Debbie Field recognized with honorary doctorate

“I’d like you to think back to where you were 10 years ago and I’m sure very, very few of you could have imagined you’d be sitting here or would have graduated in the degree that you have,” said FoodShare Executive Director Debbie Field to York University’s graduating class of 2016.

42 years ago, when Debbie graduated from Trent University she didn’t know she’d be a leader in the food movement, a union organizer, the first woman to work in the Steel Company of Canada’s Coke Ovens since WWII or teach community college. That was the message sent to the graduating class, that foreseeing what’s coming is difficult. But seeing one’s life as a river rather having a rigid career path could lead to a satisfying life. And committing to work on the big problems in the world can create real change.

“You are change agents. Realize the complexity of change. Alone we can’t do much, but together we can reshape rivers and create new realities,” said Debbie. That kind of attitude has made her work in the food movement so valuable.

“In the 25 years I’ve been at FoodShare our ideas of how food was integral to health – which were laughed about 25 years ago – are now considered a central theme of health everywhere,” said Debbie. With a changing world, today’s graduating class will work on a whole new set of problems in coming years. But they can make concrete change if they embrace the unknown and connect the dots on their experiences.

Debbie Field received an honorary doctor of laws degree, recognizing both her and FoodShare’s significant contributions. Debbie spoke of the important work done by FoodShare and grass roots groups like it in making positive changes. To hear about why Canada needs a public food system, a federal minister of Food Security and a national school food program, you can watch the full address below.

Read the full address below:

First of all thank you for this wonderful honour. It’s been quite a great experience for myself and for my organization, FoodShare. First of all I want to of course start by congratulating you and your families. This is quite a big day for you and I’m sure there were many many times that you didn’t think you were going to make it so take a moment and really think about this, what it means. That you’re sitting here and it’s over and you now begin all the next stages of your life. Congratulations.

I’d like you to think back to where you were ten years ago. I’m sure very few of you could have imagined you’d be sitting here or that you would have graduated with the degree that you have. It is absolutely impossible for you to predict where you’re going to be in ten, twenty, thirty or forty years. And it’s very hard to know how all the things you’ve learned are going to come together for you to make your life what you want it to be.

I never could have predicted a single job that I had when I graduated from Trent University in 1974. Nor could I even have predicted where I would live. And this, as you just heard a few minutes ago, will be even more true for your generation than for mine. After Trent I started but did not complete a masters in social and political thought here at York University. I dropped out of an M.A. program at York and here I am receiving an honorary degree from York. Imagine that. Imagine the changes that will mean for you when you think about things like that.

Years later after I began teaching at Sheridan College in Brampton, I started a master’s in adult education at OISE and I met Deb Barndt who taught there who eventually ends up teaching here and becoming the nominator for my degree today. Again nothing that could be predicted. So my career moved more like a river than a rigid career path. Think about your life as a journey, as a river. Each experience will open up other experiences. Don’t imagine that you’re just going to go down a road and then when that is a brick wall that you have failed when in fact so much of our society is changing at a pace that we cannot predict. At the same time we each makes choices and your choice to have roles in this program and to think about psychology and human psychology and how so much human psychology fits into the world will be a choice that will help you in your life.

It’ll potentially make your next careers even more exciting and allow you to go to work with joy because you will be trying to fix some of the big problems of the world around individual community and global health. Increasingly our society sees health and health promotion as amongst the most important paradigms. How can we heal so many of the problems in the world if we don’t look at the health of individuals, communities and neighbourhoods? And nowhere is this change more evident than when it comes to food. In the 25 years that I’ve been at FoodShare our ideas of how food was integral to health – which were laughed at about 25 years ago – are now considered a central theme of health everywhere.

