The Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks (VNFN) are a network of community organizations committed to promoting health and well-being through a range of food security programs in neighbourhoods across the City of Vancouver each responding to the unique needs and cultures within their respective communities.
This past year, many networks continued providing emergency food distribution programs in response to the on-going food inequities and food security needs that many community members have been experiencing during the pandemic. VNFN members also started reintroducing regular programs, and taking stock of the lessons of the pandemic to address the systemic barriers of food insecurity that would serve everyone in the long term. Together, as a collective of networks, we are looking back and looking forward, celebrating the impact of the year past, reflecting on the lessons and setting a vision for a collective effort into 2022 and beyond.
Emergency Response and Beyond
During the pandemic, Neighbourhood Networks have demonstrated the effectiveness of a placed-based community development approach to food security. We collectively produced the Bold Actions for a Food Crisis Report highlighting the efficacy of our approach to food security as well as making policy recommendations for stronger poverty reduction legislation, comprehensive and multi-ministerial provincial food strategy, and Indigenous land and food sovereignty. At the onset of the pandemic, VNFN members were able to swiftly tap into their local networks and the established community relations, to respond quickly and effectively to the emergency by mobilizing people and resources on the ground.
While food distribution continues to be an essential function of member networks, the pandemic experience has brought to the fore the weaknesses of the default food charity approach and highlighted a number of systemic barriers to food security in the long-term. It became more clear than ever that things need to change: both in how we address the lack of food security as a society, and in how we build resilience and community well-being for all.
In 2021, a number of networks began to take stock of the state of food security in their respective communities, considering lessons of the pandemic, and making recommendations to improve immediate food access while working towards the vision for a sustainable, resilient and just food system.
Fostering a “Community-based” Food System
Recognizing the Right to Food, and the importance of food distribution programs, a report by Kiwassa Neighbourhood House (in collaboration with Gordon and South Vancouver Neighbourhood Houses, Christ Church Cathedral, Jewish Family Services, and Hua Foundation) made a case for a dignified approach to food distribution. Through conversations with food justice advocates and community members with lived experience accessing food supports, the report is a call to action to move away from the dominant needs-based charity model towards a strengthening of community-based VNFN type food programs that support food equity, dignity and justice. The report recommends accessible programs that provide fresh, healthy, comforting and familiar food, while being rooted in community and supporting people’s agency.
Food Asset and Needs Scan by Westside Food Collaborative, in partnership with Planted Network supports a human-centered program delivery that goes beyond immediate food security concerns, but holistically addresses a variety of intersecting needs. Since food insecurity is embedded in a web of issues associated with poverty, folks accessing food programs are also often in need of housing, financial, labour and medical supports. Having built trusting relations with vulnerable community members, food networks are in a strong position to facilitate access to basic necessities, medical and social services, as well as advocacy support for housing.
Adopting a Systems Change Approach
Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks are making strides in deepening our understanding of the current food policy landscape and the systemic issues associated with poverty that serve as barriers to long-term solutions to food insecurity. Building Collective Food Security Resilience – a project, in partnership with Little Mountain Neighbourhood House, has developed a theory of change “toolkit” to provide food justice practitioners a resource for personal learning, community development, and collective action to strengthen the resilience of food security and social justice work towards food systems change based on the VNFN model.
Gordon Neighbourhood House Food Program is embarking upon a 3-year research project on food justice and poverty reduction. This work will be taking a systems-level focus on the causes and context of poverty and food insecurity in Vancouver’s West End and translating this learning into new food initiatives that can more effectively respond to underlying causes of food insecurity, again through a strong community and food justice approach as the VNFNs advocate.
Vision for 2022
The VNFNs recently came together to revise our collective vision moving forward towards greater systems impact. Members reflected on individual intentions as well as the rich VNFN history, discussed the current context of food security and imagined the aspirational vision of the food system in Vancouver to work towards to – a sustainable, resilient, connected, culturally appropriate food system in Vancouver that is grounded in the principles of justice, sovereignty, and equity. To support this vision, the Network has refined its purpose towards stronger collaboration to communicate and magnify the voices of diverse communities, to educate the public, and to advocate for local policy and systems change towards food and social justice in Vancouver.
