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Food fights

I read about Chef Jamie Kennedy possibly going broke on the front-page news (not bad profile for someone who’s not a banker or carmaker getting bailed out by the Government) at the same time I got an invite to see the preview of Food Inc. So the chance to think about the two food happenings together gobsmacked me. Food Inc and Food Red Ink – I came to realize there’s more cause-effect here than we might think.

I see so few movies that I’m easy to please at the worst of times. The great camera work, interviews, writing and storyline of Food Inc produce a powerful effect of a commercial food system without an ethical bone in its body.

But I’m disappointed that movie producers in today’s highly-conscious globalized world can treat the theme of an ‘industrialized food system’ as if the industrialized food system has no country of birth and as if no countries have food systems that were colonized, not just industrialized. About the only country in the world that would identify industrialized food as merely industrial instead of US multinational is the United States. And the widespread equation of industrial and American food is justifiable, if a bit sloppy. Industrialized food, as I argue in my book, The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food, is a byproduct of US efforts to maintain military, political and economic control of the world, from the time of the post-World War Two new world order during the 1940s to the time of the post-Cold War new world order since the 1990s. Industrialization of food gave the green light for US domination of cheap food exports, which created economic and political dependency. One problem with local, I guess, is that sometimes movies can get too close to see the whole picture.

Once the movie triggered my old Canadian nationalist buttons, my mind flashed back to the late 1960s and early 1970s. That’s when Susan Crean’s Who’s Afraid of Canadian Culture? was all the rage, and Canadian singers, writers, comics, actors, artists and academics – but alas, no foodies – were demanding some attention as possible prophets in their own country.

The best of them were going broke trying to produce in, for, about and from the local Canadian scene – just like Jamie Kennedy, the Margaret Atwood of Canadian bacon, is going broke now. And like Kennedy, the Canadian authors, actors, comics, singers and academics of the 1970s got stern lectures about being too exclusive, too highbrow, too lacking in talent and smarts. You could call them too anything as long as you didn’t come out and make the most obvious point: they were too unsupported by their own governments’ agencies and policies.

The bald truth is that Jamie Kennedy, the most celebrated of the local celeb chefs, is in trouble for the same reason Canadian cultural figures working in non-food media were in trouble 40 years ago; he’s being done in by his own government.

Kennedy is quoted in the local media as blaming his economic problems on the high cost of local food. That upset a lot of localista, who feel that problem shouldn’t be named. And it caused a howl among the yuppie-bashers, who wondered how the price of local food could ever be high enough to explain Kennedy’s sky-high prices.
But Kennedy’s baseline problem flows from the unofficial but unspoken food policy of Canadian governments at all levels: no good deed goes unpunished.

The reason why local food is only available at upscale restaurants and high-end farmers markets is that government policy makes local food unaffordable anywhere else.

Kennedy was one of the founders of the Knives and Forks farmers’ market that first brought farmers’ markets to neighbourhood streets way back in the 1990s, when today’s farmers’ market revival was just a gleam in a few foodies’ eyes. Today, he spends countless hours bringing local and artisanal foods to the Brickworks and other food oases. While he takes time from his day job to find and support local farmers, conventional chefs, cooks and fast-food managers rely on imported food delivered right to their door, thanks to the just-in-time logistics of multinational supply chains that feature anonymous foods selected on price point alone.

Governments evidently believe it’s a level playing field when the two kinds of restaurants or retail outlets compete head to head on price and quality, even after governments have funded a virtually-free highway system for long-haul food truckers to navigate.

It should not be thought that governments have no ability to promote local products. At the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, the biggest booze retailer in the world, Ontario wine is the first thing an incoming customer sees. Same for beer at the government-sanctioned monopoly called the Beer Store. Same for Lottario tickets at corner convenience stores – no long-distance betting in this province, where the Government takes the lion’s share of money wasted on gambling.
Only when it comes to the cornerstones of nutritious diets, healthy lifestyles and sustainable economies do governments lose their ability to provide infrastructure for local product. For example, Ontario’s government-owned Food Terminal for wholesale buyers does nothing to highlight Ontario-grown food. There’s no requirement that supermarkets give a nudge with product placement for local, as is done in booze stores. Since both federal and provincial government agriculture department officials have their heads stuck in the sands of export economies, there are virtually no programmes to support post-harvest handling, customized processing or even basic inspection of local foods – the latter being the reason why New Zealand lamb gets into local restaurants with clearance from the Canadian Government, while would-be shepherds in Ontario try to find nearby federally-inspected slaughterhouses. Government purchases of local or sustainable food is much talked about, but I can’t name a handful of places where it’s policy, and rarer still, where the policy is implemented.

Public infrastructure for local foods barely exists because governments – following the directives of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and others – have ceded infrastructure to be a private matter for multinational corporations to decide on, with no regard for family farms, community enterprises or public health. That’s why Jamie Kennedy is facing tough times, and – the good news – why movies like Food Inc are now coming out of the US.

(adapted from Now Magazine, July 2, 2009; Wayne Roberts is the author of the No-Nonsense Guide to World Food)

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