B.C. community tackles food insecurity

Residents started a food program in their community to ensure access to food to those who need it. | Karen Morrison photo

OLIVER, B.C. — Connecting the bounty of food in the highly productive Okanagan with people in need is a priority of Food Secure Oliver.

After three years of planning and consultations with the community, the initiative is expected to roll out in February and March with the hiring of a co-ordinator to implement the plan shepherded by Janine de la Salle.

The food systems planner with Urban Food Strategies has helped create a plan to ensure year round access to safe, affordable and local food sources for all, strengthen the local economy to create opportunities for businesses and consumers, foster sustainable practices in food production and water conservation and recognize access to food as a basic human right for all residents.

“A lot of people don’t have enough food to eat, can’t afford to buy or can’t get to the right food sources,” said De la Salle.

She questioned the disconnect between access to food in the agriculturally diverse southern British Columbia valley.

“There’s something that instantly feels incorrect about that,” she said.

While food insecurity is a problem more often heard about in large urban centres, she said Oliver residents recognized the problem and wanted to bring about change.

“The hope is for the plan to help them do it,” said De la Salle.

A Community Food Service Security Forum in late November in Oliver provided a chance for residents to provide feedback on the plan.

Discussions that started in 2013 with businesses, the town, schools and interested residents identified food security as an issue, particularly among children and the elderly in the community. In addition, the percentage of income spent on housing is higher here than elsewhere in the Okanagan.

De la Salle said a food security program looks beyond groceries to the root causes of hunger from employment to affordable housing to poverty.

“Food won’t solve hunger. We need to look at the root causes,” she said.

Those challenges need to be addressed well beyond Oliver’s boundaries, she added.

“There has to be advocacy from senior governments and other agencies.”

She stressed the rising need for short-term food aid.

“Make sure when people do need to access emergency food program, that it’s done with dignity and supports that person in that moment,” said De la Salle.

Oliver’s initiative to make inroads in food security mirrors similar endeavours in the B.C. communities of Revelstoke, Nelson and Kamloops, said Carol Sheridan, manager of the Town of Oliver’s parks and recreation department.

Sheridan, also a member of the Food Action Advisory Committee, would like to see edible landscapes, gardens and trails in public parks.

“It would increase the visibility of growing food,” she said.

Oliver already allows backyard chickens and apiaries within town limits.

Sheridan expects to see education started with young people on nutrition and growing, harvesting and preparing food. Given the cultural diversity in the region, she hopes that education will include foraging, hunting and indigenous food such as bear, berries and native plants.

De la Salle said busy lifestyles mean parents are not preparing or preserving food as in past generations, limiting opportunities for children to learn about food and nutrition.

With the proliferation of processed food coming from around the world, people have lost awareness of where food comes from.

“Kids don’t know it’s a potato, but if you hold up a french fry, they know what it is,” she said.

“The downside is we’ve lost our connection to the land and to each other,” she added, noting how food plays a big role in bringing people together.

Sheridan said local schools were also struggling to provide programs with healthy food choices. In addition, one-third of residents in the town of 4,500 stretched out along the highway are seniors, who may find getting to grocers or growing gardens challenging.

She noted how Oliver’s title of cantaloupe capital has been replaced as a wine capital in recent years, something that brings wealth to the area but also displaces the amount of produce grown.

“A lot of orchards were ripped out and replaced with grapes,” said Sheridan.

She hopes a food security plan will help the town get back to its roots by reminding people of what grows well there.

She said strategies to make Oliver a sustainable food producing area and give the local economy a boost will help keep more of the food produced here available to residents and provide for local residents. She also noted the number of young farmers interested in food production.

“There was a lot of talk about it but no one had resources to start to do them. Through the project, we might be able to implement some of the ideas in a sustainable way.

“It’s because the local economy hasn’t been given that boost for those items that it needs, that people are having to export those items.… Link local food to local people. We just want to keep what’s being produced here, here.”

Sheridan expressed frustration with seeing out of province fresh food at the local grocery store.

“I don’t want to buy food from Washington, I want to buy food from Oliver,” she said.

Sheridan hopes the initiative will also help reduce food waste, citing the number of town fruit trees that go unharvested each year.

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