Achieving our vision of a more just food system must adopt a decolonized approach recognizing the ongoing impacts of colonization, whereby large communities are disproportionately affected by poverty and injustice, and are excluded from the political decision making process. Balancing power relations through deep, meaningful and anti-colonial community engagement and coalition building is fundamental to equity based systems change.
It is undeniable that a place-based and community development approach to addressing food insecurity in our communities works – by building community relationships and partnerships, we are able to weather the storm and bounce back. And it is by coming together at the community level that we are able to shift the tide towards addressing systemic barriers and realizing the vision for a decolonized, sustainable, resilient, connected, culturally appropriate food system in Vancouver. Together, and onward!
Story by Ksenia Stepkina and Ian Marcuse with contributions by Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks
Over 25 years, Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks have learned to support people in growing and accessing nutritious and culturally familiar foods close to home, in neighbourhoods throughout the city. We promote access to food with dignity, and without barriers.
Many of our actions and principles reflect the global Right to Food standards, as outlined by the United Nations (tinyurl.com/UNRightToFood).
Our model is unique! We are a citywide network of networks, working together collectively through problem-solving, sharing information and resources, and advocating to increase our collective impact to build healthy food for all neighbourhoods.
Our work shows how investing in a just community food security model builds strong relationships, and quality access to food on an everyday basis. We’ve also demonstrated resilience and adaptability when crises arise.
Our model is responsive to the unique needs and cultures of each neighbourhood. Investing in community food security promotes individual and collective health, and eases strain on social and health care systems due to poverty and inequity.
Building resilience for Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks (before and beyond COVID) means:
Advocating for food justice, poverty reduction, and Indigenous land sovereignty
Urban food growing, including community, school and permaculture gardens
Gardening workshops, seed-saving and distribution
Good Food Boxes
Cooking and nutrition workshops
Community food markets and food distribution
Community food celebrations and festivals
Addressing food insecurity
During COVID-19, people in our city faced a food crisis that lasted long after the shelves were restocked. Many people became food insecure by losing employment and income, as well as access to affordable, nutritious food near home.
Our food systems were inequitable before 2020, and COVID worsened these problems. The 2016 Census shows 20% of Vancouverites live below the poverty line, which is closely linked to food insecurity. Numbers are much higher for our Indigenous and Black neighbours, as well as newcomers to Canada—who remain disproportionately affected by poverty, food insecurity and COVID-19.
These were just some impacts of the food crisis:
Long grocery lineups creating barriers for people with limited mobility
Limited grocery delivery services
Inability for people to afford healthy food
Closure of many citywide food services, meaning longer travel times and health risks to reach a central food bank location
Our work creates a strong body of evidence that community food security builds everyday resiliency and crisis-preparedness in our neighbourhoods.
Our existing relationships allowed 15 Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Network staff (many of them working part-time) to immediately grasp the need for filling the gaps with emergency food assistance.
Providing emergency food access during COVID was a mandate shift for us, but here are some ways we’ve boosted food security during the pandemic:
Food hamper and meal deliveries
Pop-up produce markets
Online gardening guides & workshops
Seed packet mailouts
Outdoor community meals at a distance
Stories of impact from our neighbours
Investing in resilient food systems
Billboards, advertising, politicians, and news media have told the public that food banks are the answer to food insecurity. We recognize the role that food banks play in helping people put food on the table, but we know through our work that building thriving, food secure communities requires a long-term capacity-building approach.
We need better legislation, more funding, and more support to help communities grow toward their vision of a just, equitable, and food secure future.
With an annual budget of about $1.76 million (just 0.11% of the the City of Vancouver’s $1.597 billion operating budget), there could be a full-time Food Coordinator in all 22 Vancouver neighbourhoods (CUPE 15, Programmer 2). Our current operating budget from the City of Vancouver is $200,000 per year, through the Sustainable Food Systems Grant.
We seek the funding to continue our pre-COVID work citywide, creating a future where every neighbourhood has a community food security network, and every household is food secure.
Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks are feeding a hungry city, while advocating for food justice well into the future
During COVID, a group of hardworking organizers have been helping neighbours throughout Vancouver feed themselves and their communities. In fact, the collective known as Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks has been responding to the unique food security needs of neighbours in different parts of the city for more than 25 years.
