Feeding the Family in a Local Economy
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An Inquiry Into the Evolving
Nutritional Needs and Expectations of the Family

A McCowan Society Work in Progress
And Student Project -- You Can Help!

Three hundred years ago in Scotland, when a day's work would buy only a few slices of bread, 99% of the population barely survived. Of course, during the frequent famines, many perished.

Over the past few decades in Canada, we have grown accustomed to having what we want when we want it -- using bags of expendable income. But now, the clock seems to be turning back on us -- with food banks and soup kitchens crying out for more and more help. Certainly some people simply cannot afford to buy food now. Have we reached some kind of turning point or watershed in our Scottish-Canadian nutritional history? After all, there have been several significant turning points down through time such as:

  • the early 16th century redistribution of the Church lands as the Church began to lose its financial grip on the country -- many longstanding tenants were moved off the land during the shuffle
  • the Lowland agricultural revolution in the late eighteenth century (generally) when many of the lower and tenant classes were displaced from their longstanding connection with the land
  • the well-known "Highland Clearances" when many people were moved out as sheep were moved in
  • the industrial revolution of the early nineteenth century when machinery displaced some manual labour
  • the Reform Bill of 1832 when the right to vote was given to some of the tenant classes, radically changing the character of Parliament (for the better!)
  • the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws in 1846 which effectively lessened the fundamental importance of agriculture and the land within Britain’s constitution and socio-economic balance.

At each of these "turning points" there were both winners and losers. And we can expect winners and losers during the redistribution of purchasing power over the next few decades as well.

Why is it important that we make this inquiry into the evolving nutritional needs and expectations of the family? Perhaps, if we learn from the mistakes of the past and from the experiences of our forebears, we can have winners -- at least more winners and fewer losers.

Family nutrition and food production are intimately connected with the land. Any detailed study of food should also necessarily embrace economic, social and political factors that influenced agricultural change. Unfortunately, in this short project, we cannot dedicate adequate space to evolving agricultural practice. For discussions of rural change in Lowland Scotland between 1600 and 1800, please refer to the McCowan Society publications:

In brief, rural Scottish society operated on a subsistence level until well into the eighteenth century (with local variations). The "Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions" radically altered the Scottish economy from one based on the local production and consumption of food to one based on the extraction, processing and international distribution of resources -- agricultural produce then became a trade-able commodity just like coal.

Most knowledgeable long-time Canadians would agree that, over the past three hundred years, our diets, health and life expectancy have steadily improved. But ask a recent immigrant from a developing nation... In his or her native land, starvation could be the norm today while relative plenty was enjoyed before the age of European imperialism and the slave trade several centuries ago. Thus, a present-day Scottish Canadian view of the evolution of family nutrition is not at all representative of the more global experience over time. Similarly, there were many local and regional disparities in nutritional health -- in Scotland, Canada and elsewhere. Food prices and family incomes rose and fell (but not always in sync with one another). A community in the northeast may have been better off than a community in the southwest -- but decades later, for some reason, their relative positions could have reversed. And when we speak of "better off", do we refer to the "cost of living" or to the "quality of life"?

So, in any socio-economic inquiry, we must be mindful of such differences -- across space, over time and in terms of personal perception. We must not be too quick to generalize, otherwise, we compromise the fact-finding and interpretation processes. In an attempt to minimize interpretive error in this project, we have selected much (but not all) of the historical data from the adjacent Lowland Scottish counties of Ayrshire and Lanarkshire and from the Township of Scarborough in southern Ontario, a destination of many Lanarkshire Scots between 1825 and 1850. Data from other areas has been added, in some cases, to provide some measure of contrast and, in other cases, to demonstrate and reveal the more general regional, national or international picture.

But, most importantly perhaps, we cannot study "food" or "nutrition" in isolation. The critical business of feeding the family was influenced by a broad variety of social, economic, political, technological and psychological forces -- a mere few of which can be addressed in this short project.

History can make for great evening entertainment -- such as the production of "A Scarboro Tale" on November 12 1994. But the greatest purpose of history is to improve our lot in the future. We can only avoid mistakes in the future if we learn from the mistakes and successes of the past. Our forebears have been through drought, flood, blight, famine, rationing, taxation, tariffs, food stamps and soup kitchens. Let's hear their testimony.

From a draft of Feeding the Family in a Local Economy, A McCowan Society Work in Progress  (SHR V9#6)

And you, as students, will be gathering more testimony from other sources. You will interpret and analyse your additional evidence  using your critical thinking skills. Your output will be short essays which can possibly be added to the above forthcoming McCowan Society publication. The new testimony can come from any source -- as long as it is a  valid and reliable source -- and it is partly your task to be the judge of that. We want to give this project a more global perspective -- we have already admitted that the present-day Scottish Canadian view of the evolution of family nutrition is not at all representative of the more global experience over time.

Linked to this page are extracts from this forthcoming publication -- a work in progress. You can compose your analysis of the testimony and other evidence that you discover in any way that you wish. But you should just be sure that your interpretation is reasonable, given both the actual evidence and the local and regional context. You should first review the Getting Started section at our Community Studies Resources Page, for example:

And don't forget that you should interview your grandparents -- take a tape recorder and a copy of Oral History Interview Project #8: Field, Food and Family. We hope that you will help us finish "Feeding the Family in a Local Economy". Send your essay to us at the email address on our contacts page.

Good luck!

From The Scarboro Heights Record V9 #6


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