Stimulating Saturdays: What is ethical eating?

To you, what does it mean to eat ethically? Off the top of my head, ethical eating would mean consuming food that has been ethically raised and obtained. Of course, that interpretation alone in and of itself is open to much interpretation. What it means to one person to be “ethically raised” might not be ethical enough for the next person. However, I saw this trailer for a book (yes…I wondered to myself what a ‘book trailer’ is) that made me rethink ethical eating.

The trailer is for the book, Behind the Kitchen Door, by Saru Jayaraman. I haven’t read it yet but it raises a very crucial point: the food that you are eating at a restaurant may meet your definition of ethical eating, but are the people behind the scenes of your food being treated ethically? And if not, can eating at that restaurant still be ethical?

I am not too familiar with the minimum wage situation in the United States but was shocked to see that for tipped workers, the minimum wage is just over $2 per hour. There have also been numerous attempts to have the minimum wage raised, including a campaign by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.

The minimum wage in Canada for all workers is higher than $2 per hour but is still under the poverty line and has been in the media spotlight again recently. In Canada, each of the provinces and territories set their own minimum wage. In the province of Ontario where I live, the provincial government just announced that it will be raising the minimum wage to $11, effective June 1, 2014, ending the freeze that has been in effect since 2010. Decisions on when and by how much to raise the minimum wage have been haphazard in the past. To address this, the provincial government also promised to introduce legislation enabling annual increases to the minimum wage, linked to the rate of inflation, that would be announced each year on April 1 and becoming effective on October 1 of the same year. Critics continue to argue that these announcements by the government are not enough to address the fact that the minimum wage is still below the poverty line (for a person working full time year-round). I can’t imagine only earning $2 per hour at any job. I can’t imagine having to support a family at $11 per hour.

So again, I ask, what does it mean to eat ethically?

Fair Trade, Fair Transport Chocolate

I was listening to a podcast of the BBC’s Food Programme on Mott Green. I had never heard of him previously but was quite intrigued by his creation of the Grenada Chocolate Company. In this age of microbreweries, artisanal food production, and maker culture, the philosophy embodied by Mott Green doesn’t sound all too foreign. However, this does not diminish the amazingness of what he did:

  • Small-batch chocolate production;
  • Cocoa grown, harvested, and processed into chocolate all in Grenada;
  • Self-empowered cocoa farmers who are part of a co-operative;
  • Keeping production local;
  • Living with the land;
  • Use of sustainable means to power machines.
  • Use of sustainable transport (a wind-powered ship) to move bars to international markets;
  • Control of the fermentation process for the cocoa and of the overall supply chain;
  • Certified organic ingredients; and
  • Building all of the machinery used in the process.

In 2012, Kum-Kum Bhavnani produced a documentary about the Grenada Chocolate Company called Nothing Like Chocolate; here is the trailer.

Mott Green facilitated the creation of a true tree-to-bar sustainable organic dark chocolate bar. Very cool, very inspirational.

Sea Vegetables

Today, the bento box is a trendy lunch style. Growing up, my mom would pack me a bento box to take to elementary school, complete with onigiri (Japanese rice balls) and a few side dishes to go with it; sometimes my lunch even included warm miso soup. Sounds amazing, right?

Well, I remember the reactions I got from my classmates when I’d open my bento at lunch. Classmates would hone in on the onigiri, wrapped in nori (sweet-salty Japanese toasted seaweed), and react with disgust and ridicule. I would go home and tell my mom that I just wanted a ham sandwich, just like everyone else.

I’m reminded of this memory as I listen to an episode of the BBC’s Food Programme on seaweed. Many cultures around the world have incorporated sea vegetables into their diets over hundreds of years. Growing up, my experiences told me that I was the odd one out, eating various seaweed products (nori, kombu, hijiki)…but now, I feel like North America and parts of western society are the odd ones out by not eating any seaweed.

Interestingly, seaweed use is becoming trendy, recognized for its vast flavours (including umami), mineral and trace element content, potential for supporting sustainability in energy (for humans and beyond), and – I’m assuming – because it still has that exotic pull. I’m noticing friends who really enjoy eating Korean or Japanese nori as a snack, eating or even rolling their own sushi, adding dulse or kombu to soup. Seaweed can be a condiment, a base, a main dish.

The future is bright for seaweed!

Stimulating Saturdays: Food Waste

I remember going to an outdoor school in grade 4. We were incredibly fortunate at my school to have access to such a facility. We would all pile into school buses with sleeping bags and outside clothes for a 3 day stay at outdoor school, where we – city kids – would learn about nature (like what the inside of a fish feels like!). At meals, we were assigned chores. Some of us would be responsible for putting together the day’s weather forecast (so that everyone would know how to dress after breakfast), some of us would help prepare and set tables for meals, some of us would clear the table…and that included collecting all of the leftover food to feed the resident pigs. Now, as a 10 year old, I recall seeing the slop of food that we took in metal pails to the pigs and thinking how disgusting it looked, but I also remember the pigs really loving the fare!

Food waste is a complex issue because it arises in so many different facets. Supermarkets getting rid of food because it is no longer saleable, households overbuying food at the supermarket and throwing it out in the garbage, producers losing food because they can’t process it efficiently (just as an example).

Washroom faux pas

It’s interesting what can become gossip at work. Recently, it was about a washroom faux pas. Someone had come out of the washroom and not washed their hands before exiting. Naturally, I asked if perhaps they had been changing or *ahem* fixing themselves somehow in the stall. Nope. Even if they had been doing either of those, they had flushed and therefore, touched the flusher thingy. That, to me, automatically creates the need to wash my hands. After all, some people flush using their feet (and therefore their shoes)! It wasn’t just one person who had noticed this. Several people remarked on having noticed this one particular person not washing their hands after coming out of a stall. So I wonder…is there another explanation for this seeming washroom faux pas?

