Food, race and the ethnic aisle

This is a special to the GNH Blog by Rebecca Cuttler.
Originally posted at Vancouver Observer.

Kevin Huang at the Gordon Neighbourhood House event, “What’s up with the Ethnic Aisle?” Photo by Matt Schroeter.

It is, perhaps, a cliche to say that food brings people together. A good meal, shared amongst friends or strangers, can provide an ideal starting place for dialogue, learning and connection. Food is a language we all speak.

Yet food can also be fraught with its own complexities. Consider, for instance, the “ethnic aisle”. In grocery stores across Vancouver, staples from non-European countries are often grouped together in a jumble of sauces, spices and dried goods segregated into their own area.

This phenomenon was the starting point for a recent event at the recently closed Heartwood Cafe entitled “What’s up with the ethnic aisle?” Hosted by Gordon Neighbourhood House, the discussion followed on an earlier panel at the May 2016 Vancouver Food Summit, “Why is the food movement so white?”

Our world is currently experiencing a time when race, ethnicity and culture are at the forefront of many people’s minds. Police killings in the United States and the rise of Black Lives Matter have sparked an urgent dialogue about systemic racism.

Xenophobia in North America and Europe has shaped the current political landscape, with potentially huge implications. These topics are complex and extend far beyond food.

However, it turns out that what we put on our plates, and how we buy it, bring up their own set of important challenges, many of which affect Vancouver directly.

I was fortunate to be able to interview two of the event panelists, indigenous law specialist and former Vancouver Park Board member Niki Sharma, and Chinese-Canadian youth organizer and Executive Director of the hua foundation Kevin Huang.

The panel at the Vancouver Food Summit was entitled “Why is the food movement so white?” Do you think it’s true that the food movement is white?

Niki: There are a lot of people of colour that participate in local food production. I believe the real question is: are the voices of these people represented in the organizations claiming to represent the local food movement?

Kevin: In a local food systemic context contained to the Lower Mainland, yes. While we are often asked to choose organic kale as a way of supporting local farmers and community agriculture, I think it’s just as important to include organic bok choi in these selections as a means of providing culturally appropriate food choices.

Niki Sharma at the Gordon Neighbourhood House event, “What’s up with the Ethnic Aisle?”. Photo by Matt Schroeter.


How much does the problem have to do with how we define “food movement”? Are there other food movements out there besides organic food, locavorism and farmer’s markets?

Kevin: I don’t see it as a problem of how we define “food movement” as much as questioning who is this movement for, who it is serving, who is not at the table, and who are we excluding? Vancouver’s demographic is diverse and the food movement should reflect that.

The interesting things about Farmer’s Market-style direct sales is that they are also quite prevalent in most places around the world: wet markets, morning markets, you name it. Perhaps increasing the availability of culturally appropriate food items, increasing accessibility, and advancing our cultural competency to work interculturally would fill this engagement gap.

There is also the opportunity for us to expand or even redefine Vancouver’s “Food Movement”. We are missing out on recognizing and celebrating individuals acts such as grandmas and grandpas growing their own food in their backyards or even parents teaching their kids in the privacy of their own home how they should not waste food and to compost.

Niki: I spoke about my father during the panel at the Vancouver Food Summit. He has been collecting seeds and growing food for most of his life. He has a deep knowledge of growing food that he shared with us.

In many ways he is a local food champion, but I am sure he would not know why he was called that. This speaks to the disconnect of the movement to include stories of those with deep knowledge about local food from many different backgrounds. Ultimately, I believe the “food movement” cannot be successful if it chooses to define itself through disconnected and unrepresentative boardrooms.

In terms of other movements, food justices needs to be part of every movement or ultimately it just becomes an club that only few can participate in.

How much of BC’s food system – especially when it comes to things like agricultural production, importing and distribution – is dependent on the work of immigrants and migrant workers?

Niki: I would like to know these statistics. Between migrant workers, Chinese Canadian and South Asian farmers, I would expect this numbers to be high.

Kevin: With the exception of First Nations, acknowledgement that we are all immigrants is important. From hua foundation’s area of work, it is deeply concerning that there are only three academic studies on the Chinese Food Distribution system, considering how large the system is locally.

The Chinese once produced up to 90% of British Columbia’s vegetables before racist policy pushed them out. Similar to how there is little recognition on Chinese contributions, we rarely acknowledge the “immigrants” and migrant workers that continue to produce our food locally.

What’s up with the “ethnic aisle”?

Niki: I think we need to examine the word “ethnic” and think about what we mean when we say it. Canadians of colour will tell you that the ethnic aisle is where all the food from non-white countries is found. Despite being part of Canada for generations – certain backgrounds are considered more Canadian than others. For example, Chinese people migrated here before B.C. was a province. At what point does a culture or food stop being labelled “ethnic” in Canada?

Kevin: From a business logistics point of view, it is where you put all the “exotic” foods that your business traditionally doesn’t import/buy. For mainstream, non-visible-minorities it is where non-staple items can be found.

The sociological issue with the “ethnic aisle” is that it reinforces the “othering” of people of colour and “diverse” communities. The ethnic aisle is a physical manifestation of the fact that we live in a (white) colonial society where people of colour and Indigenous communities are still regarded as “others”.

I have hopes that the “ethnic aisle” is only a transitory stage as we work towards being more inclusive and recognizing our city’s diverse range of cultural backgrounds.

What can the food movement, and individuals who are a part of it, do to be more inclusive? Or, put another way, what can people from diverse cultural backgrounds do to have more prominent voices around food issues?

Kevin: Not a prescriptive checklist but some ideas: Build and invest in cultural competency. Empower those that have the lived cultural experiences. Work with those that are able to bridge cultures and create intercultural understanding.

Design programs and engagement models with a social justice and decolonizing lens. Recognize tokenism, unconscious bias, and avoid the Social and Moral Licensing trap. Be open to learning and challenging established beliefs and ways of thinking, both individual (self) and community (public).

Niki: I think all those involved in the food movement need to make the inclusion of all people of all backgrounds a priority, particularly those who are already participating in local food production but don’t have a voice at the table.

Also, there needs to be more linkages between organizations in different communities doing similar work.

Rebecca Cuttler is an urban gardening teacher, member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council and gardening contributor. She blogs about urban food gardening at