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Plenty enough?

in Featured/Supply and Demand by

On a recent trip to a large grocery store in St. John’s, I was met with an ironic scene of plenty within a region that is often considered to be food insecure. According to the United Nations, food insecurity “exists when people do not have adequate physical, social, or economic access to food” (UNFAO 2001). The facts and figures of food insecurity within this province are daunting. There is but a two to three day supply of fresh vegetables on the island at any time; 23.4% of the provincial population experience challenges affording food, clothing and shelter; and there are vastly different purchasing opportunities in northern and rural regions, in comparison to those that exist in St. John’s.

While choices seemingly abound in St. John’s commercial food outlets, most of the foods sold in the province’s grocery stores are not grown here. The Federation of Agriculture estimates that only 2% of agricultural products available in aisles and coolers are sourced in Newfoundland and Labrador. This has encouraged persons who wish to consume locally produced foods to establish farmers’ markets in various parts of the province. Fresh food stands, speciality stores and outlets located on family farms also provide access to local food.

According to those who have an interest in food security issues, our reliance on imported food concerns all those who live here. During Hurricane Igor, we saw the effects of major storms on people’s food security. When roads in Clarenville were washed out, boats delivered food to communities that lost regular access to food supplies. During the Port of Montreal lockout, we were also given a glimpse of the sensitive nature of our shipping relationships with other regions. With two-thirds of Oceanex containers (which carry half of the goods that are sold in Newfoundland, including food) passing through Montreal, July 2010 was a moment of uncertainty about when these goods would arrive, and how they would get here.

There is but a two to three day supply of fresh vegetables on the island at any time…

In the end, transportation routes were diverted in order to ship containers from Halifax; however, the lockout rang several alarm bells. Increasing local food production and wholesaling would protect us from the potential negative outcomes of such incidents.

For a number of people within this province, grocery stores are not the primary source of food. Economic insufficiency and high food prices intersect in stats on the province’s food bank usage. Food Banks Canada has indicated that the province’s emergency food services are some of the busiest in the country. Gardening activities have also provided Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans with access to fresh produce. Hunting and fishing continue to supply fresh animal proteins. Those who carry out these activities often share the products with family members, neighbours and friends. Canning, preserving and wild food harvesting activities are also practiced in order to maintain food supplies year-round.

Economic standing and physical location within the province differentially affect one’s purchasing options. While there are many types of food to choose from in the capital city’s largest retail outlets, rural and northern communities do not enjoy such delicious expanse. Grocery stores may be located an hour or more from home, and convenience stores continue to provide necessities in some locales.

As you can see, food insecurity is a complex issue. Food security, however, relates to ensuring that all people, at all times, have access to food. Access, in this case, refers to the amount of food that is grown or caught within a region, the capacity to purchase or provide food for an individual or a family, and is connected to your income status, place of residence, physical capacity and mobility. Individuals may experience food insecurity as a result of economic insufficiency (the unemployed, pensioners, lone parents, students), physical incapacity to secure food (seniors, persons with disabilities), or a lack of food in their community (small rural outports).

Approaches to Creating Food Security

Food banks, community kitchens and community gardens (which are shared spaces that allow people to grow food for themselves and others) have been organized in order to meet people’s food needs across the country. Bulk buying clubs, community freezers (which store culturally desirable foods that are hunted by and shared among Inuit peoples in Labrador) and gardening skills-sharing activities have also been organized in order to increase food security in Newfoundland and Labrador.

As communities respond to food insecurity among their members, they create a number of opportunities and also face some challenges. Food banks, community kitchens and community gardens have not been able to completely solve food insecurity in any region of Canada; however they do provide temporary relief from hunger. For instance, many food banks provide a week’s supply of canned goods and non-perishables to persons in need. Nutritionists have indicated that diets comprised of these types of foods have negative health effects, and there are also problems with regard to lack of choice over what foods may be taken home.

Community kitchens do well to offer prepared meals to persons in need, especially for those who do not have a place to live, or persons residing in bedsitting apartments that do not have kitchens or safe places to store food. In some instances, community kitchens are spaces where people may prepare meals together, and take them home to share with family members. These initiatives are dependent on grants, donations, and volunteers. When food prices are high, it has been found that persons who are able to purchase food often donate less.

Provincial and municipal governments, community organizations, institutions and citizens all have a role to play…

After considering some of the issues related to food insecurity here, you might wonder about the prospect of creating a province where food is available, affordable, and physically accessible for all. Provincial and municipal governments, community organizations, institutions and citizens all have a role to play when it comes to finding solutions to these problems. Increasing local food production by gardening or supporting the area’s farmers is one way that many community groups are attempting to solve these issues. The province’s poverty reduction strategy is also attempting to improve individuals’ economic capacities so that they can afford basic necessities.

Over the past several years, those who share interests in food security in Newfoundland and Labrador have placed a special emphasis on creating a food system where producers receive fair wages, and environmental sustainability is taken into account within food production and distribution activities. Citizens have been meeting with one another over potluck meals that feature local ingredients, at farmers’ markets, over teleconferences, at community gardens, in classrooms, public lectures, and online forums. These discussions have included farmers, fishers, doctors, students, nutritionists, social workers, politicians, and persons living on low incomes. Provincial dialogues and conferences, organized by the Food Security Network of Newfoundland and Labrador, have facilitated connections among persons who are passionate about food security, and have also created a network of support which encourages skills sharing, project collaboration, and the development of best practices for food security initiatives.

What’s to Come

In this column, I will be discussing food security issues and responses in Newfoundland and Labrador by highlighting the work of community organizations and individuals who are engaged in understanding these problems, and creating solutions. From time to time, I will also be sharing recipes, and focusing on businesses and co-operatives that offer local food options.

While facts and figures on food insecurity indicate that food remains out of reach for many residing here, there are many stories to tell about provincial policies, community-led initiatives and organizing efforts that are attempting to increase food security in Newfoundland and Labrador.

My current work experiences with the Food Security Network of Newfoundland and Labrador, Food Education Action St. John’s, and previous experiences as a Campus Coordinator with a student organization called Meal Exchange will help to frame my considerations and discussions. My educational background has included studies on a community kitchen and community garden, and I seek to utilize lessons learned through these endeavours within this column.

I invite you to share your own thoughts, activities, and perspectives in response. As I will show in ensuing articles, the creation of dialogue has been instrumental to addressing food insecurity within the province thus far. Your own experiences, challenges, ideas and perspectives are invaluable to the project of creating a food secure Newfoundland and Labrador.

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