Local talks tackle racism in food system

Attendees at the panel discussion, “What’s With the Ethnic Aisle?” on June 30, at Heartwood Community Café. | Photo courtesy of Gordon Neighbourhood House

Attendees at the panel discussion, “What’s With the Ethnic Aisle?” on June 30, at Heartwood Community Café. | Photo courtesy of Gordon Neighbourhood House

While Vancouver positions itself as a leader in socially responsible food strategy, a local panel points out that people of colour remain systematically excluded from decision-making in the food system. 

On June 30 at Heartwood Community Café a panel discussion titled “What’s With the Ethnic Aisle?” challenged Vancouverites to talk about white privilege in food access.

Hosted by Gordon Neighbourhood House, Heartwood, Museum of Vancouver, Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House and hua foundation, this talk was the first in the Vancouver Food Conversations series, generated from the city’s first Food Summit on May 16.

One of the panelists was Alejandra López Bravo, a migrant justice organizer with Sanctuary Health and Fresh Voices and support worker with indigenous youth at Ray-Cam Co-operative Centre. Born and raised in Mexico City, López Bravo finds that mainstream practises like buying organic are deeply detached from the economic realities of racialized and displaced communities.

“There’s a multibillion green market that leaves immigrant workers and people of colour out,” says López Bravo.

Who grows our local food?

Kevin Huang, panelist, Co-founder and Executive Director of hua foundation

Kevin Huang, panelist, Co-founder and Executive Director of hua foundation

For many, a key contention in “local food” discourse is the lack of recognition for the immigrants and indigenous people who built Vancouver’s food system.

“The white farmer back in the good old days is a very specific mythology,” says one of the panelists, Jason Blackman-Wulff, municipal councillor at the District of Squamish.

Kevin Huang, another panelist and co-founder of hua foundation, points to the history of Chinese farmers who started local food production after completing the Canadian Pacific Railway. Huang explains that in the 1920s Chinese farmers grew up to 90 per cent of British Columbia’s produce.

But just as the discriminatory Vegetable Marketing Act eventually barred the Chinese from selling produce freely in 1936, marginalization of Chinese-Canadian food producers continues today.

According to Huang, developments in Chinatown threaten jobs and primary food access driving out green grocers, fishmongers, restaurants and dry goods stores.

Huang says, “We’re losing key distribution points in the food system that we haven’t fully recognized. There has been so little research into the Chinese food distribution system, because it has been ‘othered’ for so long.”

Likewise, local food production is still driven by migrant work. Most of B.C.’s agricultural seasonal labourers are Mexican, Guatemalan or Jamaican.

According to López Bravo, many Mexicans accept poor working conditions on Canadian farms as a result of economic devastation following the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

“These people grow our food, and they cannot access healthcare or any other social service. They have never been given the opportunity to bring their families or apply for permanent residency. They are paid less than minimum wage, and they are not even eating the same foods they are growing,” adds López Bravo.

Building a culturally relevant food movement

One panelist, Stephanie Lim, is a community developer at the Greater Vancouver Food Bank and a member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council. In the education system, Lim sees opportunity to strengthen food skills and broaden understanding of food justice.

“The learning tools around food systems for young people are really focused on the ecological sustainability or corporate piece,” she says. “What I think is strangely absent is talk about intersections, like local food but imported labour.”

In his previous work advocating against shark fin harvesting, Huang noticed how the movement became an easy platform for protesters to generalize and vilify the Chinese population, without acknowledging the broader context of supply chains that extend from Europe and around the world. Today, Huang sees the importance of bridging across cultural silos and sectors. Hua foundation currently works with partners like Ocean Wise and Vancouver Farmers Markets, to foster cross-cultural competency within the private sector.

On the individual level, the panelists encourage Vancouverites to take ownership of local histories of indigenous people and diverse communities.

“Be curious about where your food comes from,” says López Bravo.

Continuing the conversations

The next talk will take place during the West End Food Festival in September 2016, digging deeper on migrant worker issues as well as how food policy can challenge poverty. Five more Vancouver Food Conversations are expected, leading up to the second Vancouver Food Summit on September 28, 2017 at the Museum of Vancouver.

“In the work I do, and in my personal life, food is a way to connect across barriers. It’s a tool for engagement, to connect, to heal, and also to share,” says López Bravo.

For more information, visit www.gordonhouse.org.