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When Community Food Security Isn’t Enough: Repairing the Poverty ‘Bridge’ in BC | Part II

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Read Part I of When Community Food Security Isn’t Enough: Repairing the Poverty ‘Bridge’ in BC

To start off the 2017 Homegrown Story series, the Gateway took a departure from our usual approach of profiling innovative food security programs from across the province and digging into the issue, and solutions, to the widespread food insecurity and poverty plaguing BC.

In Part I of this series, available here, we spoke with Dr. Valerie Tarasuk, Professor at the University of Toronto and Principal Investigator with the PROOF: Food Insecurity Policy Research program as well as with Trish Garner, Community Organizer with the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition.  This month in Part II, Valerie, Trish, and BC community food security practitioners explore the question:

 

What is the place of community food security work in affecting individual and household food insecurity and poverty reduction?

 

Dr. Valerie Tarasuk, Principal Investigator | PROOF: Food Insecurity and Policy Research Program

While there is an abundance of community food security action in BC, Valerie debunks notions that community gardens and kitchens, for example, are meaningfully impacting people’s food security, “we have no evidence to suggest that people need to be able to grow their own food in order to achieve food security. The projects that are going on under the rubric of community food security are addressing different things. But, they cannot compensate for the fundamentally inadequate incomes that lie at the heart of problems of food insecurity.”

While public policy is the imperative for Valerie, she also recognizes that “people who are concerned about food at the community level can be valuable advocates for income security programs that will help them put food on their tables.”

 

Trish Garner, Community Organizer | BC Poverty Reduction Coalition

Self-advocacy also figures strongly into Trish’s thinking on the role of community food security initiatives citing the Community Food Hub at Gordon Neighbourhood House in collaboration with the Greater Vancouver Food Bank in Vancouver’s West End as an example “where it is not just about the provision of food, but also community building, building food skills and leadership development, advocacy, as well as training people living in poverty to be their own self advocates.”

In addition to promoting self-advocacy, community food security work is at its best for Trish when relationships are front and centre:

Everyone connects through food so it is a great way to bring people together and mobilize. Relationships are at the heart of any community organizing toward policy advocacy and food is a really important part of that.

Nevertheless, the systems change work is central for Trish, “we can do community food security work – there is value beyond addressing food security at the community level through relationship building. My concern with that though is that if we are only doing that kind of work year after year, we’re not making systemic change to the underlying issues.”

 

Sandra Frangiadakis, Coordinator | Community Food Action Coordinator for the Kamloops Food Policy Council

The Gleaning Abundance program Sandra coordinates is a food action program of the Kamloops Food Policy Council intended to “prevent waste, promote sharing, and help revive food preservation skills.” At the local level, community groups like the Kamloops Food Policy Council are specifically positioned to work towards the systems change Trish speaks of.  Sandra remarks, “food policy councils advocate for public policy changes that support food security and provide forums for public education and dialogue.”

There’s no question for Sandra that “poverty is the main culprit when it comes to individual food insecurity and we need to recognize that fact as we go about promoting our food action plans.” She agrees with Trish and Valerie that “a poverty reduction plan is a crucial step in achieving individual and community food security.” But qualifies that, “on its own [such a plan] will not solve all the problems plaguing our food system,” noting the dire environmental impact of the current food system, for instance.

Anti-poverty activists and food security advocates need to work together if we are to achieve a sustainable and just food system. While I agree that charitable and otherwise ad hoc responses to a provincial hunger crisis such as we are currently witnessing in BC are insufficient, that doesn’t mean there is no role for community food programs in a more secure food system.

Some of the other examples Sandra offers of the role of community food programs include emergency meal programs that provide social and emotional support to those who would otherwise be isolated as well as community kitchens as opportunities for socializing, learning, and skill building.

 

Gerry Kasten, Registered Public Health Dietitian

Gerry has been practicing as a public health dietitian for 26 years. In this time, he has seen the evidence to back up what Sandra has to say on the benefits of community food programs:

We have lots of data about the positive health outcomes of community food security initiatives: The improved mental health that’s associated with community gardens; the increased social connectedness that arises for people working together in community kitchens; the exposure to an increased variety of foods in school feeding programs. And yet, it’s important that we recognize that these initiatives, with all of the associated health benefits, do not draw us away from our ongoing conversations with those who are setting and developing policies that will help to reduce poverty.

Gerry looks forward to the day when the food insecurity conversation is focused on policy. As a steward of these conversations, he believes “health practitioners and food advocates have to continue to discuss these policy solutions to poverty and the associated food insecurity. We’ll need to talk about it frequently and tirelessly.”

He encourages his coworkers and collaborators to continue working on projects that will improve community food security but is weary not to get caught up in only doing work downstream:

It’s easy to feel good about food bank drives: ‘Look at how much food we collected!’ Easy to show how wonderful the community garden is, what an asset to the community! How very much harder it is, though, to feel great about the ongoing struggle to convince policymakers that the solutions to poverty will be more humane than allowing parents and children to languish in poverty (and, of course, less costly too). It is, to use a gardening metaphor, a very long row to hoe. And so, we must continue to work on both our advocacy and our community programs. Both have value and both help people, but in different ways.

 

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