Our society has a system for distributing food.
You travel to a grocery store and buy it. Ideally, the grocery store is only 10 or 15 minutes away by car or bus. Ideally, you have the money to pay for it, and to afford good, healthy food.
But when someone can’t reach a grocery store, or when they can’t afford the food there, has the individual failed, or has the system?
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that not having access or enough money to purchase food, much less healthy food, is not a failure of any individual, but a consequence of a worldwide emergency that people as individuals cannot possibly be held responsible for.
But the pandemic is also revealing that, even in the best of times, our systems fail many.
In some places, that’s more apparent than others.
One of those places is the West Coast of Vancouver Island, where United Way funding is now making a difference.
There, various small community organizations and volunteers are now connected and cooperating with the help of the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust to address pandemic-related food emergencies, but also to come up with solutions to the longstanding issue of food security and sovereignty there.
With funding from United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island through the federal government’s Emergency Community Support Fund, Clayoquot Biosphere Trust’s Eat West Coast program is working to help eight communities. These include Tofino and Ucluelet, as well as five First Nations communities like Ahousaht and Macoah. Populations in these communities range from 27 to 1,800.
And there are few grocery stores for the approximately 5,500 people who live in the area, says Erika Goldt who runs Eat West Coast.
For those living in this West Coast region, one of the first hurdles to getting food is traveling to get it.
“We have quite a few communities that are off-shore – they are boat-access only. They don’t have grocery stores. And you have to take a boat to get to the grocery store, just like you take to get to school, even,” says Goldt. “We don’t have public transit. So there are a lot of issues in terms of just even getting people and things around.”
Another hurdle is the high cost of living in this region and the jobs market.
According to the region’s 2018 Vital Signs report, cost of living was the third highest in B.C., with the cost of groceries in the region 12 per cent higher than in Port Alberni. And, with a seasonal economy heavily based in tourism, the pandemic has heavily reduced people’s savings. But even before the pandemic, 16 per cent of women and 18 per cent of men were earning less than $10,000 a year.
So what happened when the region’s grocery store shelves went empty, and individual communities locked themselves down at the start of the pandemic?
The tourism industry shut down, and lots of jobs were lost in the fishing industry, says Goldt. And, as small communities kept others out to protect themselves, people realized there was no plan to get food into those communities.
The pandemic revealed that existing systems don’t really work for people in this region.
“The actual specific pandemic situation was really scary and we really had to learn about how to address it, but to be honest, what really happened was it opened up a much bigger conversation about how we were really woefully unprepared for any kind of emergency [when it comes to food distribution], never mind this.”
The good news is small, grassroots organizations and community volunteers are engaged in food security work, from distribution to community gardens and more. But they don’t necessarily have the charitable status or other connections they need to access grant money. And they are often run independently of each-other.
Eat West Coast is able to act as a hub for these groups, helping them to work together, combine resources, share best practices and plan co-operatively, as well as accessing grant money through organizations like the United Way to provide to these smaller groups.
“When it comes to food, that was really the first time we ever did that,” says Goldt. “It went really, really well.”
With funding, and communication between groups, satellite food banks were set up in various communities, extending the reach and accessibility of the existing food bank. The cost of bulk transportation of food by boat and car was paid for, and systems put in place that will serve the area going forward.
Keeping this collaboration sustainable so that it continues into the future has been a big part of United Way funding and Eat West Coast’s work, says Goldt.
In the last few years, West Coast communities have been developing emergency plans around earthquakes and tsunamis, she says. In some of these communities, their plans addressed food security. In others it didn’t. But, ultimately, that work should be done together.
“If the [only road out] closes or something happens, it will be all of us together. We can’t do it individually,” says Goldt.
To that end, an emphasis has been put on local food production, and looking at long-term sustainability.
“We’ve been really involved in supporting more local food production, whatever that happens to mean, whether it’s growing, harvesting, fishing, cultivation. And I think all of a sudden everyone is like, ‘oh yes, that is really important. We should ensure we are doing more here, locally, to produce, or to have access to our own food for our own communities.’
“Obviously, that’s good for food security in general, but the idea of food sovereignty and talking about how food shouldn’t just be a commodity, it should be a public good that we should all have a say in for the livelihood and the health of our communities, that was very, very formal, the discussions that we were having.”
“So although we had to absolutely scramble and figure out how to deal with COVID immediately, we were really looking to do more … [and look at] how can we have a better lasting impact on food security in the future, so that’s where the United Way funding came in and played a big role for us.”