We have yet at the same time so many intractable problems around how to fight for health. Tonight 1 billion people will go to sleep hungry and an additional 1.2 billion, a larger number,  will go to sleep malnourished from over-nourishment of the wrong kind of food. Farmers all over the world are finding it impossible to make a living growing food. Yet we live in a world in which there is more than enough food to feed everyone. And we live in a world which really does understand health. Everybody in this room knows what a healthy diet is. As Michael Pollan has suggested – eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

In Canada we pride ourselves on a publicly funded health care system. Isn’t it maybe time that we begin to think about a publicly funded, supported food system? We have public education, public transit and public housing. Why is it that food remains a commodity in the marketplace? Someone who worked at FoodShare, who since then unfortunately has died of breast cancer, said to me when she had her active treatment for chemotherapy “they’ll buy me any amount of drugs but they won’t help me get any fresh food.” How could we have this disconnect when we know how important food is to health?  How could we keep it so locked into a place where it’s a commodity like shoes or clothes? So FoodShare and groups like FoodShare are trying to puzzle this out. How can we figure out a way to address these big problems? And you know when you hear these words, localizing our food system, prioritizing the production of healthy food and what that could do to solve some of these big problems in the world.

So I’ll leave you just with a few thoughts on that. Imagine if five items which abundantly grew in Ontario, like cheese, apples, soy nuts, broccoli and carrots were available everywhere through all food outlets at twenty cents a kilo and everybody rich or poor could buy those foods. And the farmers were paid the full price through savings in the health care system. Imagine if everybody in Canada was mailed a voucher, or loaded on our credit cards or bank cards, one hundred dollars that was redeemable for local and fresh vegetables and fruits.

What if every child in Canada had a nutritious hot lunch program and several snacks a day that was subsidized by government and the individual child paid, let’s say twenty cents for that meal? Imagine if those children cooked that food and food literacy became the norm everywhere. What if Canada had a fully developed food strategy and a minister of food security responsible for ensuring that Canada had an adequate food supply and that every Canadian had adequate access to healthy nutritious food?

Right now there’s actually nobody in the cabinet of our government or any government in the world except Brazil who is responsible for food security. So these are the kinds of long term policy initiatives that groups like FoodShare are working on. I want to just say that this honorary doctorate really is for FoodShare and all of our staff because it’s a recognition that activist grassroots organizations are partners with academics and policymakers at all levels in creating change.

You’ve heard a little bit about some of our programs that we’ve created and we’re excited to let you know that last year over 250,000 individual children and adults participated in our programs. You’ve heard that we’re a large organization – we had a seven million dollar budget last year and we have over sixty staff and hundreds of volunteers.

I’m here today because of a longstanding relationship with York and you’ve heard about Deborah Barndt and the environmental studies department. We’ve been partnering since the nineties and here at York the Maloca community garden is a symbol of the kind of change that is happening right here at the campus. So sometimes change seems abstract and unattainable. And yet people coming together can often move mountains. When I was in high school, if you can believe this, girls were not allowed to wear pants. A few of my girlfriends and I decided to break that code. We wore pants on Monday, got a pink slip and were sent home. On Tuesday, same thing. Wednesday, same thing. And Friday we broke the rule and changed that for all of us. A decade later I sued the Steel Company of Canada and Hamilton for their no woman hiring policy and had a successful human rights case and ended up working in the coke ovens and again changed that reality for generations of women.

And the food movement is responsible for such things as ensuring that community gardens and farmers’ markets are possible on public land and that in Canada we don’t have any bovine growth hormone in our milk. So change is possible. And as you move forward in your life I hope you do take the words you’ve heard about how you are change agents. At the same time I hope you also realize the reality of the complexity of change. It’s very hard for individuals to change things without groups of people doing it together. I often think of myself as a piece of sand and each of us as a piece of sand and alone we actually can’t do much but together we can actually reshape rivers and create new realities.

So as you look toward your life, be kind to yourself.  Try to balance great vision with reality. Take jobs that are not on your career path if that’s all you’ve got as an option. And be calm and relaxed knowing that you have been very well prepared today for an excellent life. Congratulations.