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.
Story by Jenny van Enckevort, with contributions by Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks.
Help us build resiliency over charity
This season, Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks invites you to give to community food networks, to support their community food security model.