a community’s food policy as well as community organizations and individual community members toward a unified vision for a healthy food system – linking community action and policy.”

The draft of the food charter has goals such as connecting people to the local food system, promoting sustainable economic development, promoting access to healthy food, preserving ecological health, and integrating food policies from all levels of government.

I had the opportunity to ask a few questions to Jason Vistoli, a member of the roundtable and of the food charter working group. He said that the idea for a food charter has been around for a while, and a few other cities such as Thunder Bay and Vancouver have used them before. What makes Waterloo Region’s food charter so unique is how the roundtable working group is writing it. They have written a background document and the food charter itself, but they also had a survey that anyone can complete to give their feedback on the charter. Responses closed on February 1st, and the charter working group will be incorporating the feedback they received back into the charter.

My main question to Jason was, how will the food charter affect regional policy, and, how will it affect people living on low income who face barriers to accessing nutritious and culturally appropriate food? This was Jason’s response:

“The answer to this question is multifaceted because the direct tangible outcomes of a food charter are really dependant on how the document is used in the future. A simple answer is it raises awareness by providing everyone with a common ground to base further decisions. It also acts as a catalyst for civil action, making it easier for people to work under broadly defined goals like access to safe nutritious food.

Specifically in regards to the Emergency Food Hamper program, improving access would come from a united understanding that access to nutritional food is indeed an issue, supported by our Regional Committee. It sounds redundant because you and I know these problems exist, but the general public may not. Increasing public awareness makes it easier to move decisions along in the future. As well the networking that results from a charter discussion can link like-minded organizations to each other across jurisdictions, where these partnerships may not have existed. For example this issue is not only economic but, social, political and environmental.”

Basically, local governments and community groups have the potential to make this document really important, if it is used correctly. For example, if a local organization is really passionate about, say, improving access to nutritious food for people on low income, they can point to the food charter and remind our regional government that this is a commitment they made when they endorsed the charter. In other words, the charter can be an important advocacy tool for local governments, non-profits, and food organizations.

For now, we’re interested to see the final draft of the food charter and keep promoting income security so people on low income can afford nutritious and sustainable food. A key principle embedded in the food charter is that its important to raise social assistance rates–if people earn a living wage they can better provide for themselves and their families. Simply lowering the cost of food results in local farmers living in poverty, and potentially less sustainable farming practices. The issue of food–who grows it, how it’s grown, ensuring farmer’s are paid fairly for their work, and ensuring everyone has access to buying the food they need–is a complex one, and hopefully the food charter is one step toward a more just local system for everyone in Waterloo Region.

To learn more about the Roundtable, visit their website here, and see their top priorities here.

To learn about how to get involved with the food charter, read the draft, and answer the survey, click here.

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