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Day One
Illustrations by Nikki Ernst

As you are reading this, the number of people worldwide who don’t have enough to eat is growing. The formal term is food insecurity. And it’s happening everywhere — even in high- income countries like Canada.

Peggy O’Neil acknowledges food insecurity is an enormous, highly complex problem, but she also believes there are feasible ways to tackle it. We all, she contends, can improve our small corners of the world.

“As food prices rise and more people experience food insecurity, we’re seeing more of a push for innovation and back-to-basics approaches,” says O’Neil, PhD’16, who holds four Western degrees and is an assistant professor of food and nutritional sciences at Western-affiliated Brescia University College.

“People are reinventing spaces, re-establishing local markets and getting to know the people who produce what we eat.”

Only a 15-minute drive south of Western’s campus, what O’Neil is talking about is happening.

On a warm August afternoon, a dozen or so people are lined up on the side of a residential street, reusable bags in hand, waiting for the vegetable stand run by Urban Roots London — co-founded by Ivey MBA graduate Richie Bloomfield in 2017 — to open.

A couple is comparing bunches of carrots, an older man and his daughter are deliberating over four varieties of kale and a young woman is thumbing through a “free seeds” box.

A proudly local operation, Urban Roots lives up to its name. Garden plots and greenhouses are sandwiched between a quiet dead-end street and one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. Giant power towers loom over rows of organic vegetables tended by volunteers who plant and harvest the crops, prune plants to increase production, weed out invasive species and fight what seems to be a never-ending battle against thistle.

The non-profit has grown and distributed tens
of thousands of kilograms of produce, a portion of which is sold to cover its operating costs and the rest is distributed and donated. Miniscule by comparison to the yields of conventional factory farms, this localized strategy for food production could nevertheless hold the answer to addressing one of the most challenging global issues.

And the need for this kind of intervention is greater than ever. In March 2022, food bank usage in Canada hit an all-time high, with nearly 1.5 million visits—a 35 per cent increase from 2020. Yet measuring food bank use alone greatly underestimates the magnitude of the crisis happening in this country.

Food insecurity is about not having enough food, but hunger is only part of it. It’s also about not having reliable access to culturally suitable and nourishing food for every household member to live a healthy and active life.

Measured this way, new data from Statistics Canada’s Canadian Income Survey reveals nearly seven million people across 10 Canadian provinces, including one in four children, live in food-insecure households. Indigenous and Black households experience two
to three times the food insecurity rates of white households, and a staggering 57 per cent of residents of Nunavut lack consistent and adequate access to food.

Globally, the picture is even starker. According to the United Nations (UN), more than 2.4 billion people worldwide experienced food insecurity last year, and these numbers are predicted to rise as our global food supply becomes increasingly unstable and unpredictable.

Experts point to a convergence of threats—extreme weather, geopolitical tensions and trade protectionism— creating a “new normal” of increased volatility in food production, distribution and cost. “The world is moving backward in its efforts

to end hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition in all its forms,” the UN states in its recent report on global food security and nutrition.

A community-led, culturally informed approach tailored to local needs and conditions is where we must begin to solve this problem, says Isaac Luginaah, a Distinguished University Professor in the department of geography and environment at Western.

“We know traditional food systems are the best for every contextual environment,” says Luginaah. His collaborative research in Malawi employs agroecological farming practices to grow sustainable produce and provides rural households with income- generating opportunities and community-based nutrition education focused on social equity and crop diversity. “It’s working,” he says. And Luginaah and his collaborators are using the findings to teach other farmers how to do it elsewhere.

Land, water, plants and animals are not distinct entities, but parts of an interconnected system

In Canada, more and more larger-scale farms are also adopting culturally informed, ecologically minded approaches to food production. Co-owner of Proof Line Farm just outside London, Western graduate Janan McNaughton, BA’08 (Anthropology) and her husband and brother-in-law employ a systems-based farming approach.

“We see land, water, plants and animals not as distinct entities but as parts of an interconnected system,” says McNaughton.3 For example, they let their chickens forage through empty cow pastures, which minimizes pests when cows return. Diverse grasses sustain their cows in the warmer months and contribute to hay production for use in winter. And they rotate crops to keep the soil strong. “These small decisions create a healthier and more sustainable environment that benefits all—us, animals and consumers alike.”

The critical importance of family farms—like Proof Line—in maintaining stable food production and supply is why, O’Neil argues, “we need more policies, at all levels, to safeguard family farms and farmers.”

McNaughton, who also chairs Middlesex London Food Policy Council, stresses food insecurity involves more than providing basic sustenance, locally produced

or otherwise—it also means ensuring people have access to healthy, affordable and culturally appropriate food choices. “Even in tough times, individual food preferences persist. Conversations about food insecurity must address survival needs alongside emotional, cultural and belief-related aspects of food.”

All of which, she says, ties back to preserving local farmland and ensuring we have ample, accessible spaces to grow, prepare and distribute adequate and appropriate food options to all members of our communities.

O’Neil sees a tangible way forward in narrowing our scope to ensure every person within a particular city or region can access affordable and appropriate food choices.

“If we were, for example, to keep our focus on London or even Southwestern Ontario, we could quantify the population, multiply it by three daily meals and then multiply that by 365 days. Then we could quantify the required resources, funding, expertise and volunteer efforts to ensure everyone in this city or region is food secure. Then we step back, evaluate what worked and didn’t, and openly share our blueprint with other cities and regions.”

And, emphasizes Luginaah, the key is starting small and having everyone do their part.

“We’re all overwhelmed, right? But as we can see clearly with climate change, our actions are tied together. We can all do something to improve this world. It’s really that simple. We just have to do it.”