Interview with Cathleen Kneen and Moe Garahan

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Moe Garahan and Cathleen Kneen
Moe Garahan & Cathleen Kneen Credit: Eric Chaurette

In the late seventies, a group of people, including some from Inter Pares, held hearings across the country on Canada’s food policy. The People’s Food Commission inspired a vibrant community of food activists and organizations that have been working to reclaim the food system for the past thirty years. In the fall of 2008, two Inter Pares collaborators, Cathleen Kneen, Chair of Food Secure Canada, and Moe Garahan, coordinator of Just Food, shared experiences and lessons learned across generations of food activism. Cathleen left us February 21, 2016, when she passed away at the age of 72. 

Cathleen: My first political engagement was as an eighteen-year-old activist campaigning for nuclear disarmament. I was in Scotland at university and I sent a message back to my parents, saying, “Hey! I joined the campaign for nuclear disarmament.” I expected them to be surprised but they wrote back saying, “It’s about time you did something like that.” That took the wind right out of my sails, I’ll tell you. In the late sixties, the whole mix of social justice analysis, feminism and anti-war activism came together for me. In 1971, our family moved to Nova Scotia. If you were looking for social justice in Canada, it became abundantly clear that the resources were being sucked out of the hinterland and into the metropolis and from there to the headquarters of large corporations. We didn’t feel we could deal with this by staying in Toronto, and we felt it was inappropriate for us to go to the Third World, as they called it in those days. We went to the hinterland in our own country. Fifteen years of farming in Nova Scotia instilled in me an analysis of social justice that’s based on a daily practice of growing food. When the kids left, we moved back to Toronto. It didn’t really hit me until I left the farm that the dominant paradigm of agriculture was rooted in the same violent patriarchal model that I had been fighting in other parts of my life. That was a “Eureka!” moment for me.

Moe: I had a very personal beginning. When I left Northern Ontario to go to university in 1989, I made a decision to become a vegetarian, and was exposed to the theory that supported some of the choices I had made as an individual. In university I saw posters for an anti-logging campaign around Temagami. Coming from Northern Ontario, I wondered, “What’s happening in Temagami?” My friends’ parents were the loggers. Coming from the hinterland and moving to the city, there were pieces inside of myself that connected to the activism that I was being exposed to. A key book for me was Diet for a Small Planet. It clarified what wasn’t resonating for me in terms of eating meat. But my more systemic activism came when I moved to Ottawa in 1996, when I worked at an emergency food bank for a year. I had always taken on leadership roles and I had been involved in environmental issues for a while. I was struck by the lack of societal interest in looking at the systemic issues underlying poverty. I came from an anti-poverty and community development background, and wanted to look beyond the emergency provision of food. What are we doing collectively to address some of the underlying issues? There is such a high number of donations given in December. A lot of people are coming in and saying, “I just can’t imagine someone not having food on Christmas Day.” It really struck me. I wanted to ask them, “Can you imagine someone not having food on July 12th?” What’s the difference? That’s what moved me to start organizing around more systemic solutions for the food security issues that I was seeing in the daily work of the food bank. I also came to understand that an emergency food system has become a requirement, a structured element of our social safety net. People living on social assistance are given a listing of food banks as part of their coping mechanisms. I joined with others to organize collective kitchens, community gardens, and food co-ops. Eventually, this led to the creation of Just Food.

Cathleen: When I read Diet for a Small Planet I was so angry with the author for her blanket condemnation of animal husbandry. We were raising meat off grass, on marginal land that could not be ploughed because it was so stony. I understand what the author was doing but I was so angry that she had left out the alternative which I was living! The other thing I forgot to mention of course was that in the late seventies, I was part of the group that did the People’s Food Commission. And that was where we applied a structural analysis of the macro-economy to the food system. But it was the feminism, that sense of justice, which gave me the emotional energy to do the work. These things go hand-in-hand.

Moe: I think that is very reflective of the times. My context was environmentalism and anti-poverty issues. It is very reflective of the two emerging movements of those times.

Cathleen: I still do tend to see things from a food production perspective. I still walk down the street and wonder, “What do all these people do?” Some of them are seniors and artists, and that I understand. But what are the others producing? I was also involved in the kinds of things that Moe was talking about, trying to figure out how to start building life boats and reclaiming the food system. That is actually the title for Food Secure Canada’s next assembly, “Reclaiming the Food System.” This food system doesn’t work. It particularly doesn’t work for poor and rural people. We’ve got to start making systems that do.

