What is Sustainable Food?

We frequently hear the word sustainability used in reference to food systems and agriculture; however, how we define 'sustainable food' is often shaped by our personal background and experiences. The McGill Farmers' Market team discusses the experiences that have shaped their appreciation for food and their understandings of a sustainable food system. 

What fostered your appreciation of food? 

Monica: As the daughter of a dairy specialist and an agricultural research assistant, it is no surprise that my appreciation of food began at an early age. Growing up in New Brunswick, I learned to value the abundance of organic food that was grown at the outskirts of my hometown. Each week, my mother took me to the local farmers' market where I had the opportunity to interact with the farmers who dedicated their lives to the cultivation of the food I ate.Through my exposure to a vibrant local agriculture sector in New Brunswick, I began to understand the seasonality of food and the vital role of sustainable food production. The farmers' market always had a special place in my heart, as it brought members of my community together every weekend. To me, food is community.

Keah: I think my appreciation of food has been fostered in a few different ways. I grew up in rural Nova Scotia and spent my summers trying to grow a garden in rocky soil with my Dad; these memories have definitely given me deep respect for the hard work of farmers who grow produce. I was also lucky to grow up in a health-conscious household, and throughout my childhood we were usually subscribed to CSA baskets and shopped at local farmers markets; my parents made both of these things seem exciting, which in turn made me eager to cook good meals from the food we bought! Lastly, I think I used healthy cooking as a tool to grow as a person when I was a teenager, and would regularly try new recipes for my friends and family in high school. All of these things have given me a deep passion for food as an instrument for emotional and physical wellbeing. 

Chelsea: I developed an appreciation for food when I learnt the art of cooking and what amazing flavors I could create. Cooking with friends depended my love for food and made me value the social benefits associated to the ritual of cooking and eating. As I immersed myself in an environmental degree, I quickly realized the ecological costs hidden in foods produced under conventional industrial agricultural practices. Learning about the food system inspired me to take ownership of my diet and champion the sustainable food movement. My appreciation for food grew when I understood the potential that a food system revolution has in shaping human related impacts on the environment.

Amelia: When I was a baby, my dad worked as a chef and used to plop me down on the counter during slow times and give me some fruit and stuff to play with, so I probably gained some appreciation from that. Otherwise, meals have always been a really big part of my family life, and I have such fond memories of big raucous dinners with eccentric family members. Now I mostly eat meals with my eccentric friends, but the sentiment remains the same.

In your own words, describe a sustainable food system.

Monica: I wish I had an elevator pitch for this one, but my personal understanding of a sustainable food system changes frequently with each of my professional, volunteer, and academic experiences. For example, working at a food bank in Montreal allowed me to understand that a sustainable food system is ecological, but it also must be accessible to all members of a society. Through my academic work in recent years, I have also become more aware of troublesome labour practices across Canada and the United States relating to migrant workers. In general, my experiences have helped me to define a sustainable food system as one that is ecological, resilient, and equitable.

Keah: I think a sustainable food system is one in which a holistic focus on environmental, economic and social wellbeing is maintained during the production and consumption stages of food. I think that sustainability necessarily requires collaboration between all the stakeholders in the food production process to ensure that sustainable practices are maintained, and that this is easiest focalized when focusing on a certain place. 

Chelsea: That’s a big one that you can write a whole thesis about! In short, a sustainable food system is one that is ecologically sound and socially just. It has strong community connections and mutually beneficial partnerships with other actors in the sustainable food movement. It is resilient in the face of shifting trade structures, varying crops yields and changing climates. A sustainable food system prioritizes cooperation over making a profit. It is decolonized and supports indigenous food systems and traditional ways of life that rely on hunting and foraging foods.

Amelia: A sustainable food system should involve ingredients that have been grown in a way that don’t make the planet worse, whether that means protecting soil quality, using less water-intensive practices, or burning less fossil fuels. However, I think it’s also important to remember social sustainability. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that there are real people growing the food we eat every day, so having products that supports people all along the production chain is a big part of sustainability to me.

How do you practice sustainable eating?

Monica: I practice sustainable eating by first recognizing what is possible and realistic for me, given my limited means as a student. I try to purchase the majority of my produce from Quebec farmers and buy organic fruits and vegetables when they are affordable. I find that shopping at farmers' markets is a great way to find local and organic fruits and vegetables at reasonable prices. For many years, I was vegetarian but I have found that being flexible in regards to my diet is much more conducive to my wellbeing. Eating local and sustainable is important for the planet, but it also needs to feel good. 

Keah: I practice sustainable eating first and foremost by buying my fruits and veggies locally through CSA programs (like ours!) and through farmers markets. I make an effort to buy produce in season, which coincidentally usually coincides with what is most affordable at the moment. I also make an effort to not buy pre-packaged foods, and am also a vegetarian. I hope to start helping with a community garden soon too! 

Chelsea: I practice sustainable eating by eating a vegetarian diet, prioritizing seasonal produce and supporting local vendors and producers. In the Summer months, I grow my own herbs and maintain a small urban garden to eat a more local diet. To avoid food spoilage, I buy my groceries meal to meal, instead of doing large grocery runs. I work from what I already have in the fridge and purchase only what is necessary to cook my meals. I also manage my organic waste in multiple ways to reduce my impact on the municipal composting system. I divert organic waste from the compost by repurposing my food scraps to make veggie stock! I collect organics in a paper bag in the freezer over a few weeks then make a big batch when I have enough. I also maintain a vermi-bin, from which I can harvest compost to grow plants from in the Spring!

Amelia: I do what I can. Obviously it’s easier in the summer, with CSA baskets and farmers markets, but it’s generally more expensive and time consuming to eat sustainably in the winter. The two main things I try to focus on in the winter are avoiding red meat as much as possible, and trying not to buy fruit that’s been shipped across the globe. Generally, I think we need to be kind with ourselves and remember that no one’s perfect. and sometimes concessions must be made. Especially for students who lead busy lives, and may have less money to spend on sustainable food options.

What foods do you cook when you need to take care of yourself?

Monica: Dark chocolate is my favourite pick-me-up! Otherwise, I love cooking soups and other healthy, vegetable-centered comfort foods that I can eat as leftovers when I am busy. 

Keah: I think that since coming to university, I’ve become a bit of a subsistence-meal cook. I like to make easy and healthy things like fruit and nut butter oatmeal, egg and vegetable stir fries, and bean salads. When I feel like a healthy treat, I’ll make hot chocolate with cocoa powder, stevia and almond milk! 

Chelsea: If I need to take care of myself, I cook something with cheese. A perfect comfort food that I find myself going back to is a French onion soup!

Amelia: A lot of the time when I feel like I need self-care I’ll ‘treat myself’ with poutine or pizza, but I’m constantly relearning the lesson that sometimes you really just need some healthy food that will actually sustain you and give you energy. My current favourite is a hand massaged kale salad with shallots, avocado, green apple, and lemon dressing. But sometimes you just want that slice of pizza...