For Vancouverites who know what it’s like to be well-fed every day, larger charities like Greater Vancouver Food Bank are more likely to be familiar household names. But the work of large organizations is in many ways linked to the far-reaching and deeply meaningful work of Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks (VNFN). While charitable responses have been a key component of feeding people during the COVID crisis, the VNFN collective supports their communities to strengthen interdependence and self-sufficiency—instead of perpetuating a culture of one-sided charitable giving that can be disempowering.
VNFN Coordinator Sarah Kim and her colleagues believe their work is essential to food security because their organizations have long-standing interpersonal relationships with residents, business owners and organizations in each unique neighbourhood. Over many years, they have learned to adapt to the changing needs of their communities, while moving away from ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions.Today, VNFN represents 14 networks throughout the city of Vancouver, and they’re working harder than ever to help neighbours access nutritious and culturally familiar foods with dignity, and without fear. These principles are among those defined in the universal human right to food by the United Nations, yet the ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ mindset remains commonplace in many privileged Canadian cultures.
Working harder than ever to fill gaps in food systems
Sarah Kim and her city-wide network of colleagues have been filling the gaps of emergency food response over the past eight months, as the COVID crisis illuminates the systemic crises of poverty, racism, and oppression. Social services agencies like neighbourhood food networks and neighbourhood houses have been responding to these crises for a long time, but now the unjust foundations of our systems are causing more challenges than ever, says Kim along with Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Network coordinators.
During the first few months of the pandemic, it was easier for everybody to see the dangers of food shortages when grocery store shelves were empty. Now that supply chains have recovered and shelves have been restocked for quite some time, thoughts of a food crisis are a distant memory for households who don’t have trouble putting food on the table.
“Our entire food system was turned upside-down because of COVID,” says Blain Butyniec of Hastings-Sunrise Community Food Network, and he and his colleagues see the challenges of food insecurity persisting for many.
Business-as-usual a dangerous precedent for those living in poverty
Kim and her colleagues know first-hand that returning to business-as-usual is dangerous for the many Vancouverites who are affected by food insecurity. These same people are disproportionately affected by poverty and housing insecurity, racism, and greater risks of contracting COVID-19. In the minds of many Neighbourhood Food Network coordinators, business-as-usual means reliance on a deficit-based charity model where people think of food banking as the only solution to food insecurity, and have few choices when it comes to feeding themselves and their families—despite the fact that different homes have widely different nutritional needs and traditions around food preparation.
In fact, it’s hard for many Canadians to think of solutions to food insecurity beyond food banks. That’s why VNFN Neighbourhood Food Network coordinators started spending time in calls together when the COVID crisis hit. In addition to supporting one another through sharing information and ideas, and collaborating on bulk purchasing and distribution for emergency food relief, these organizational leaders found their experience and expertise was needed at the table when larger organizations, institutions and governments convened online meetings around emergency food response. This expertise comes from a place-based community development model, where strong relationship-building is the foundation of resilience and social change.
Since March of this year, VNFN member networks have quickly deployed their experienced staff and volunteers to creatively respond to the unique challenges of the food crisis in their neighbourhoods. From sourcing fresh local produce to meet neighbours’ nutritional and cultural food needs, to sending care packages along with seeds and do-it-yourself gardening resources along with home food deliveries, and coordinating food donations from the community, Kim and her colleagues leveraged existing relationships to maximize their emergency food response efforts.
Seniors have been among the hardest-hit by the food crisis, says Gillian Der of Renfrew-Collingwood Food Justice. Many older adults living alone rely on outings to local fishmongers and greengrocers for social connections with small business owners and members of their communities. COVID-19 restrictions have made these outings more difficult, meaning many seniors are losing out on opportunities for health and wellness, are less likely to have access to familiar and affordable foods, and are at greater risk for social isolation—particularly with the onset of the rainy months, limiting comfortable access to safer outdoor gathering places.
Emergency food response intersects with unjust food systems
Most Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks and neighbourhood houses focus on systems change work, supporting BIMPOC (Black, Indigenous, Multiracial and People of Colour) communities, including immigrants, migrants and refugees of all generations and walks of life, from youth to seniors. Their collective food justice work includes Indigenous land and food sovereignty advocacy, decolonization and anti-racism work, as well as poverty reduction, and community leadership development through participant-led projects like community kitchens and urban gardening.
