Food mosaic or melting pot?

Metro Vancouver has more than 60,000 hectares of farmland. - Boaz Joseph
Metro Vancouver has more than 60,000 hectares of farmland.
— image credit: Boaz Joseph

While most kids growing up had bedtime stories read to them in funny voices by their parents, I had a very different experience.

These fond memories of my bedtime include my father answering questions about a broad range of topics, and in doing so, my dad inspired in me a curiosity that I have failed to grow out of. To this day, he is one of the most knowledgeable people I have ever had the honour of meeting. For evidence, come over and sit through a Jeopardy episode and watch him out-perform the contestants (he didn’t need to study the book).

These days, it’s curious that we, as a group of people, think in very specific and nuanced ways. For example, if I say the word ‘farmer’ a whole bunch of people will immediately picture a middle to older aged white man, usually sitting on a tractor in a field of crops, typically wheat (if Canadian) or corn (if American). However, for a large percentage of our population, the word ‘farmer’ inspires something completely different! It is rare that the image that pops into our heads of a farmer is of an Indo-Canadian farmer growing blueberries, or of Chinese-Canadian farmers growing leafy greens!

Imagine with me, the region of Metro Vancouver with over 60,000 hectares of farmland. That’s equivalent to five times the size of the City of Richmond!  Within our regional boundaries, we have one of the most diverse populations around the globe. Among our immigrant population, over 45 per cent of the total population self-identify as an immigrant. Even more incredible is that about 20 per cent of all farmers in the region self-identify as an immigrant. It really does make one wonder and question whether the way in which we talk about farming and food does justice to the diversity of our region.

We at the Richmond Food Security Society continue to believe that there are real opportunities for enhanced participation and empowerment of non-dominant voices. Those who experience poverty or who live on a fixed income, youth with low assets, and especially the new and landed immigrant communities, deserve to be included and represented when we think about farming and food. There is much to be learned from the knowledge and practices of people who see and experience the world differently. It begins with trust and relationships, in creating solidarity and community where ideas and issues can be explored openly without blame, judgement or dismissal.

As part of our work, we have been developing a Richmond Food Charter. This is a document that sets out principles for government, industry and community organizations that guide food security and sustainability work. In keeping with the make-up of our community, it has been at the forefront of our work to include the diversity of voices that reflect Richmond’s multicultural heritage and current reality.

The kind of information that has been coming from our cultural communities has been eye-opening! It is clear that among these diverse communities, there is high interest in ensuring that all people have the ability to succeed in life, and to do that, they need to be able to get adequate amounts of healthy, nutritious, sustainable, cultural and appropriate foods that meet the needs of people now and into the future. In the words of one of our participants, food is tied so closely to culture that we cannot talk about food without talking about culture.

Often, I joke with people that we should all be required to take an ‘active listening’ seminar. The ability to set aside one’s own thoughts, reactions, and pre-judgements is a valuable skill when attempting to understand another person’s reality, especially when there are differences in languages and culture.  Being the loudest talker does not make a good leader or impart automatic wisdom. Seeing the farming and food systems in Metro Vancouver as a messy and complex hodgepodge of different people, organizations, and competing interests is a great starting point.

Having the courage to put one’s convictions and generalizations aside to engage with another human being on a personal level is difficult; human beings are not comfortable with difference, particularly when it challenges our own ways of thinking and values.

However, this ability to engage with the diversity of our community’s multicultural food and farming communities is invaluable if we are ever to build a sustainable and resilient food system that meets everyone’s needs, not just a select few who have the loudest voices.

Colin Dring is executive director of the Richmond food Security Society. See www.richmondfoodsecurity.org for more info.

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