Speaking of washing hands, I’m reminded of this fabulous video on a very practical way of reducing the number of paper towels you think you need to dry your hands. And trust me, it works.

Stimulating Saturdays: Food culture in a food desert

The value of turning land in the middle of a city into a garden is amazing. People who do the gardening and nurture the plants and the land find great joy in the activity, the people passing by and interacting with the garden are affected by their experience with nature, and slowly, food deserts disappear.

Local Food Act: Good things grow in Ontario

With the Legislative Assembly of Ontario back in action after a prorogation by the previous premier, the Local Food Act (Bill 36) has once again been reintroduced by the Minister of Agriculture and Food. The Minister explained that the Ontario government will lead by example in the support of local food systems by setting policy direction such as “requiring ministries to consider local food for procurements under $25, 000”. Also, the week leading up to Thanksgiving, which is the first Monday of October in Canada, will be Local Food Week, overlapping with the already existing Agriculture Week.

The bill definitely has a catchy title that is very with the times. However, all of the discussion that I have heard around the Local Food Act raises questions in my mind about what the government is trying to achieve. The phrase ‘local food’ is thrown around a lot. In the Act, local food is defined as:

(a)    Food produced or harvested in Ontario, and

(b)    Subject to any limitations in the regulations, food and beverages made in Ontario if they include ingredients produced or harvested in Ontario.

But I don’t think all local food is equal. And not all local food should automatically be considered to be superior to non-local food. “Local food” is more complex than just naming the borders of production. We need to think more critically about what it means to buy local, eat local, and support local.

  • If we do the ‘local’ thing, what factors do we want to prioritize? Is it eating more seasonally? Increasing funding and decreasing red tape to support the infrastructure necessary for local food systems?  Encouraging farmers to work with the land with sustainability for generations in mind (meaning less harm done to the soil and to plant diversity)?
  • What are the implications of decreasing your food mileage? How could this impact the farms countries away that have been shaped to supply some percentage of our food? Is a local food system more efficient or sustainable than a global food system?
  • For the public sector organizations that would be impacted by any targets set under the Act, what effect would local food procurement targets have on their overall operating budget? For example, hospitals receive decreased provincial funding to provide services, which result in cuts to staff and services; will local food procurement be affordable?
  • By using more of the food produced in Ontario within Ontario, will this have any effect on the availability of Ontario produce elsewhere in Canada?
  • Where does education fall into this picture? There is IMMENSE value in teaching children from pre-school through high school about food production and cooking through school gardens and kitchens. We need to educate kids and folks in general about making decisions related to their food. We also need to seriously address food security.
  • Even if the supermarket has signs indicating that this product was made in Ontario, what does this mean to consumers? Do they notice? Does this factor into their decision-making? Does it make a difference?

These are just some of the questions that floated into my head after reading the Local Food Act. The Minister (and numerous critics) has publicly acknowledged that the content of the bill is vague, but I suppose the idea is to create a framework to which more detail can later be added…?

Don’t get me wrong. I think it would be great if places like hospitals place real value on the quality of the ingredients that they use in their food; after all, ingredients do make a big difference. But the issue is complex and we just need to make sure that we’re having active discussions on what we want to focus on and prioritize.

You can read the short bill here:

A side note on food security: I was listening to a podcast that was discussing this topic and someone made a very good point that hadn’t consciously occurred to me. It isn’t just about teaching people how to cook from ‘raw’ ingredients (vegetables, meats, etc). Some people don’t have access to cooking implements. No stove, no oven, maybe no microwave or toaster. We can’t just think of a lack of access to affordable good ingredients. It’s access to the whole package.

Stimulating Saturdays: What is “sustainability” again?

There’s a lot of green-washing nowadays, with marketing moving towards green this, natural that, local this, sustainable that. So I thought it would be good to take a step back and remind ourselves of what ‘sustainability’ means as well as what some of the core principles that we should be using for guidance are. It’s a complex topic once you start getting into the weeds (the details) and there are different ways of interpreting and integrating principles of sustainability into your life and your business. It’s also easy to get swayed by effective marketing….

Sustainability: Everything is connected. Allowing for a good quality of life for us now and for the future generations, all around the world.

Stimulating Saturdays: Big picture on health

A lot of attention is always on health care and, in particular, health care costs. This is particularly true in this time of so-called fiscal restraint. However, health care shouldn’t be limited to diagnostic and reactive care. Preventative health care is crucial.

Stimulating Saturdays: How do we feed the world?

In the previous Stimulating Saturdays post, I shared a video that explains the concept of food security. This week, I’m following up with this video on the ‘global food crisis’, which is a combination of inequitable food and resource distribution, a rising demand for food as the population increases, and building or maintaining sustainable resource systems (food production, environment, lifestyles).

It’s interesting that a picture of corn is used to represent food in quite a few of the animation frames. I recently watched the documentary, King Corn, which follows two relatively young guys who go to middle America to grow corn because they learn that their body is essentially corn. A testament to how much corn products make their way into our foods. A substantial amount of food is grown to be fed to animals, not people, so that countries that crave a large amount of cheap meat can be satisfied. Corn is a common feed element for animals but it is also processed into various corn-derived substances. A lot of the corn that you see driving through the countryside is not meant to be eaten directly by humans but you end up eating a lot more corn than just corn-on-the-cob if you buy pre-packaged or pre-prepared foods.

If you’re interested in these topics, a great book to read is Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System by Raj Patel.