December 10, 2019

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Food-guide changes fruitless for the North

Editorial

In 1942, Canada received its very first food guide. It was more an expression of national pride and unity than much else, a pamphlet intended to encourage Canadians to invest in home-grown agricultural industries. Canada was, after all, in the middle of the Second World War.

The slogan of the campaign was inherently patriotic and political: "Eat Right — Feel Right — Canada Needs You Strong."

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, right, and nutritionist Jessica Cole look over samples of some of the food groups at the unveiling of Canada's new Food Guide, Jan. 22. (The Canadian Press)

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, right, and nutritionist Jessica Cole look over samples of some of the food groups at the unveiling of Canada's new Food Guide, Jan. 22. (The Canadian Press)

That first guide had six food groups (milk, fruits, vegetables, cereals, meat and eggs), not the four we would become accustomed to (introduced in 1977). The guide eventually adopted the idea of fixed portions (often called "servings"), calling for an increase in the consumption of things like meat and dairy in 1992 — a response to lobbying by the Dairy Bureau of Canada and the Canadian Meat Council.

Canada’s Food Guide has always been a political document, used not only to promote healthy bodies, but a healthy economy.

This doesn’t mean the guide doesn’t have incredible power. It’s taught in schools, guides health professionals and provides the framework for food provided in daycares, hospitals and workplaces.

How many remember milk programs in schools? Yup, that came from recommendations from the guide.

The country’s food guide has gone through seven edits in total, with the last overhaul in 2007. The newest version, released two weeks ago, is a hallmark of our times — a guide that not only tells Canadians what to eat, but how to think of food itself.

"It reflects the Canada of 2019 while keeping an eye to the Canada of the future," Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said during the guide’s announcement.

Gone are the four food groups. Instead, Canadians are provided guidelines on foods to eat regularly, foods to avoid and how cooking and preparing food at home embodies culture and a healthy life.

Milk and juices have given way to water, recognized by the guide as the "drink of choice." There’s a strong emphasis on "plant-based proteins" and there are no portion guides as recommendations were "not helpful," owing to the size, appetite and context of individual Canadians. There are encouragements to eat meals with others and put away your cellular phones at the table.

Indigenous Peoples and their foods are included for one of the first times in history. "As a part of reconciliation," the guide says, food choices may consider Indigenous "self-determination, as well as recognize the distinct nature and lived experience of First Nations, Inuit and Métis."

The fact is, not all Canadians’ menus are the same. Not only do different cultures and peoples eat differently, but barriers such as poverty and living in remote areas affect diet.

The guide therefore recommends substitutes to things like fresh fruit and meat, suggesting affordable canned, frozen and dried fruits and locally harvested game instead.

The issue, of course, is that even substitutes in the North are often unaffordable, where a single meal can cost upwards of $100. Northern residents have decried the failure of government-subsidy programs like Nutrition North and price gouging by southern businesses, which has fallen mostly on deaf ears in Ottawa.

This kind of exploitation also happens in urban "food deserts," with grocery stores located far away in remote suburban areas and convenience stores and fast food the only options.

Culture is almost impossible to practise while healthy food is impossible to obtain, too expensive and people are suffering from food-related diseases like diabetes.

The changes to the food guide are interesting and inclusive, but without real, substantial change to issues of poverty, urban food security and challenges in the North, any changes remain solely political. Which, perhaps, is what Canada’s Food Guide was meant to be.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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