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Jeanette Sivilay - Organizing for Food Sovereignty in Manitoba

Written by Anna Sigrithur Chew on This! is a bi-weekly mini speaker series hosted at the South Osborne Farmers’ Market that aims to bring market-goers and local food champions together with the idea that a market should be a meeting place and a place of critical ideas as well as commerce.

Last week at Chew on This!, we were lucky to be joined by farmer, organizer and academic Jeanette Sivilay to speak to us about the dynamics in the Manitoba food system between players in the small farms community and policy makers that are shaping how we define food sovereignty in the Province. Jeanette began by sharing some of the background that inspired her to do the work she is doing. She grew up gardening with her parents in southeastern Manitoba and began critically engaging with food systems in university. Today she is an academic-- just having finished her Masters at University of Manitoba where she studied these food system dynamics-- and currently coordinates a provincial network of small scale food providers and local food enthusiasts interested in engaging in critical conversations about the food system. So what is food sovereignty? Most people have probably heard the phrase ‘food security’ used by politicians and community food activists alike; it is the idea that a community has access to enough nutritionally adequate food to live on. Food sovereignty takes that idea one step further and says that a community should have the rights and the power to participate in and create their food system from the grassroots to the policy level. As the global peasant rights organization, Via Campesina puts it: 

“Food Sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” (Source: Food Secure Canada) 

So what does this mean for small farmers in Manitoba? Jeanette described an experience early in her academic career that caused her to realize that, especially on the policy level, food sovereignty in the province was not robust. In 2013, a small scale farm that raised pastured pigs and made award-winning artisanal charcuterie products was raided and all their stock destroyed-- tens of thousands of dollars and countless months of work-- by provincial government health regulators. Although their products were previously approved through the provincial health department, a new health inspector had re-interpreted the existing food safety guidelines and determined the farmers were in breach of compliance.  Shortly thereafter, two other small farms were shut down in a similar way. Small farmers around the province became scared: what were they to expect when the existing food policies were so vague and unspecific to their scale of production that their livelihoods could be made or broken by a switch in health inspector? 

In Manitoba, this proved to be a pinnacle moment of tensions between the emerging network of small farmers and government regulators. Jeanette pointed out two things that frames this tension: first, that existing agricultural and food safety policies in the province were written for large scale, industrial operations. And second, that she believed the government at the time saw the small farms as a temporary nuisance, one that could be ignored and let fade away, rather than to invest time and money in changing these regulations. What regulators were not prepared for was for the farmers to fight back-- and fight back they did! Those affected by the charcuterie raid and their allies formed a group called The Real Manitoba Food Fight, which organized to push for policy reforms and clarifications that accommodated smaller scale, less industrialized operations. Groups like the Harvest Moon Local Food Initiative who were already pushing for small scale agricultural revitalization gained traction, and other groups formed, like Small Farms Manitoba (now known as Direct Farm Manitoba) which sought to connect consumers directly with small scale farmers via farm-gate style transactions and therefore by-pass prohibitive regulatory and health policies. Clearly a push for food sovereignty was brewing.  But Jeanette points out that although this was a big moment for the idea of food sovereignty-- and indeed subsequently, some policies have changed-- what she learned in her research is that one of the biggest hurdles in creating lasting food sovereignty is the tendency for local food to get swept into the neoliberal marketplace as luxury, niche products. It’s a tough go, she says, because of course, having regulations that are reasonable for small scale producers is a part of building food sovereignty. And under the current system, where larger scale farms are subsidized and protected in ways small scale farms are not, being a small farmer has associated costs and risks that cause prices to be higher. Under the current (unsupportive) structures, there is no way for small scale farms to charge less than they do. But this is a systems failure. As an entire functioning web of producers, intermediaries, and consumers -- as a community -- how do we build true food sovereignty, rather than simply lobby for our own individual interests? Jeanette says that she sees some possibilities: the growth of farmer's markets in the province is a positive step for making more fresh food accessible to more people, and groups like Direct Farm Manitoba are working concertedly for more policy changes to benefit small-scale agriculture. Some community-scale groups like the Good Food Club in West Broadway have been subsidizing local organic food for low income community for years. And the Winnipeg Food Council is trying to make a central plan for food in the city, and tackle some issues like food apartheid and lack of access to healthy foods. But more radical solutions-- such as transforming the very structures that benefit large scale agriculture and permit unequal access to food-- are going to take a diversity of ongoing approaches from a systems perspective. Jeanette says she’s hopeful, but that it’s not going to happen by itself, and it’s definitely not going to happen if we don’t work together. 

Resources: The Real Manitoba Food Fight: Direct Farm Manitoba: Winnipeg Food Council: Food Secure Canada: Become a Member of Farm Fresh Food Hub! Supporting us is supporting systems change in local food in Manitoba:

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