Conference eyes our food-insecure ”˜hoods

Walk down East Hastings Street looking for a snack and you may go hungry. The strip between Columbia and Gore is grey and bleak, with metal-encased windows, boarded-up storefronts, and a noticeable lack of fresh-food stores. But move a block up to East Pender and you’ll find greengrocers, abundant budget-oriented food stores, colourful restaurants, and bakeries. How could two streets, only a block apart, reside in such distinct worlds? These are the kinds of questions that will be pondered during Bridging Borders Toward Food Security, an international food-security conference being held in Vancouver from Saturday to Wednesday (October 7 to 11;

Access to groceries is a key food-security issue. According to the United Nations, food security exists “when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.

“When we think of hunger in the city and access issues, it’s easy to point the finger at the Downtown Eastside,” says Christiana Miewald, food system analyst with the Centre for Sustainable Community Development at SFU and member of FORC, a food research consortium. But things aren’t so straightforward—remember plentiful East Pender. In fact, a recent base-line food-system assessment ( conducted by the FORC team found that per capita, ?the Downtown Eastside has more grocery outlets than any other neighbourhood in the city. Yet the area is still food insecure. “There are extremely vulnerable populations on the Downtown Eastside,” Miewald says in a phone interview. “Many people there have multiple health problems and drug issues, inadequate income assistance and housing.”

But according to Miewald, food security is not just about location. After all, throughout the GVRD food banks help to feed 9,000 people each week from their 18 depots, and another 16,000 through their partnerships with other agencies.

“Everyone in the city is food insecure on some level,” she claims.

Think back to Y2K, when we were warned that there were only three days of fresh food on the grocery shelves. International computer catastrophes, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis can cut off our supply of bananas, coffee, and essentials, but there are other reasons we might not be getting healthy food.

“Time constraints, lack of resources, energy, mobility, and no place to grow food are other access barriers that affect food security for people throughout the city,” Miewald says.

Mobility is not just a barrier for the elderly, physically challenged, and housebound. According to Meiwald, the farther you venture into the suburbs, the fewer food resources are available per capita. Food “deserts”, as they are sometimes called, exist throughout the city; Renfrew-Collingwood and Grandview-Woodland are two such vulnerable areas. But even in so-called higher-income neighbourhoods like Oakridge, there are low-income earners in secondary suites. If you don’t have a car, you have to rely on transit, and lugging groceries several blocks is no treat.

“Cultural barriers also affect access,” explains Nathan Edelson, ?senior planner with the city of Vancouver. During the conference, Edelson will lead a tour that profiles Pender and Hastings.

“You have a very different population base on the two streets,” Edelson says in a phone interview. “Along Pender there’s a traditional market catering to Chinese families and seniors. People who shop there all have kitchens.” However, alongside that “there are 5,000 SROs [sleeping room only] in Vancouver with no real cooking facilities.”

Residents of the Downtown Eastside who took part in focus groups for the FORC report also pointed out that they weren’t always welcome in stores and they were intimidated by the unfamiliar foods. Chinatown merchants have begun offering more bilingual signage, discount coupons, and shopping tours.

Both Edelson and Miewald point to many excellent models to improve access to food, some of which are already in operation in the Downtown Eastside. The Washington Market at the Washington Hotel (177 East Hastings Street) offers staples at subsidized prices, supported by Vancouver Coast Health. Potluck Café and Catering funds employment training and meal programs for the community. These models could be cloned and moved to other neighbourhoods.

Another way to increase access to food is by creating more community-garden plots. Vancouver City Council passed a motion recently to up the current 900 plots to 2,010 by the year 2010.

“The trick is to have programs that do more than one thing,” Miewald says, “so as to link food producers with food providers, like a farmers market and a community kitchen, for example. And as consumers we can increase our own food security by growing our own food, buying local or organic, and shopping at farmers markets.”

Spring Gillard is a member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council, a volunteer advisory body of 20 members hosting the Bridging Borders conference. To find out more, visit