Moe: I do feel that there are two sides. This system does not work for low-income people and it doesn’t work for rural food producers. I feel that understanding those most marginalized by the food system is required for solutions that are holistic in addressing the actual systemic issues. It’s too easy to understand environmental issues from one or two perspectives. I feel like I had a more effective role in food activism when I began to understand food production, which I only really began to understand when I grew my first tomato in a community garden years ago. I have now just started my first farming adventure.

Cathleen: Let me come back to those people commenting on being horrified that people would not have food on December 25th. It is very interesting because on December 25th people share food. That’s what you do. It’s like Passover. It’s about the cultural and human community part of the potlucks, the potlatches, the Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners, the Ramadan feasts. Every culture has got its own way of sharing food. That is what children grow up learning. It is central to who they are. Even a non-practicing Jew like me does Passover every year.

Moe: Because it connects to the sharing of food.

Cathleen: Yeah! Because it’s something that becomes a part of your definition, of who you are. I can see how a person wouldn’t make that same connection to the 12th of July. How do we help people understand what the issues with the food system are? We have to understand the celebration feast, the cultural feast – I learned some of that when I lived in B.C. You can’t really live in rural British Colombia without being next door to Native people. Well, a ski resort wanted to expand and change the last remaining alpine peak. The Native people next door to me were saying, “This land is sacred.” What they meant by it was that once you mess with high alpine, it cannot be regenerated, it’s gone. It’s not like the low alpine, or the low lakes, which can be in fact renewed over generations. High alpine is too fragile. The second thing is that, as long as anyone can remember, and anyone’s grandparents and so on can remember, that’s where people have gone for particular traditional foods. There are things you eat in the spring, and things you eat in the summer, and things you harvest in the winter. That’s who you are. If you don’t have access to those foods – just like if I can’t celebrate Passover – you’re not yourself anymore. If it is part of who you are, then it is sacred. If that isn’t sacred, then the word has no meaning. It is a struggle to survive, and survival is an accomplishment. That lesson was really important to me. I started actively working on food systems in the early seventies, and that’s thirty years ago. I’ve got more energy for it now than I had then. I think it’s the ethical, cultural, spiritual, environmental person – who I am as a creature in the world – that’s where the energy comes from. That keeps me going. And the relationships to other people. If I’ve achieved anything in all these years it’s been the development of important relationships – which are incarnated in organizations, but the organizations are really there because the people who created them believe in what they’re doing.

It’s so hard to look straight at the mess we’re making. It’s so painful. Whether it’s farmers committing suicide because they have to surrender the land that their family has had for generations, or whether it’s women who live on hot water with pepper and salt in it, calling it soup so they can feed their children. And this is in our country. It’s land that’s been made impossible to grow food on and toxic fish you can’t eat. We have to keep thinking about it and finding ways to help people see what’s at stake without feeling completely demobilized. To feel hopeful that there’s something that can and will be done. We need strength to go on doing that.

Moe: That’s really well said. In working in any movement, you are the first to be inundated with information about what’s not working and what’s ahead. You digest it and package it to educate other people towards action. I think that is a real occupational hazard of working in food activism because it’s a decision we have to make every day. When you know too much about your food, and the food system, its impact on the environment and on communities, you still have to find some food that day that makes sense to you. You still have to relate to other people and help them access food in a way that makes sense to them. I think it is challenging to hold on to a vision for an entirely different food system. I think it is a major accomplishment to hold on to a dream, a vision for the development of a healthy system.

Cathleen: I think that’s a very important piece. You can’t let it get to you – the reality that you can’t grow organic canola in this country, because of Monsanto!

Moe: To know that! And to really understand what that means.

Cathleen: When we held the agrofuels events in six cities last spring, we listened to Javiera talk about the people in Panama and in Paraguay who are being killed for not wanting to be removed from their land so that soy can be grown to make agrofuel. People are being shot!

Moe: Just to protect the food system that we rely on in other countries.

Cathleen: You have to believe that this is not permanent – that it can and will change. You just have to keep believing it.

Moe: That people will care enough to change. I remember when I was working against the genetic engineering of food in the late nineties. We wanted to educate people on genetic engineering issues and we were handing out information outside of Loblaws during Thanksgiving weekend, using the holiday as an opportunity to educate. The typical Ottawa response was, “Oh, I know this is happening but there’s nothing that we can do about it.” That’s very different from the experience of colleagues in the United States, where the public didn’t understand the issues. People in the Canadian context were educated on the issues but there was apathy and a lack of interest in systemic change.

