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Going Hungry in the ‘Glorious Garden of the West’

The Shuswap boasts a farm for every 100 residents. So why are so many people food insecure?

Louise Wallace Richmond 11 Oct

Louise Wallace Richmond is a Salmon Arm city councillor, part-time business professor, and aspiring food blogger. Follow her @IllustratedEats.

In September 1910, the Province newspaper ran a story headlined “Salmon Arm — Glorious Garden of West.” Accompanying the story was a photograph of the view from an old orchard overlooking Shuswap Lake and Bastion Mountain. The district’s horticultural interests, concluded the article, were “destined to be of very great importance.”

Even before the Shuswap was celebrated by settlers at the turn of the 20th century, the Secwepemc people lived a semi-nomadic life on the lake and river shores in winter, moving throughout the region based on its abundant seasonal foods and harvest.

Salmon Arm, a small city of 20,000, is halfway between Calgary and Vancouver on the Trans-Canada Highway. The wider Shuswap region, nearing a population of 60,000, is two and a half times the size of Prince Edward Island. As Secwepemc practices demonstrated — and as the newspaper foresaw — we are an agriculturally rich region, boasting 600 farms, or one for every 100 residents.

Our growing conditions are ideal. The Interior Cedar-Hemlock biogeoclimatic zone, warmer than the neighbouring Columbia, which captures Revelstoke to Golden, and more temperate than the Thompson Okanagan, allows for a diversity of crops: silage, grain, vegetable, fruit, dairy, poultry and pork.

The region is well served by national and local grocery stores, farm stands and farmers markets. Short of tropical fruits and spices, you would be hard pressed to name a product that can’t be grown, raised or produced here.

Unfortunately, even amidst this abundance, many Shuswap residents still go hungry.

I am a city councillor in Salmon Arm. In March 2020, the social services agencies began a series of conversations, to which I was invited as chair of the city’s social impact advisory board, about how we could get sufficient food supplies to our most vulnerable residents.

At the beginning, these conversations largely focused on making changes to delivery systems because of health restrictions during COVID — social distancing, limiting indoor services, accessing sufficient PPE and sanitation supplies. But the challenges have persisted and even worsened in the months since. While we continue to figure out how to navigate COVID safety, the number of residents needing to access food supplies will continue to rise — 18 per cent of Salmon Arm households live in poverty (similar to the provincial average), and the City of Salmon Arm recently completed Social Impact Assessment found that 57 per cent of respondents who used services in the region accessed a food program, whether it was the food bank, a soup kitchen or free meals.

As we scramble to address hunger in our community, a larger question persists: why are we having trouble feeding people when we live in the “Glorious Garden of [the] West”?

As consumers and producers, corporations and charities, governments and institutions, urbanites and rural residents, how do we make sense of this equation that frankly just doesn’t add up?

851px version of TastyAcresFarm.jpg
Fresh vegetables and preserves for sale at Tasty Acres farm in Salmon Arm, BC. Photo by Kristal Burgess.

Serena Caner is a registered dietician and the president of the Shuswap Food Action Society, an organization that runs community initiatives such as the Downtown Salmon Arm Farmers’ Market, a food box program supporting farmers and food insecure families, a community teaching garden and, most recently, Jackson Kitchen, a hot lunch program offering junior high school students healthy foods from local farms.

When I asked Caner if our region produced enough food to feed everyone who lives here, she hesitated before offering a yes, the kind of yes that hangs in the air with a question mark.

“It’s not that there isn’t enough food,” she clarified. “It’s that good quality food is more and more expensive to produce.” As such, what’s available here is increasingly difficult for low-income residents to afford.

COVID restrictions, she said, specifically the need to maintain safe distances between workers, have lowered outputs and increased costs. Transportation costs have increased too. The housing crisis has impacted land value, and if leasing or even buying a farm was ever in sight for young farmers, that inflationary pressure has all but evaporated their hopes.

While 80 per cent of the Shuswap’s farmland is used to grow silage for livestock, a significant percentage of the remaining land is not farmed at all. B.C.’s Agricultural Land Reserve protects that land — but there’s little incentive to farm it.

And then, of course, there’s climate change. The heat dome, wildfire smoke and drought significantly impacted this year’s harvests. Diminished supply with steady demand equals higher price.

But the distribution chain may be the biggest barrier. Grocery chains wield enormous purchasing power, and they generally choose to use that power to almost exclusively buy food from producers that have secured costly distribution agreements to supply the entire chain.

As a result, local growers are more likely to sell their goods through farmers markets, farm stands and community-supported agriculture boxes; unlike grocery stores, small farmers aren’t generally able to accommodate options like online shopping and home delivery.

For small local farmers, their restricted access to local markets and their smaller scale generally translates into higher prices. Those living on low or fixed incomes are less able to access their food for economic and convenience reasons.

Residents who are short on money go to the food bank. The 1976 UN Declaration of Food as a Human Right, in direct response to the economic crisis of the time, led to the establishment of food banks as temporary measures to supplement household food supplies due to shortages. Over 40 years later, food banks still bear a disproportionate brunt of income inequality.

“We’ve managed to discount the true value of food,” Caner said, segueing into signing me up for a shift at the school’s hot lunch program. (“Wear orange and bring a mask,” she said. “We’re serving soup and bannock.”)

Andrea Gunner, a long-time local farmer, agricultural economist and most recently a federal candidate for the Green party, confirmed what I’d been witnessing as a city councillor: people are “absolutely” going hungry in the Shuswap.

I asked her if she thought this was due to climate change, but she immediately told me the issue had mostly to do with rising rates of inequality.

