By Kyley Alderson, HC Link
There are two things I can say right off the bat about the Ontario Society of Nutrition Professionals in Public Health (OSNPPH) 2014 Nutrition Exchange – Laying the Foundation for Strong Communities; they had an excellent line up of speakers, and a room full of passion! With a health promotion background, I certainly have much common ground with that of Nutrition Professionals in Public Heath, however, not being so immersed in the Nutrition field, I realized how much work goes on behind the scenes, and was privy to some of the internal debates, that we just aren't that aware about at the public level. This was an invaluable experience for me. And while it will be impossible to sum up this whole experience in a single blog post, I will speak about some of my key learnings from this conference.
The biggest takeaway message for me came from Dr. Lynn McIntyre, Professor at the University of Calgary, who went through the history of how food insecurity has been framed in Canada –looking at the unique contribution of nutrition professionals. 1996 marked the beginning of Canada's commitment to food insecurity, and it was constructed as an income and social issue - We were on the right path! However, a whole bunch of other issues began to get mixed into the problem of food insecurity (a research term called conflation) – which actually made us lose sight of the root cause and focus on the issues that were easiest to solve. McIntyre believes that child feeding programs (like school breakfast programs) and food banks were the first wedge in killing the child poverty reduction movement. Now, food literacy is a hot topic being thrown into this bag of issues too, moving us farther from the real solution. This caused some discomfort in the room – we believe in the importance of food banks, child feeding programs, food literacy programs etc., and know about the great work and benefits of these programs. The problem is not these programs though, we have every reason to continue with these – McIntyre says "Just don't do it because of food insecurity and hungry kids." We need to recognize the importance of these programs, while also recognizing that it is not solving the root problem – poverty. What stood out to me after this presentation was the passion in the room and the desire for this issue to be tackled, even if it meant that as nutrition professionals, they may have less of a front and centre role to play in food insecurity.
Nick Saul, President and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada, brought in a perspective of how Food Centres can be a part of the solution. While Food Centres do provide emergency access to high quality food, they also can act as a space to bring people together to advocate and rally around the larger issues of poverty and food insecurity. As long as we are aware that Food Centres aren't providing a pathway out of poverty and are therefore not solving the root causes of hunger, we can recognize their benefit and understand how engaging the community in this issue is an important step.
Another really interesting presentation was given by Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, widely known Obesity expert and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. Freedhoff believes we have tied ourselves together too closely with the food industry, and their influence can be seen everywhere. While Freedhoff does think Canada's Food Guide is very important and beneficial to Canadians, he does question some of the recommendations and believes they can only be explained by politics and the food industry. He questioned chocolate milk as a healthy alternative to regular milk, and wonders how fruit juice can be considered a fruit (it is not considered as a serving of fruit in Australia for example). Contrary to the belief that all stakeholders involved in an issue should be brought to the table and become part of the collaborative solution, Freedhoff believes that we should not work with the food industry. He says we are making compromises that we should not be making, by giving them a voice at these tables. He suggests the only way to change the food industry is by creating an environment that causes them to change. I do see this as a very valid point, but I know there are likely pros and cons to each approach.
The last presentation I will touch on in this blog, was by Charlene Elliott, a research chair and professor at the University of Calgary, who spoke about food marketing to children. One important question she asked is "since when did food need to be fun?" Sure, eating food has always been a part of celebrations and bringing people together, but marketers have come up with a brilliant way of diverting attention away from unhealthy foods by creating the category of fun foods! Fun is not a social or public health problem that we need to solve, and everyone is entitled to fun. While fun and nutrition should be two distinct items, now people are asking themselves "Is this food healthy?" "Is this food fun?" and it is reconfiguring peoples relationships with food.
There were many other wonderful and knowledgeable speakers, and so many more learnings that I took home from this conference, but I thought I would just share a few of the highlights for me from this conference with you!