Cathleen: I don’t think it’s apathy. I think it’s learned helplessness. I think it’s part of a system that’s supported by the media to ensure that nothing changes.

Moe: I think that’s part of it. When we have too much information without clear channels for change I believe that we become immobilized.

Cathleen: Exactly.

Moe: I also believe that there is a level of comfort that we experience that adds to our resistance to social change.

Cathleen: When I was farming I didn’t lack for food, there was always lots of food. This is something I’ve really struggled with in my life. I grew up in a reasonably comfortable home and I know that the way I live is part of the problem. We in North America have not learned to recognize our privilege and understand how to use it as leverage to change things. That’s the big piece of public education that we need to envision happening. We used to believe that if we only got people in power to understand how wrong they were, they’d change. But they won’t, because the current system serves their interests. We actually do have an enemy out there. That’s a hard lesson to learn.

Moe: It’s not just those in power that need to change.  There is a continuum of change, from individual change to systemic change. Education comes first and foremost but that’s not the Canadian challenge. The Canadian challenge is moving along that action continuum from education to change.

Canadians spend the least amount on food, as a percentage of their gross income, than any other country in the entire world, bar the United States. If we did one thing to transform the food system – and there are many things that need to change – it would be to choose to pay the actual labour, environmental, and nutritional costs of food production. If we could pay for the full cost of fair and just food – even just reaching the percentage of gross income that the rest of the population on the planet has to put towards food, and chooses to put towards food – that to me would go a long way to transforming the political and economic structures in Canada that maintain a food system that doesn’t work for so many.

Cathleen: As you pointed out earlier, there are a substantial number of people, even here in our own town, who don’t have the money to buy food as it is.

Moe: Absolutely.

Cathleen: Let alone pay a fair price for it.

Moe: One thousand people a month use the Ottawa food bank.

Cathleen: And that doesn’t really tell the story. It seems to me that one of the big problems is we have to get over thinking that food should be cheap in terms of cost and  nutritional value. We have got to start learning to respect labour. That’s why food should be more expensive. Not because of the cost of chemicals that go into it, but because of the labour that goes into it. When Dan, a friend of mine, first started selling organic vegetables at the farmer’s market, he was selling cauliflower for a $1.25 a piece. A customer looked at that and said, “$1.25? That’s ridiculous! I’ve been to your place and I know what goes into that, here’s two bucks.” That is a pretty unusual reaction, but it’s because this person had a respect for the labour that went into growing this food.

Moe: To translate that into a system that works for all, my vision includes a social system that would provide for those who cannot access enough quality food to meet daily dietary requirements. The actual cost of food, the cost of production, would be incorporated into what we as a society choose to give as a form of social assistance or wages.

Cathleen: A lot of people who go to the food bank are employed at two or three jobs. There was a woman in B.C. who said, “Everyone is one busted radiator away from the food bank.” If the car breaks down…

Moe: …that’s their cushion. Access to quality food is fundamental. Not just what I consider entertainment food, which is processed or packaged. My fundamental vision for a revised, enhanced, healthy food system in Canada is that we understand food to the level that we would value it in our exchange at the true cost of its production.

Cathleen: I was thinking about what my vision would be, and that’s certainly a piece of it, but I don’t think I’d express it quite that way.

Moe: My vision would also include having an edible landscape in urban and rural environments so that children walking down the road to school can identify and pick handfuls of currants.

Cathleen: I think that if I had a vision – and you found a piece of it there – is that we would all be at home on this planet. Being at home means that the other two-legged and four-legged creatures that share the planet with us are our relatives. We all share and everyone has their needs filled, because that’s what you do with your family.

Moe: You find a way.

Cathleen: One way or the other, everybody’s needs get fulfilled. You worry about the grandchildren and so you take care of things. I think that’s my real vision. And not just in Canada – this is a global vision.

But back to something you said at the beginning about the individual. We do tend to think and push for actions at the individual level. We think that’s going to make a difference. Recycling, ‘greening’ of everything, changing light bulbs. This is partly because people need to feel that they’re doing something. But it’s also that we haven’t been able to understand the difference between individual and personal. The individual is isolated; a person is part of a collective, a community, a population. They’re in relationship. And that’s the piece. I do think we have to start with what we do in our personal lives. Otherwise there’s no integrity in it. But then it has to, almost immediately, extend these tentacles and tendrils that spread out. And that’s where the fun is, that’s where the joy is.

