A labour of love? Debates on anti-poverty in the kitchen, family farmers and food workers

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Author: Anelyse Weiler

Posted: November 5, 2014

Categories: economic development / Food in the News / GoodFoodBites / Ontario Food and Nutrition Strategy

Food writers in this week’s news have been turning their attention to a food system issue that often gets sidelined: labour.

Describing small farmers as a ‘dying breed’ in Canada, dietitian Jennifer Sygo notes that the average age of farmers in Canada is 54 years. About half of the country’s family farmers must work a second job in order to make ends meet. In Ontario, the average farmer makes only about $8,000 each year. Sygo’s article in the National Post raises growing concerns about the loss of Canadian family farms to larger-scale, consolidated corporate forms of farm ownership. She also writes about a new documentary, The Family Farm, which portrays the everyday challenges experienced by small family farmers in Canada along with opportunities for change.

In partnership with Sustain Ontario member FoodShare Toronto, The Family Farm will premiere in Toronto on Nov. 8th at 10:30am, and it will air on the Documentary Channel on Nov. 18th at 9pm.

While Sygo’s article calls for restoring “the broken relationship between the farmer and the consumer,” Michelle Chen points out that hired food workers also face significant obstacles to economic justice. In her article for The Nation, Can the Foodie Trend Also Help Food Workers?Chen observes, “traditionally, the consumer interest in eating well at cheap prices has been at odds with the labor interest of earning good wages under fair conditions.” Food workers include people hired in restaurants and food retail, farm workers, food processors, and food distributors. Somewhat paradoxically, food workers often experience high levels of food insecurity. Chen highlights the Los Angeles Food Policy Council’s efforts to support safe, healthy labour conditions and fair compensation for food workers through a voluntary institutional food procurement program, along with community-level food justice initiatives.

Unpaid food labour sustains us all, according to Mark Bittman in his op-ed for the NY Times this week. He wades into the debate on whether it is “elitist” to promote home cooking, given the barriers many low-income households face to cooking at home. Here, Bittman is responding to a recent academic article on how foodie messages about ‘reforming the food system’ through cooking disregard the gendered dimensions of kitchen labour and the disproportionate burden of cooking on mothers. For instance, cooking is tremendously difficult for many people because of their unpredictable working hours, inadequate wages and lack of food access, along with a weak investment in public transit (and, I would add, affordable housing and child care).

“Cooking is work,” Bittman contends. “It may be unpaid work based on love, obligation, entertainment, charity or coercion; or it may be paid work. When we cook for one another, we provide labor.” While he advocates in favour of anti-poverty efforts and emergency food initiatives, Bittman argues that home-cooking remains one of the most affordable ways of nourishing one another. If we want to advance human health and environmental well-being, he suggests that those of us who can cook (especially men) ought to spend a little more time in the kitchen.