Rapid Action Resources for Local Governments: Community Food Production
As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, social and economic impacts continue to emerge for communities here in British Columbia. One of the areas of concern identified for our province has been food security in its many forms (see sidebar for clarification).
In response, PlanH has developed a series of Rapid Action Resources to provide local governments with an understanding of the equity considerations around various aspects of food security, as well as examples of good practices in food security from other local governments in the province. Food security is complex and addressing food insecurity will require action at various levels to positively affect outcomes for individuals and communities. This first piece explores some considerations around non-commercial, community-level food production and how these activities can lead to greater food security in your communities. The second part of this piece offers ideas and examples for putting these considerations into practice.
In this series:
Community Food Production: Part I
Food security and COVID-19
With heightened urgency due to COVID-19, organizations across sectors are exploring innovative ways to increase food security and strengthen local food systems. The advent of the pandemic has resulted in burgeoning concern around food security in B.C. as well as across the globe. In response, local governments in B.C. are being asked to invest in programming and implement policy to support food security. Using this momentum to invest in food security planning now has the potential to support not just an emergency response to food insecurity, but also greater community food security for years to come.
What are the benefits of community food production?
In this document, we are referring to activities that allow individuals to engage in production of food for themselves and for others in their community, rather than for sale or profit. This includes activities such as community, boulevard, and balcony gardens; food forests; community kitchens; meal rotas; as well as hunting, gathering and fishing.
For local governments looking to support their communities in this challenging time and beyond, the many social, mental and cultural benefits of community food production include:
- Food skills and knowledge. Community food production can increase food skills (how to grow and prepare food) and food knowledge by providing space to rediscover or learn about cultural and relational aspects of food.
- Reduced impacts of climate change. Food that is grown, processed and consumed in your community requires less transportation and packaging and in turn, contributes to less greenhouse gas emissions and pollution than imported goods. Even more crucial than the distance food travels, increased food skills and knowledge can influence food choices and production methods, including the incorporation of traditional knowledge for production.
- Improved mental health and wellness. Community food production supports social connectedness by facilitating spaces and activities that bring strangers and neighbours together. It provides community members access and physical connection to the natural environment.
- Physical activity. Community gardening/growing offers physical activity across a range of intensities that can be accessible to all ages and abilities.
- A larger green infrastructure network. Gardens of all sizes provide a host of ecosystem services beyond food production, including stormwater retention, carbon storage, pollination and wildlife habitat.
- Cultural learning and practice. For Indigenous peoples, cultivation, sourcing and harvesting methods that honour and acknowledge one's culture can be a source of pride, community-building, and improved health outcomes. Plans or programs initiated by cultural groups themselves are of course more likely to be able to respond to those cultural groups’ requirements and challenges. From an Indigenous perspective, connection to the land is also a key component of the fourth circle of wellness.
It is also important to note that this type of community-level food production has played a key role in responding to emergency food needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many organizations across B.C. have worked to pivot in order to address this need.
Equity considerations in community food production
When making investments around food security, it is equally important to think critically about who will be able to benefit from these investments and how, as well as who may be left out. This is often referred to as an equity lens. Will those who benefit the most be those who are the most in need? What combination of investments will ensure those who need the most support get the most support; what will reduce barriers for those who face the most barriers?
Listed below are some dimensions of equity that should be considered when investing in community food production initiatives in your community.
- Money is always a barrier. Startup costs such as purchasing required items like fishing licenses, planters, soil and other equipment required to produce and store food can be prohibitive for those on a limited budget.
- Use of space is a complicated issue that needs to be carefully considered. Conversations about use of both public space such as parklands and private land, such as undeveloped lots for community gardens need to acknowledge the colonial model of land ownership. This model is at odds with the Indigenous worldview as well as distinct legal rights Indigenous peoples have to hunting, fishing and gathering, springing from cultures who have been stewards of the land since time immemorial. Consider how community food production spaces can be respectful of this, and developed to ensure the space fits the needs of those who need it most. Discussions around space should also consider housing and tenure types: many people have no access to backyards or balconies; and renters and strata members may have limited control over how the land they live on is used. Others may couch surf, sleep outside, or have other temporary or tenuous housing situations.
- Access encompasses both physical accessibility and mobility. This includes challenges of geographic accessibility and distance faced in some rural areas. It also includes language considerations, technology and access to digital information. Social isolation or exclusion from networks who typically share information about local production opportunities can also be a major barrier to access. Finally, issues around access should consider cultural differences, including different farming, growing or harvesting traditions with distinct cultural requirements for producing and gathering food. These considerations may include prioritizing access to certain traditional foods for Indigenous and other cultural groups.
- Time is a considerable factor in ability to participate. Work schedules and other time-consuming personal responsibilities can be huge barriers when it comes to making time to grow food. People with children, persons with disabilities, and people who work far from home have more barriers to using their leisure time for production/growing. Time can also show up as a barrier related to local government processes. Navigating the regulatory processes including re-zoning, permitting, and service provision like access to water and materials can also be a major time-related barrier for individuals and community groups looking to start community food production programs and initiatives.
The list above is by no means exhaustive; each community and the people within it face their own unique circumstances and barriers. That’s why it’s also crucial to continuously engage with your own community as you develop policies and programs to improve community food security, with a focus on gaining insight from those who face the greatest barriers to participating in community food production activities, and co-developing solutions to overcome those barriers with them.
Choosing the right intervention
When local governments are considering investing time, money, and effort into supportive policies, plans and programming around community food production, they should clearly establish what community-level challenges they hope to address, and choose the interventions that have been shown to most effectively address those challenges. For example, while initiatives such as community gardens, boulevard gardens and community food forests support community food security and provide many of the benefits above they are not a solution to food insecurity. So, while a community garden or a neighbourhood meal rota may be a great initiative to support increased social connectedness or mental well-being, it may be a less effective investment for a community primarily concerned with inadequate nutrition or unequal access to food.
Food security: more than just food systems
Even before the advent of COVID-19, 12.4% of B.C. households reported experiencing some level of food insecurity. Between 2015–2017, 43.5% of on-reserve First Nations households reported that they could not afford to eat a balanced meal in the past 12 months. Nationally, a recent survey compared food insecurity before and during the COVID-19 pandemic and found that almost one in seven Canadians lived in a household where there was food insecurity in the past 30 days.
When planning projects intended to increase community access to food, local governments need to consider all other systems impacting health and access to food, including poverty reduction, affordable and appropriate housing, and systemic and structural racism.
Initiatives such as advocating for a living wage and other income policies; creating planning regulations that discourage or disallow the construction of affordable housing in food deserts; or developing culturally-safe spaces for diverse communities to access culturally-appropriate foods can have a measurable impact on access to nutritious food for populations experiencing food insecurity.
In the next part of this series we will highlight examples from local and Indigenous governments working to enhance opportunities for local food production and partnerships with community groups that meaningfully contribute to improved access to food and create equitable and positive change in their communities.
- BC Ministry of Health (2014). Model Core Program Paper: Food Security. Retrieved from https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/health/about-bc-s-health-care-system/public-health/healthy-living-and-healthy-communities/food_security_model_core_program_paper.pdf