There are many paths to food justice

Diverse tactics are key to ensuring Manitoba’s food system moves in the right direction

When you think of food injustice, Manitoba may not be the first place that comes to mind.

Our province is a significant agricultural producer and shelves are piled high with food in every grocery store. 

It is certainly true that there are many places in the world that are worse off than Manitoba, where starvation or the forced removal of people from agricultural land are serious, pressing concerns.

Nevertheless, we cannot simply dismiss hunger as an issue - food justice is an issue in Manitoba, too, and there are many questions we should be considering in this regard.

For example, why do over 40,000 people per month visit our food banks in the midst of relative prosperity? Why are Manitoban farm incomes (including off-farm incomes) the lowest in Canada?

Why do people in northern Manitoba not have access to healthy, affordable foods in their stores? Or, for that matter, to the wild foods that they have depended on for generations?   

Despite our wealth, our social safety nets and our apparently high quality of life, food justice remains an issue in Manitoba.

Key features of a just food system include people who have access to food that is socially, economically and environmentally sustainable, while being culturally relevant, nutritious and controlled by local communities.

How do we create a more just food system in Manitoba? The answers lie in a continuum of responses, all of which contribute in their own way to just food systems.

Many people, for example, consider what municipal, provincial or federal governments can do to create and support just food systems. There are examples from across Canada and around the world that demonstrate that governments can be agents of significant change with regards to more equitable food systems. 

All three levels of government can provide funding, change policy and legislation and use their own purchasing power to reform our food system in Manitoba.

However, the policy route can be long and gruelling. Policy changes are not made overnight; patience and long-term sustained efforts are key. Slowly, governments are coming to realize the importance of addressing food justice issues.

There is another approach as well. Because policy changes take years to implement, Manitobans also need to make things happen on the ground right now, by mobilizing people and communities to create change in their own lives and society. 

In the province, people are engaging in food-buying clubs, social enterprises, education initiatives and community gardening, to name a few activities. There are undoubtedly many more.

These grassroots-driven initiatives are making change happen, creating healthier and more sustainable food systems on a small scale across Manitoba. 

It is perhaps unfair to separate policy and grassroots action. Optimally, the two need to inform and shape each other. Many people are passionate about working on both policy-level changes and grassroots action; some focus on one or the other.

Universities play a role in the continuum. Research is an important part of developing a just food system.

Many people think, for example, that community gardens are great, but funding is hard to come by without proving through research how they benefit lives, beautify neighbourhoods, reduce crime and improve nutrition. 

Developing new, alternative, sustainable food systems is going to require tremendous creativity and innovation. It also requires knowledge and information to back them up, to support community initiatives and to enhance efforts for policy change. 

Research is required; not research in the stereotypical ivory tower sense, but research that is engaged and sustained by constant interaction between community members, students and academics. 

For students, the opportunities are exciting: a chance to relate their work to real world challenges and learn from committed community members while developing practical and academic skills.

There is tremendous benefit for communities too, as they tap into the expertise and enthusiasm of the student.

We hope that this is what the Manitoba Alternative Food Research Alliance and other food research organizations can offer to food justice in Manitoba.

Through community projects, student research, events and discussion, we conduct research that supports, affirms and upholds the visions of community members in urban, rural and northern Manitoba as they work to create and sustain just food systems.

Stefan Epp is a research associate with the University of Manitoba, where he works as part of the Manitoba Alternative Food Research Alliance. To learn more about MAFRA, visit

Published in Volume 65, Number 20 of The Uniter (February 24, 2011)

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