When I tell people I work in food security, they generally blankly stare at me and a hesitated “Oh, that’s great” comes out of their mouth, perhaps somewhat instinctively.
I get it, “food security” sounds like a made up concept. It’s not really one of those things you can just infer the meaning. It’s not about keeping food safe, right?
Well, it is actually about securing food. Or I should say, securing access to food, or someone’s ability or inability to get food in their mouths or on the table consistently. And not just any old food, but food that is healthy, safe, nutritious, culturally-relevant, and deemed personally adequate (check out official Food and Agriculture Organization information on food security here).
It is impossible for me to describe food security in just one blog post, it is a multifaceted issue, and its realities manifested all over the world is so many different ways. There are thousands of researchers, governments, organizations, and activists all over the world coming at food security from different angles: poverty reduction, sustainable agriculture, climate change, economics, politics, identity, and so on.
So, to do this topic justice, it will be broken into three blog posts: a basic introduction to food security, focusing on Vancouver (what you’re reading now), Global Food Security, and to keep our spirits high, Food Movements and Solutions.
Food Insecurity in Canada
In Canada, we generally measure food security by measuring how many households are food insecure. These are folks who sometimes to often struggle to attain reliable access to the food described above. In Canada, this is generally due to economic constraints, but it can also be physical, if someone has a disability and either cannot work or physically access food. Physical access can also entail proximity to food. For example, if you live in a food desert or not (a food desert being a place where there is no easy access to affordable, fresh, healthy food). This can also be the case if you do not have access to affordable public transportation or a vehicle.
In Canadian food insecurity statistics, I’m sure it comes as no surprise that indigenous peoples, especially folks living up North, are over-represented in food insecurity statistics, where the enduring effects of colonialism continue to discriminate. In Nunavut in 2014, 46.8% of households were considered food insecure, which compared to the national statistic of 12.4%, demonstrates the disparity well (Source: PROOF University of Toronto). Poor distribution channels, grocery store oligopolies, high transportation costs, decreased land fertility due to climate changes and disappearing country foods in an industrialized food system, are some of the contributors.
This is in addition to the proclaimed “diabetes epidemic” in Indigenous nations whereby 8 out of 10 youth will develop Type 2 diabetes in their lifetimes. Rural indigenous populations face more food insecurity and risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes than their urban counterparts, sites a 2016 publication of the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Socially inequitable determinants of health, such as, lack of access to health care and nutritionally adequate food (food deserts and lack of access to country foods) are seen as contributors to this epidemic.
What about food (in)security in Vancouver?
I write from the unceded ancestral lands of the Coast Salish Peoples, or what is commonly known as Vancouver. Vancouver is unfortunately not unique today in that it is a metropolitan city with vast inequality. It does however face some unique challenges: one being that Vancouver is an epicentre of the opioid crisis and the highest rate of homelessness per capita in Canada. Another factor, Vancouver’s recent history of controversial and problematic land development. Let’s dissect this.
Homelessness and Food Insecurity
A recent study by researchers at SFU found that, of those surveyed homeless or unstably housed adults with mental illness in Vancouver, 64% were food insecure. Food insecurity amongst vulnerable populations, such as the homeless population in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side (DTES), manifests in ways such as micro and macronutrient deficiencies. This can result from having problems accessing food when regular food providers are closed for holidays or at night, where drug use inhibits appetite, and disability prevents mobility to physically access food (Vancouver Coastal Health, 2009). These deficiencies can lead to weaker immune systems and impacts to mental health, creating a negative cycle of food insecurity and poor health.
In the summer of 2018, membership at the Greater Vancouver Food Bank increased by 22 per cent, while the usual summer-slump of donations left the food bank struggling to keep up with demand. Members of the food bank are not always homeless, but feeling the hard effects of living in an unaffordable city, and finding ways to adapt. Unfortunately, food usually is one of the first areas to get a cut, whereas we usually can’t cut the cost of our rent or hydro bills, buying less or lower quality food is a coping mechanism that can bring control into someone’s life.
Food insecurity is a tricky subject, because it is not just about food. The point is that it is also an issue of health, economics, politics, and sustainability. Right now, our responses to food insecurity are largely emergency services, like food banks and soup kitchens, where immediate needs are met, however, long-term changes in society need to take root before food security can see a meaningful improvement.
Land development and loss of agricultural land
There’s also the question of Agricultural Land Reserve or ALR farmland that is supposed to be under protection from development, which for example, in Richmond in particular, has seen the rise in mega-mansions being built instead of being farmed. You might wonder how this has been allowed to happen. For the most part – community leaders and a council that turned a blind eye, or fell for the flashy wealth and not really understanding the long term effects. In 2018, luckily, this issue finally saw some change, where, still talking about Richmond here, a refreshed council introduced Bill 52, and limited house sizes on ALR land to 5,400 square feet. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to save our farmland, but it is a step in the right direction.
Building on farmland is a surefire way to interfere with long term food security. The Lower Mainland is home to some of the richest soils in the world, and we’re kissing it goodbye forever. Even if we weren’t building mega-mansions for absent families, the cost of land makes owning that land virtually impossible for new farmers. Land access is a common barrier to entry for new farmers all over Canada, however, in Vancouver, it is of disproportionate levels. Whereby, farmers have few choices: don’t farm, farm in urban spaces in potentially polluted areas, rent land, or move away. With the average age of farmers in Canada being 55, we sure do need new farmers to find a way back to the land.
If we’re wanting a food system where everyone can access healthy, fresh, and locally grown food, we need to address issues of land access. We need to value our soil and our farmers.
After all, we’re only as healthy as the soil our food grows in.
All in all – food security is about access to food. If we look at the statistics, many people in Canada are still food insecure: whereby they cannot access healthy or culturally-relevant food, or greater factors such as poverty and enduring colonial effects are getting in the way. Short-term fixes help people day-to-day, but we need to work harder to fix underlying societal problems of poverty and inequality to make a lasting impact on food insecurity. On the flip side, we have the ultra-rich eating up precious farmland, affecting long term food security. In all honesty, it’s complicated. The important thing to know about food security, is that it is connected to so many other issues, and we can’t conquer it alone. In coming posts, we’ll look into global food security and what food movements there are that might just save us all.
Written by: Paige Inglis
Photos taken by: Paige Inglis
Day-to-day you’ll find Paige biking worms or seeds from school to school in the pursuit of educating kids about the food system. Paige is currently learning about permaculture and is apart of a youth cohort promoting emergency preparedness in Vancouver. In her spare time, you can find her taking her pup to the beach, hiking, drawing, or brewing a good batch of ‘booch.
*All views expressed in this blog post belong to the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of CYH.