Feeding Ourselves: How Do We Fare on the West Side?

You may have heard the term “food security” tossed around over your mesclun salad mix. You may even know what it means. Or think you know. So what the heck does it mean? To me, it means that everyone in a community has consistent and adequate access to healthy, nutritious, culturally appropriate food without ever having to ask “is this safe to eat?” The term still conjures up visions of lysteriosis or terrorists sabotaging the food supply with anthrax, so I prefer to talk about food sovereignty or food self-reliance or best of all, a resilient food system.

So what the hay is a food system? Everything from table top to ground and back again. The food we eat and how it gets to us, how it’s grown, produced, processed, packaged, transported, sold and how the so-called waste is managed. Is it thrown out, composted, is some of the food recovered and redistributed? And just how does our food system fare on the west side?

Here’s where we fare quite well. We have a lot of gardens including rooftops gardens and community gardens (course you have to wait two years to get a plot). People like to garden over here, but for many it is a hobby not a necessity. There are abundant grocery stores, green grocers and wonderful restaurants with great ethnic diversity; whether or not they are affordable is subjective. Some of the eateries serve Ocean Wise sustainably caught (not farmed) fish; some are Green Table certified, meaning they follow a set of green principles.

We have three farmers’ markets and a fabulous working farm up at UBC (that thankfully hasn’t been paved over or condo-fied, yet). We have a couple entrepreneurial urban farmers at Kitsilano Farms and Southlands Farms. There’s the Public Market at Granville Island (and nearby fish vendors who sell right off the dock. There are a few community kitchens where folks cook and can together. Wild berries are there for the picking along railway tracks and in the parks and beaches. A lot of people compost in their backyards or have worm bins on their balconies over here too.

Where we don’t fare so well is on the production and processing side, not counting breweries, bakeries and chocolateries. Unfortunately, we can’t live on beer, bread and chocolate, not that I haven’t tried. And very few restaurants and grocery stores compost their waste; some do contribute to food recovery programs like Quest and Food Runners, but most of that food does not stay in the community. And even on the so-called affluent west side, we still have up to 600 homeless people living on our streets. About 70 of them participate in a weekly shower and breakfast program. The Fruit Tree project harvests otherwise forgotten fruit from some backyards and donates to Kits Neighbourhood House among others. There are a few other emergency food and meal programs provided by west side churches and social service agencies. But in spite of these good efforts, we still can’t look after our own. Many low-income seniors (and there are many on the west side) are suffering from malnutrition.

Ok so you might be one of the affluent westsiders or the “I’m getting by okay” ones. You couldn’t possibly be at risk of becoming food insecure. Or could you? Well, if food shipments were cut off for whatever reason (we run out of oil; the big one finally hits; the bridges are swallowed by a tsunami). And if it’s true that grocery stores only have three days of food on their shelves at any given time, would we be able to survive? In a word: NO. And we’re kidding ourselves if we think otherwise. So you might want to plant some tomatoes on your balcony or get together with your neighbours to can some of that fruit. Or maybe start by introducing yourself to your neighbours.

Five things you can do to help strengthen the food system in your neighbourhood.

1. Grow Your Own. Food that is. In your backyard, on your balcony, a rooftop. No space? Join a community garden or check out Sharing Backyards..
2. Buy Local. Shop at farmers’ markets, watch for local, seasonal products in your grocery store. Ask your grocer to buy more local.
3. Compost. Recycle your food and garden waste. Learn how at City Farmer 2150 Maple Street or call the compost hotline: 604.736.2250.
4. Food Delivery. Too busy to shop? Join a local food delivery program like SPUD or a buying co-op like NOW BC or buy shares in a local farm.
5. Celebrate Food. Eat together. Cook together, at home, with neighbours, at a community kitchen.

For more things you can do, go to  Westside Food Security Collaborative.

This op-ed piece first appeared in the Georgia Straight on-line.

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