Spring Gillard: Food security: How do we fare on Vancouver's 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, and culturally appropriate food without ever having to ask, “Is this safe to eat?” The term still conjures up visions of listeriosis 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 tabletop to ground and back again. The food we eat and how it gets to us, how it’s grown, produced, processed, packaged, transported, and 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 Vancouver’s West Side?

Here’s where we fare quite well. We have a lot of gardens, including rooftops gardens and community gardens (of 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 members, meaning they follow a set of green principles.

We have three farmers markets and a fabulous working farm up at UBC (which 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 blackberries are there for the picking along railway tracks and in the parks and along 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 Kitsilano 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.

Okay, so you might be one of the affluent West Siders 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.

Spring Gillard is the author of Diary of a Compost Hotline Operator, and a member of the Westside Food Security Collaborative, a group of social-service agencies, organizations, and concerned citizens trying to make our West Side food system more resilient.




Jul 8, 2009 at 3:27pm

Wish you'd mentioned though the reality that community gardens have years-long waiting lists in and around Vancouver, because there are so few and the demand from green-craving apartment-dwellers is so high. This needs the publicity ... so many want to garden, and we as a city need to be making this more possible. Years of waiting when it benefits a community so much - it's ridiculous

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