The Bella Coola Valley has a great climate for growing lots of varieties of fruits and vegetables (BCVSAS photo)

COVID-19 highlights challenges with local food security

The fragility of food supply chains is not new to Bella Coola Valley residents

By Elizabeth Howard

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored food security issues faced by millions of people worldwide, including the precariousness of the global food supply chain. Food security exists when food is affordable, accessible, culturally acceptable and adequate in quantity. The fragility of food supply chains is not new to Bella Coola Valley residents who already know how vulnerable we are to disruptions in food transportation into the valley during wildfires and floods. While food is still arriving weekly to fill our grocery store shelves, it’s important to become more aware of how our long food supply chain has been affected by the pandemic.

Currently, there doesn’t appear to be a problem with the amount of food available worldwide. That may soon change. Many pandemic-related issues within the food supply chain are of concern. These include the decrease in demand for produce due to restaurant closures which has left crops in the field to rot and dairy farmers dumping milk. Canada’s border closure has highlighted the industry’s reliance on low-paid, transient migrant workers who pick our fruit and vegetables. Crowded work conditions and poor housing puts these critical workers at risk of infection. The bee industry, essential for pollination of fruit crops, has seen massive disruptions due to COVID-19.

Closures of meat plants due to widespread virus transmission could affect meat prices, while climate change effects in the form of fires and drought in California may lead to shortages of produce and higher prices later this summer. This is a concern for B.C., which imports up to 70 per cent of its fruit and vegetables from the U.S.

Additionally, there has been worldwide panic buying and hoarding of food and seeds, leaving some people without enough.

The national and provincial responses to food security during the pandemic have been swift and include millions of dollars being made available to food banks and food distribution centres across the country. The federal government has provided the Canada Emergency Response Benefit for those who have lost work due to the pandemic and may be struggling with household food insecurity. The farming industry is being supported by financial aid for farmers to enlist help with planting and harvesting. Community gardens and farmers’ markets have been declared essential services. Funding has been made available for farmers’ market vendors to create an online presence to sell their produce.

On a local level, a newly created food security group has been meeting online weekly to share information about food programs and supports offered in the community. Led by Elizabeth Howard (VCH Public Health Dietitian), the group includes representatives from the CCRD, Bella Coola Valley Sustainable Agricultural Society, Acwsalcta School, Bella Coola Hospital, VCH Public Health, Nuxalk Health & Wellness, School District 49, VCH Mental Health, Nuslhiixwta, Lip’alhayc (Nuxalk College), local restaurants and farmers, and the Nuxalk Emergency Operations Centre (EOC).

The Nuxalk EOC is doing response planning for ongoing access to essential food and supplies throughout the COVID-19 pandemic emergency. One of the goals will be to provide clear information and guidance to the Bella Coola Valley community about how and where to access food in an emergency. More information can be found by contacting the EOC through e-mail at EOCinfo.nuxalk@gmail.com.

Many local organizations have stepped up to ensure that household food insecurity is addressed.

Some of the programs supporting the community are Nuslhiixwta which has provided Good Food Boxes ($35 box of produce) to clients and will restart the program for the community this month.

Prior to COVID-19, Acwsalcta School was providing breakfast and hot lunches and is now making sure all students receive grocery gift cards.

The Nuxalk Elders’ Luncheon has adapted by delivering up to 55 meals to elders. The Food Bank received funding from the federal fund and others, and is now able to run through the summer months.

Like all food banks around the province, the number of food bank recipients rose last month with new families collecting bags for the first time.

The Bella Coola Valley Sustainable Agricultural Society (BCVSAS) has noticed a large increase in people wanting to start gardens, with both household and community food security in mind. In place of their canceled Seedy Sunday event, they sought seed donations which are now being distributed to community gardens and individuals in need.

In place of their Spring gardening workshops, the BCVSAS is holding biweekly Facebook Live Q & A events called “Growing Together.” The live events feature local knowledge holders who provide information and answer questions on topic such as soil building, planting, seed starting and saving, irrigation/watering/mulching, pests and beneficial insects. Community members can ask questions in advance or live, either by facebook or by emailing bcvsas.food@gmail.com. Watch for the next Growing Together event on May 14 at 7pm on the BVCSAS Facebook page featuring Planting and Transplanting: Easy keepers, heavy feeders, and potatoes.

The BCVSAS is also continuing its fruit gleaning program this year, with additional Rural Dividend funds available to pay a dedicated team of harvesters. A portion of the fruit picked will be shared with community organizations for distribution to those in need. Seeking to avoid last-minute planning, only fruit trees identified before the end of May will be assessed and included in this program – so please contact Elizabeth Howard (bellacoolafsc@hotmail.com) if you would like your fruit tree(s) included.

The BCVSAS is also considering supporting the distribution of excess food produced by local farmers and gardeners. Encouraging local gardeners to “Grow a Row” for those in need, a distribution coordinator associated with the gleaning program could do a weekly produce run, connecting food producers to community organizations or a central food hub for distribution.

Our priority right now as a community is to ensure no one goes hungry because of food insecurity due to the pandemic. However, this context has highlighted the need for food system resilience and advance planning. As we slowly and carefully shift away from this emergency response we can begin asking questions such as, how can we increase community food security?

How can we shorten our food supply chain? Investing in a sustainable local food system should be among our priorities moving forward.

Elizabeth Howard is a registered dietician and the Food Security Coordinator for the Bella Coola Valley Sustainable Agricultural Society.

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Local farmers Rick and Donna Ratcliff’s roadside fruit and vegetable stand is a popular spot with locals (Photo submitted)

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