“For many single people and families, stressed out and working barely full-time hours at lower wages, there simply is too much month left at the end of the money, by no fault of their own,” Gunner said.

In the ‘80s, Gunner told me, deregulation — initially intended to alleviate the intense inflationary pressures of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s — led to upheaval in the grocery industry.

Before deregulation, local grocery stores supplied their shelves with local products by negotiating directly with local producers. After deregulation, grocery chains negotiated higher volumes with commercial brokers for all their retail outlets.

The move to industrial farming increased supply and reduced prices, but not without consequences. The move undermined local food resiliency and led to the production of less nutritious food, carbon-emitting distribution chains and massive quantities of waste.

The situation may seem grim, but Gunner was hopeful. The Shuswap has high-quality soil, hardworking local farmers and available agricultural land. There is, she maintained, a living here to be made by growing food.

For some, she said, the shift to buying local may start with something as simple as a shift from focusing on the cheap and plentiful, to emphasizing local and delicious.

“If you can get kids to taste food, say locally grown carrots compared to the conveniently bagged mini ones so pervasive in school lunches, you see it in their eyes,” she said.

“Have a tasting party with your friends, you’ll see what I mean,” she added.

A couple heads out to gather u-pick raspberries at Tasty Acres farm in Salmon Arm, BC. Photo by Kristal Burgess.

Rev. Michael Shapcott, executive director of the Sorrento Centre, a faith-based conference and retreat centre, tells me about his daily commute, which he completes by bike.

“Every morning on my way to work, I ride through abundance,” he said. “Dairies, farmers’ fields, waters full of fish.” Since time immemorial, he said, the Secwepemc peoples have known and honoured this abundance.

Despite this, food charities are busier than ever, Shapcott said. But it’s not because of a shortage of food. It’s scarcity among abundance.

Shapcott was just a year into his role at the Sorrento Centre when COVID hit. In early preparations to welcome 5,000 guests for the summer ahead, the centre suddenly found itself with no programs to host, no rooms to fill and no people to feed. But there was still a cook, a kitchen and plenty of food.

What started as 20 to 30 meals for specific programs in urgent need quickly ramped up to 100 or more meals daily. Since March 2020, the Sorrento Centre has prepared and delivered over 60,000 meals to food-insecure residents in the Shuswap.

“Emergency feeding programs are a shocking indictment of our national food system,” Shapcott told me. While the work of feeding the hungry comes first, the work to build strong local food systems offers “glimmers of hope.”

“I would love to get out of the food charity business,” Shapcott said. “It would mean there was no more hunger.”

Like Gunner, Shapcott points to decades-old policy decisions as the roots of some of what we’re seeing today. In Ontario in the 1990s, where Shapcott lived prior to moving to B.C., the Conservatives under premier Mike Harris cut welfare rates by 20 per cent and passed the Donation of Food Act, eliminating corporations from liability when they donate food to food banks and other organizations.

While this act reduced waste and bolstered supply to food charities, it also integrated food banks into the industrial food supply chain and shifted the responsibility for food security to the charitable sector.

In B.C, the Food Donor Encouragement Act, legislation of similar intent, was passed in 1997 by the NDP. In 2002, the Liberal government limited social assistance to two years out of any five-year period for “employable people without children.”

Despite some of these stark realities, speaking with Shapcott, Gunner and Caner left me feeling hopeful and thinking about solutions.

For residents who are financially able to support local food, using our purchasing power to purchase more local food from producers and reward grocery stores who carry it with our patronage would be a good first step.

Using social media to highlight local food can help, too — whether it’s an amazing turnip, a delicious meal or a near-perfect loaf of sourdough bread. This essentially offers free and powerful word-of-mouth marketing to local growers and producers and helps them feel valued in their communities.

If you’re able to contribute to increasing food security in your community, consider specifically asking your preferred charity or organization what would be the most helpful to receive — a cash contribution, some volunteer hours, your skill set or advocacy.

I’ve made a habit of calling my local charities to ask if they need what I have to offer. What I’ve learned surprised me: flowers to thank volunteers, diapers and baby formula, warm socks and track pants, shampoo and soap, condoms and morning-after pills.

On a policy level, it’s clear that the housing crisis is a contributing factor to food insecurity — yet the push by towns and cities to densify often meets with intense opposition. More people on a smaller land footprint provides more affordable housing while preserving farmland. Small- and mid-sized communities’ housing supply is largely zoned R1 — single-family lots. Even a modest shift to multi-family and low-rise apartment building zoning makes a promising improvement.

The level of food insecurity in any given community is a leading indicator of inequality. While income support doesn’t fall within the jurisdiction of our local government, we do play an important role in convening and collaborating through advisory committees, economic development societies, social planning agencies and community housing organizations. In addition, local government can provide property tax exemptions to charitable groups doing community work. In terms of planning and permissions, the ability to quickly greenlight land uses that address food security is always a tool at our disposal. Our new downtown farmers market and burgeoning patio scene are evidence of how prioritizing food and food service can increase access to local food.

On the production side, the move towards small community food hubs supported by the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture centralizes small food production and acts as a business incubator for new entrants. Salmon Arm’s food hub project is set to open this month. At the provincial level, a recent program offering coupons to low-income households for use at local markets has been welcomed by both consumers and vendors. Additional incentives to farm unused land, or lease it to new farmers, would help, too.

Food security is necessary. It is not earned, deserved nor accomplished any more than access to a public road, a community park, a hospital or a library.

We live in a garden, with access to the best of everything. We just have to continue working collaboratively and intentionally on finding a better, more progressive, way to share it.  [Tyee]

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