Queen's University

Betsy Donald

[Betsy Donald]

Food for Thought

Everyone eats food, some of us enjoy cooking, and careful consumers check food labels in the interests of healthier eating. But unless you’re a professional chef, you probably don’t spend as much time thinking about food, and probably not in the same way, as Dr. Betsy Donald.

For the last few years, Donald, a professor of geography and urban planning at Queen’s, has been exploring the origins of North America’s industrial food system. That system feeds millions of people – but it has also destroyed countless family farms, engendered the growth of thousands of fast-food restaurants and mass-marketed foods that, while inexpensive, have scant nutritional value and are partly responsible for an obesity epidemic in the United States and Canada. Too, in many cities the system has also created “food deserts” – typically lower-income sections of town whose residents have no convenient access to a grocery store.

How is it that, in two of the world’s richest countries, so many people are fed so poorly? One reason, says Donald, has been corporate restructuring in the retail food sector, which has failed to produce the across-the-board consumer benefits that some economists say is the natural result of marketplace competition.

“The food system has become incredibly industrialized and margins are very slim,” says Donald, who is spending a sabbatical year at the University of Cambridge to study the historic evolution of that system in the U.S. “Big retailers have had to build bigger and bigger stores, which has had an impact on small towns and poor communities because it’s not as profitable for these large retailers to locate in poorer areas. It means people have to have access to cars.”

The food desert phenomenon reflects both a food system and urban-sprawl city planning that is ultimately based on cheap oil, says Donald. Big-box food stores stock huge inventories, which are often trucked over long distances and are highly processed so they can be stored longer. Much of it is made using products derived from corn, which relies on government subsidies and oil-derived chemicals to grow on an industrial scale. As well, since big-box outlets tend to be located in suburban areas, shoppers must drive there. If the price of oil soars to unsustainable levels, which many economists predict is only a matter of time, the current food system could break down for food growers, distributors, retailers and consumers.

That’s a dire scenario, but Donald is encouraged by grassroots food activism in recent years that has led a growing population of consumers to think – and care – about where their food comes from. By taking small steps to sidestep the industrial food system, she says, more people and communities are seeing how they can become physically and economically healthier.

Such steps include the establishment and promotion of traditional farmer’s markets, local food co-ops and small-scale organic farms and community gardens. Too, regions such as Prince Edward County in eastern Ontario – which revived its declining rural economy by fostering the growth of wineries and restaurants serving food made from locally-grown ingredients – are showing that agriculture on a smaller scale can provide productive employment, healthy food and a sense of community identity and pride.

But Donald acknowledges that organic fruits and vegetables are too expensive for many people and that healthy, affordable food will only become a reality for everyone after major shifts in public attitudes and government policy. For instance, governments will have to re-think subsidies for industrial corn and beef farming that depletes soil and pollutes water, and support more sustainable growing methods. Food manufacturing and processing, which often takes place in massive factories whose output might be distributed to half a continent, will need to be done in more, and smaller, facilities to reduce the risk of widespread transmission of food-borne illnesses. Urban planners will need to promote human-scale development that makes it easier for people to walk or cycle to get food instead of drive.

Policy-makers are already considering moves in this direction, says Donald, because the costs of treating heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other medical conditions associated with poor nutrition and a sedentary lifestyle are making them an economic necessity.

While previous generations built the mainstream food system, Donald says it will be the coming generation’s job to reform it.

“Younger students have really grabbed onto food as a way forward, a way to find solutions,” she says. “I’m optimistic that it's the students who are going to change the system.”

Profile by Alec Ross
(e)Affect Issue 3, Spring 2013