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Canada’s Food Guide is Less Tainted by Lobbying

Canada’s Food Guide is Less Tainted by Lobbying

Canada’s recently released food guide contains lots of information that most people probably already know: Eat more plants. Go easy on sugar and saturated fat. Think of water as your “drink of choice.” What’s more interesting is that the guide includes advice about how to eat — recommending cooking more often, eating with others, and doing so with joy and pleasure.

This time around, the Canadian government has embraced what every unbiased food professional has been saying for a long time: Food is much more than a collection of nutrients, and eating is a much more significant act than ticking off food group boxes.

That the Canadian government managed to restrict food industry influence and put public health ahead of private profit is no small achievement, and it’s a big improvement since the 2000s, when the dairy, meat, and fruit juice lobbies had a strong hand in influencing what the government told people to eat and drink.

MyPlate, the 2011 American design, is far less ambitious, and reflects the enormous power industry still holds over the Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for dietary guidelines, which is what makes the new Canadian guide that much more groundbreaking.

The addition of social context in Canada’s guidelines is also important. As the leader of Community Food Centres Canada — a national nonprofit that’s committed to building health and equity through food — I see the power food has to bring people in low-income communities together. At shared tables and in gardens and kitchens, food becomes the nexus of transformation and connection, allowing people to feel less isolated and begin to improve their lives.

But the question now, of course, is how to ensure that such great intentions translate into practice. Low-income Canadians are disproportionately affected by diet-related illness — a fact that costs our health care system $26 billion every year and diminishes us as a society. How do we ensure our most vulnerable can take advantage of these healthy eating recommendations?

The thousands of people who use Community Food Centres are almost all among the nearly 13 percent of Canadians — more than 4 million people — who are food insecure. In the population at large, 31 percent of single mothers skip meals themselves so they can feed their kids. One in six children lives in households that can’t afford to put dinner on the table. The situation is even more desperate in the remote north: 55 percent of Inuit in the territory of Nunavut struggle with food insecurity.

For these Canadians, the new guide’s recommendations — which emphasize fresh fruits and vegetables and unprocessed food — are entirely out of reach. And it has nothing to do with poor budgeting or lack of cooking skills. It is the result of deep poverty and inequality.

Responding to this crisis is where Canada’s next show of ambition and courage is required. There’s been a lot of media and public interest in this new guide. We need to use it as an opportunity to focus attention and demand action on the uncomfortable reality of the one in seven Canadians living in poverty.

If we want to ensure every Canadian can eat the healthy diet recommended by the food guide, we need to focus on social and economic policies aimed at eliminating poverty. And we need all levels of government to get on board.

Some key levers can have an immediate and significant impact, such as increasing welfare rates, so people don’t have to choose between paying rent and buying food, strengthening labor laws, and raising the minimum wage, so people aren’t going from work to the food bank.

Of course, business has to join in, too. The best corporate social responsibility strategy a company can have is one that starts with good jobs, fair work practices, and adequate compensation.

Canada is seen around the world as a caring and compassionate nation. Now’s the time to literally put our money where our mouths are. We finally have an evidence-based food guide to tell us what we should be putting on our plates. We need to make sure everyone can put those plates on the table.

Nick Saul is a co-founder, president, and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada, an organization that builds and supports vibrant, food-focused community centers in low-income neighborhoods across the country.

Canada’s Food Guide is Less Tainted by Lobbying

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