Food Sustainability in Southern Ontario

An Interview with Lakehead Orillia’s Dr. West

By: Gregory McGrath-Goudie

Anyone who lives in Southern Ontario has seen the country side rapidly develop into a swath of suburban neighbourhoods and franchise establishments. This is especially true in Orillia. What was once a picturesque walk up University Avenue, between a decaying barn and an overgrown corn field, has become a walk through the rapidly expanding Westridge neighbourhood and the less picturesque (but admittedly convenient) CostCo. These developments beg a few questions: what does it mean when farmland is increasingly being bought for development? How does privatization affect our communities? How do these developments affect food sustainability and what are we doing to combat any issues? The Argus had the opportunity to interview Lakehead’s very own Dr. Doug West, a political science professor on the Orillia campus, to talk about some of these questions.

PC Gregory McGrath-Goudie

Q: Hi Dr. West, before we get started I’d like to get to know you a little better. How long have you been with the Lakehead community, and what projects have you been involved in throughout that time?

A: I joined Lakehead faculty in 1991, so I’ve been here for 27 years, and I’m considered to be one of the senior faculty members here. I moved from Thunder Bay to Orillia in 2011, so I’ve been [in Orillia] for 7 years. While I was in Thunder Bay, I became interested in food politics and food production with a colleague of mine from the social work program, and we were able to start an organization called the Food Security Research Network in Thunder Bay.

Q: So did you study food politics while completing your doctorate?

A: No, my doctorate was in political philosophy, so my doctorate is on the idea of the north, which is interesting in itself.

Q: Yeah, that would definitely tie into food security.

A:  It does, that’s sort of what drew me [into this area of thought]. What I found when I was doing my dissertation was that I kept encountering indigenous peoples who lived in what we call the north, and they live a precarious life because of our colonial intervention into their lifestyles.

Q: Definitely. I watched your Ted Talks seminar, and you emphasized that food, shelter, and community are the three most important things that humanity needs to work on. Interestingly enough, food and shelter—which require large amounts of space—have been increasingly privatized. What impact does this have on our notions of community, and how does it affect our ability to live sustainably?

A: I think the privatization of public space is a real problem, and the Ted Talk I did was about the commons as well. It was about this idea of what we have in common anymore and of course the commons is the basis for community. You cannot live in the world unless you have access to adequate amounts of food and water, and clean air, and all the other things that go along with what it means to be human in a very basic sense. You also need shelter and once you have shelter and food, then you can start to work on community. So if shelter and food are being monopolized by private enterprises, they don’t care about community as much as they care about individual consumers. Community gets [left out], so we need to rebuild community through the critical examination of food supply, food systems, and housing systems.

Q: So, thinking on a more localized level, what challenges does southern Ontario face in food sustainability and community?

A: Well, the Greater Toronto Area has been pushing itself further and further away from its core, and its getting close enough to Barrie to consider Barrie ‘Little Toronto’ in some ways. But what is in between Barrie and the GTA is a significant amount of farmland that is now being used for the development of housing for the single individual—there’s no community housing to speak of. We have a crisis now, an inner-city crisis of people who don’t have adequate housing. It’s incredibly expensive to live in the city, but also, we’ve developed stop-gap measures in the cities, such as food banks, community food centres—there are a lot of ways to distribute food, but the most interesting ones have to do with self-motivation and self-sustainability through operating in a community garden, so that you learn how to grow and process food that you want to produce. That’s one of the things we’re trying to do here in Simcoe County. The problem in Simcoe County is that a lot of land is used for farming, but it’s all commercial farming that’s feeding into the industrial food system, [so we need to] turn people’s heads towards organic and sustainable farming.

PC Gregory McGrath-Goudie

G: So, building on that, I read an article from 2015 that said you had been working on a local food policy for Orillia. What did that entail? Has anything come to fruition from it?

W: So, when I moved to Orillia I joined the board of the Orillia food bank, the Sharing Place, and through that I got to know people who were interested in food security and food sovereignty, the production of food and the value of local food. I met people who wanted to put together the Orillia food policy council. The model they were using was the model that is used in Toronto. In Toronto, the city actually pays for a person to be the liaison between the food policy council and the city and that person has a seat at every city council meeting. If there’s a food issue or some kind of land use issue that needs to be talked about in terms of in the potential production of food, such as parks, that person is in charge of sharing that information. So we tried to model it after that. We managed to get some support from some of the councillors, but it seems to have fizzled because Orillia is less concerned with food production than they are concerned with economic development. If you can’t guarantee there’s going to be a large return on your investment, it’s hard to [implement] a food policy. There are still people working on it, though.