Emergency food response isn’t at the core of most VNFN organizational missions, but member networks have filled the gaps out of necessity when the Greater Vancouver Food Bank food hubs hosted by local organizations were closed. This change meant the majority of people could no longer access food in their own neighbourhoods.
The Greater Vancouver Food Bank says the decision to change the distribution model was based on BC health authorities’ guidelines for staff, volunteer and public safety, and prioritizing getting greater amounts of nutritious foods into the hands of clients more quickly.
While food banks are doing the best they can with the resources they have, there are still concerns that many people are falling through the gaps in the system during their time of greatest need. Many VNFN organizations see the charity model of food assistance as an outdated system our societies have inherited, and a band-aid solution that doesn’t address the root causes of food insecurity.
For Ian Marcuse of Grandview-Woodland Food Connection, COVID-19 has magnified the underlying complexities and systemic exclusion of the most vulnerable in the community, many of whom are struggling—financially, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Instead of a charity model, Ian and his colleagues advocate for the more wholistic capacity-building approach of the community food security model practiced by Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks.
Joey Liu of Gordon Neighbourhood House observes that while smaller grassroots organizations were poised to be nimble and flexible around emergency food response, it has been extremely challenging for these local networks to feed their communities during a global pandemic. Most VNFN member networks have taken on a great deal of extra work, with very small teams, few supports and resources, little financial support from various levels of government, and comparatively little capacity for fundraising compared to larger organizations—all while their physical locations have been closed to the public. For the neighbourhood food networks, it seems as though their expertise is needed more than ever in delivering solutions for their unique communities.
Struggles for food justice are very much interconnected with climate justice, housing affordability in the housing crisis, with anti racist struggles, and anti-colonial struggles. The recent “Balance the Budget” tool promoted by the City of Vancouver invited citizens to give feedback on the budget by requesting more funds for certain areas by removing it from other areas. “It’s kind of difficult to have to rank things, as if they are discrete issues that don’t interact with one another,” says Khalid Jamal of Strathcona Community Centre’s Food Security Program.
Many VNFN coordinators feel the City missed a critical opportunity for taking a more integrative approach to asking questions about and supporting human rights on a municipal level, instead of fostering a spirit of competition for resources. They collectively acknowledge that this is the type of thinking seen in many levels of government and bureaucracies. For VNFN, it simply doesn’t make sense to address the complex issues of food insecurity without meaningful engagement from, and support of the organizations most experienced with developing community food security.
“If people don’t see that we’re in a food crisis, we won’t receive the investments of resources we need to change our unjust food systems,“ Kim says.
Food justice: Whose responsibility?
The view of Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks and its member organizations is that we are all collectively responsible for food justice, which includes human, land and animal rights in every aspect of food systems—from production to supply, but not limited by the capitalist supply-chain view of food as commodity and humans as consumers. Instead, food justice as VNFN sees it can play a role in reconnecting people to the land, to food production, preparation and sharing, and to each other.
VNFN continues coordinating with the BC Food Security Gateway Community of Practice to be able to advocate to the provincial government, and collaborates with organizations like Food Secure Canada and Community Food Centres of Canada, which operate on a federal level.
Food justice: The questions, the answers, and the difference
Many Neighbourhood Food Network coordinators would like to see the City of Vancouver, the province of BC and Canada’s federal government doing more to support the right to food as a human rights priority particularly in recovery plans. VNFN and partnering food security organizations throughout the country are asking questions like:
How can we support resiliency response throughout our food systems?
How can we invest in community-based food security?
How can we ensure people at all levels of our food systems are better prepared for when another emergency—or another wave of food insecurity arises?
What Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks sees as a whole is that decentralized networks of social services organizations are already resilient. Yet greater investment is needed by all levels of government and affluent communities in order to support growth and regenerative practices in the social services sector. VNFN sees their greatest opportunities in providing ongoing community supports, to move beyond a charity model and toward food sovereignty—where communities have greater self-determination in their own food systems.
Together with their nationwide food justice colleagues, they’re leading a shift toward policy changes that support thriving local economies, prioritizing the voices and needs of people through fair and dignified practices that support anti-oppression and poverty reduction.