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Edmonton Youth Council pushes for vegetarian or vegan catering—and sustainability

Cameron Somerville, a member of the Edmonton Youth Council // Matthew Jacula
Cameron Somerville, a member of the Edmonton Youth Council // Matthew Jacula

The vegans are coming for your steak! No, not really, but you could be forgiven for having that impression after the confusion last week around a City of Edmonton Youth Council presentation to Edmonton City Council.

As modest a proposal as they come, the youth council suggested that city council stick to vegetarian or vegan catering for the few occasions that meetings are catered—such as the single time it happened in 2014.

“It’s not a meal, it’s just snacks in the back rooms,” says Cameron Somerville, a member of the youth council.

“There’s two veggie plates and then one plate of sausages and cold cuts,” he gives as an example. City council has these plates  occasionally, just so people can grab some calories during long meetings.

He’s quick to note that the youth council got a great deal of positive feedback when news of the proposal got out. Aiming to address issues of environmental sustainability, economic savings and leadership, the idea resonated with many. It’s the kind of suggestion that plenty of people would never much consider until somebody finally brings it up.

“One interesting thing we got was a message from a city councillor in Montréal who says she wants to institute something similar at her city council,” Somerville says.

But closer to home, Somerville points out that much of the positive feedback the group received came from Edmonton youth—which perhaps not coincidentally, are who the youth council is supposed to be representing. The youth council is an advisory committee to city council, filled with engaged Edmontonians between 13 and 23 years old, tasked with bringing issues important to Edmonton’s youth to council.

While the group made some noise in the fall regarding the original Bill 10, before it was halted and rewritten to allow kids in Albertan schools the right to form gay-straight alliances without opposition, its usual focus is on Edmonton City Council, presenting directly to it or to committees. After some discussion, the vegetarian and vegan proposal itself was deferred to a Council Services Committee in October, a venue that Somerville agrees is appropriate. With this time, the youth council will be able to incorporate some of the feedback it got, and if changes should be made, it can make them work for everyone.

Of course, not all of that feedback is helpful, because despite an about-turn in provincial governance, this is still Alberta, and this idea is still at its heart about eating less meat.

From the perennial refrain of “doesn’t council have anything better to waste its time on?”—and don’t worry, it somehow found time to discuss more than one issue and tackled the LRT that same day—to being dismissed as kids, the backlash was predictable. But taking on exactly that sort of thinking is nothing new.

“This is the purpose of the youth council, to give the youth a voice, and I think this is something we need to continue working on with city council: to establish that the youth are a population with valid ideas and they should be given a voice in this city and in politics in general,” Somerville says. “I do worry that it could potentially lead youth to be afraid of voicing their opinions, and I think that’s an issue.”

Somerville suspects that much of the negative reaction came down to confusion over what, exactly, those ideas were about.

“There was an idea that we were trying to impose our diet on other people,” he adds. “This was not us trying to hurt the agriculture industry, this was us trying to give city council an opportunity to once again show they support environmental sustainability.”

It might not be a large thing in direct terms given the scale of the catered meals that it orders, but the point would be that city council could take a leadership role in Edmonton reducing its meat consumption. Not to mention the leadership it could show for the country, with Edmonton having the opportunity to be the first major city in Canada to have this policy.

That’s a role the city might want to embrace, given that a reduced-meat diet comes with reduced land use, water use and carbon emissions, to name a few. And because of the scale of the effect that meat consumption has on the environment, you don’t have to give up meat entirely to make a significant difference.

“One of the really interesting things that I came across,” Somerville continues, “and one thing that I really think is important is the water use of meat. Producing one hamburger requires 2500 litres of water, which is equivalent to two months’ worth of showers. So you could cut out one meat meal every two months, or not shower for that entire period—the choice is yours.

“We often think that when we try to reduce our water use, we reduce it domestically,” he adds. “We turn off the tap when we brush our teeth, get an efficient toilet. While those changes are fantastic, they pale in comparison to our meat consumption. Fifty-five percent of water use goes to animal agriculture. Five percent goes to domestic use.”

Edmonton’s youth haven’t come to the realization of the intensive requirements of our meat-rich diet from nowhere, either. In a UN report, Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production, the organization notes that “more than half of the world’s crops are used to feed animals, not people. Land and water use, pollution with nitrogen and phosphorus, and GHG emissions from land use and fossil fuel use cause substantial environmental impacts.”

And Edmonton’s own Green Living Guide suggests starting your week off with Meatless Mondays for the same environmental reasons. When you do opt for meat, it encourages chicken or pork, both of which require fewer resources than beef, and to buy local if possible, which reduces the environmental costs of transportation.

The issue will be back in front of city council in October, but in the meantime, Somerville reminds the public that applications for the youth council are now open.

“I’d encourage any youth between 13 and 23 to apply,” he says. “You have such a good opportunity to voice your opinions, and meet fantastic people. And you get to work with Andrew Knack, who is an amazing councillor and always hears out the youth on what they believe is important.”


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