Food Secure: Maintaining access to sustainable nutrition

Photo Credit: Hans Saefkow

Food Secure: Maintaining access to sustainable nutrition

👤Norma Kerby 🕔Apr 04, 2014

“So what exactly is food security?” I ask Tara Irwin, sustainability coordinator for the City of Terrace. The city and Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine are in the process of completing an Agricultural Area Plan and food security is a topic that has arisen during the public meetings.

Irwin, whose function is to assist the community of Terrace in planning and implementing sustainability practices, looks thoughtful and begins to describe how local government views the availability of food for its residents.

“At a municipal level,” she explains, “food security is typically defined as every person having access to safe and healthy food. Good food security means that everyone is eating well. Food insecurity, on the other hand, can result from high food costs, lower incomes, unemployment, poor food choices or poor availability of good food. With all the problems resulting from imported food, people are aware of how vulnerable our food supply is and want to become involved in growing or buying locally produced food.”

A decade ago, no one in local government in northern BC would have given much time to discussing whether people had access to good food. That was a topic left to health authorities and nutritionists. With the interest in climate change, the energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions that result from transporting food into Canada have become major considerations when it comes to food choices. Buy local and the 100 Mile Diet result from concerns about the ecological costs of importing food from around of the globe. Food security has become an issue closely linked to growing local, healthy food.

Growing our safety net

According to Ted Pellegrino, planner with the Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine, food security is closely tied to support of the northern agriculture community.

“Farming plays a multifunctional role in our region,” he says. “Not only does farmland grow food, the agricultural land base in the North is important as wildlife habitat, green space and a buffer preserving water quality. Support of local small farms is an important issue for regional sustainability.”

From Pellegrino’s perspective, growing food locally makes northern communities more resilient to the pressures of economic downturns and transportation disruptions. As more food is grown, processed and sold locally, the higher the security level for safe and healthy food in each community.

Northern BC does not have the mild climatic conditions of the Fraser Valley, and the range of crops that can be grown successfully in the North is considerably less than the Okanagan. I asked both Pellegrino and Irwin which initiatives or factors they consider important in moving toward higher levels of food security in northern communities.

According to Irwin, an important example of increasing food security is the City of Terrace’s encouragement of backyard food production. Our country has a long history of productive gardeners. During World War II, citizens grew significant amounts of food by converting lawns and yard space into vegetable gardens and chicken pens. Terrace’s backyard chicken bylaw allows residents to raise four laying hens on their city lots.

The city has also supported information and skill development workshops that helped drive an increase in backyard food production. Using public spaces, such as community and school gardens, and creating edible landscaping in parks, increases the amount of food being produced locally. The city’s goal is that at least 10 percent of food consumed in Terrace be produced within the area.

Pellegrino’s emphasis is ensuring food production opportunities and farmland are preserved in the face of development. Many areas in northern BC have a long history of agriculture. He sees the passing on of knowledge and skills between farming generations as being critical to maintaining and enlarging northern food production.

Locally grown: key to food security?

In many senses, the more food we grow within our region, the less vulnerable we are to external food sources that may not be secure. A quick scan of the supermarket shows that our canned peaches come from South Africa, bananas from Ecuador, canned mushrooms from China and tomatoes from Mexico. Even rice and grapefruits from the US are not guaranteed to be available for Canadians if there is an economic crisis.

But is locally or provincially grown food providing food security for all residents? According to Pellegrino, in order to support an agricultural community, farmers need to be paid enough for their products to make a living. Farmers pay the same high prices for hydro, car insurance, winter tires, telephone and Internet and need to receive fair compensation for their work.  

This is a dilemma in terms of food security for lower income people. In the farmers’ market last summer, small bundles of carrots were selling for six dollars and honey cost well above what one would pay at a supermarket. Sustainable local food for lower income families is often out of reach in terms of costs and accessibility.

Community and school gardens have filled some gaps in growing cost-effective food locally, but a family needs to have transportation to a community garden and time to spend on the garden.  By far one of the most difficult problems for users of cooperative gardens, according to Terrace agricultural volunteer Barbara Tetz, is how to store surplus summer produce for winter consumption. Canning may be an option, but jars and lids can be expensive. Dehydration requires specialized equipment and electricity. The bounty of the summer is often fleeting and short-lived.

During the Greater Terrace Agricultural Area planning process, the concept of community storage facilities was raised. These cooperative facilities would allow families to store vegetables and fruits over the winter. To date, local food groups have not been able to find funding to construct and operate a community storage building.

Just the other day, I drove past the line-up at the Salvation Army food bank. Even during an industrial development boom, basic food needs remain pressing problems for many in the North. To them, the goals and concepts of food security must seem like some distant ideal to which they do not have access. Their food security is the next meal in the struggle.

Catastrophe: How prepared are you?

The Oct. 27, 2012 Haida Gwaii earthquake, magnitude 7.7, was the second largest in Canadian history. No deaths occurred, but what would have happened if that same earthquake had been two orders of magnitude larger and similar in destruction to the 9.2-magnitude 1964 Alaskan earthquake? With small populations, long distances between communities and crippling weather, how long could northerners survive without food, heat or shelter?

Northern BC’s rural residents consider themselves well prepared to be cut off from the electrical grid and supermarket shelves. They would add more firewood to the woodstove, find the lanterns and live from the pantry for the next month or two. In -40 C, with stacks of dried firewood already stored for the winter and lots of freshwater nearby, lives would be little different from those of homesteaders 100 years ago.

Most urban apartment and house dwellers do not have food or water available to last more than a few days. Many are dependent upon electricity for heat or to run furnaces. They would, though, have the advantage of faster government emergency assistance than those located in rural and remote areas. Some urban dwellers have installed backup heating systems, bought generators and stockpiled food and water.

And then there are those northerners who take survival very seriously. There have always been quiet discussions in someone’s kitchen regarding survival caches in secret caves and hidden cabins in the mountains of northern BC.

For most of us, every time a power outage occurs or floods take out some portion of our roads, we hope modern technology will rescue us quickly and efficiently. Few of us like to think about dealing with a disaster of major consequences. We live in a part of the world in which survival would be very challenging.