Moe: In building relations.

Cathleen: Yeah! Watching a child who thinks that the word for candy is strawberry.

Moe: Watching a child make the connection to where our food comes from. When a friend of mine first figured out that maple syrup came from the sap of a tree, her eyes just lit up as if this was a miracle.

Cathleen: I remember thirty years ago, when the People’s Food Commission (PFC) went across the country and held hearings and came to the realization that there was a cheap food policy in Canada. People at both ends – farmers and people living in poverty who struggle to pay for food – are suffering and the people in the middle, the corporations, have got power and control. There was also the realization that corporations were using that power to keep the people at both ends from talking to each other. The PFC ended with a call to take some of the decision-making power about our food back into our own hands. The People’s Food Policy Project starts with that need for food sovereignty. It’s a project to work with the organizations and the groups that have grown up over the last 30 years, some of them very recent, to address the inequities and power in the food system. To come up with an understanding of what policies we need to be pushing at the personal, at the local, at the school, at the municipal, at the federal, at every level. What policies would help us create food sovereignty? What policies would help us create the solidarity, the respect for nature and traditional knowledge, the localization of the food system, and strengthen the authority of the people who are actively engaged in seeking food and producing it? We more or less know what’s going on with the food system now, and we need to take the next step. That’s what this project is all about.

Moe: Not only do we know what the problems with the food system are, but we also have a lot of community-based, people-focused solutions to it that are being implemented all around the country. So it’s not only what policies could help…

Cathleen: …in the abstract.

Moe: But very concretely, what policies can enable this healthy food system to emerge much more strongly. That’s what excites me about this road ahead together. It is truly an intergenerational project in that some key people who were involved thirty years ago in the PFC came together to talk about lessons learned and to strategize a way forward. I am part of the committee for the People’s Food Policy Project. I love that there’s a coming together to celebrate the thirty year anniversary of an incredible process that resulted in a report that could have been written today. I see how that project initiated what are now hundreds of organizations around Canada who are working on food security and food sovereignty at many different levels. I want to take that next step, to bring that together in a way that is not just about sharing our information but about pushing for concrete action – let’s move to policy, let’s move to systemic change.

Cathleen: I think that one of the most exciting things that has happened to me in the last six or seven years has been the emergence of thinking about food sovereignty. I first encountered this concept at the World Food Summit: Five Years Later. La Via Campesina, an international peasant movement, was there with their green head-scarves shouting, “Viva, viva!” I didn’t get it at all. It was so totally foreign to this nice Canadian girl. Then I went to the Forum for Food Sovereignty in Mali last year, and I suddenly got it. It wasn’t an international conference; it was a gathering of different kinds of people, from so many different places. There were hill tribes, fisher people, shrimpers from Louisiana talking to shrimpers from Papua New Guineau or Malaysia. I thought, “This is exactly what happened with the People’s Food Commission when we got the farmers and the fishermen together.” The language of sovereignty that spoke about reclaiming our own power, and that really broad global sense of who we are. I felt so privileged to be part of that and to realize that they were saying, “You wealthy people in North America are part of this movement too. You are not outside of the ‘we’. It’s a question of walking on the road, and if you’re walking on the road, then you are with us.” That was eye opening. I came back radicalized. Because it touched on how we get up and talk about this, and how we deal with our privilege and still act in solidarity. That global solidarity is such a critical piece. It’s one of the reasons I love Inter Pares incidentally. It’s because Inter Pares, and some of the other organizations that we work with, give us the opportunity to understand how we can be in solidarity even while we are struggling in a wealthy country to change the system here.

Moe: Historically, a much greater percentage of people were involved in gathering, hunting, producing, harvesting, and processing our own food. I feel that for genuine global solidarity I would like to see more and more of us be involved in some way in our own food acquisition.

Cathleen: You talk like a woman who’s just started farming.

Moe: I do! It transforms. It absolutely transforms to grow your own food or to work for one week at a local farm. All of a sudden there is a greater understanding of what fair trade means for international food exchange. There is a greater understanding of climate change and the impact it could have on food production. And there is a greater understanding of labour and the issues that farmers face around the globe. For me that’s just so important.

Cathleen: You learn to be resilient. And imagination and resilience are the qualities that we need to get to the next phase.

I also came to understand that an emergency food system has become a requirement, a structured element of our social safety net. People living on social assistance are given a listing of food banks as part of their coping mechanisms.

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