A Year in Review: From Emergency Food Response Towards Collective Impact for Systems Change

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.

Grandview Woodland Food Connection volunteer getting ready to deliver food hampers to community members. Photo by Grandview Woodland Food Connection, member of the VNFNs

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.

Renfrew-Collingwood Food Justice hosted a pilot mutual Aid Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) program this fall. Community members helped subsidize other members by contributing to the cost of a weekly box, filled with fresh produce from the Tsawwassen Farm School. Photo by Collingwood Neighbourhood House
A typical shift at Food for Families where amazing volunteers sort rescued produce and then prepare 1,000 fresh nutritious hampers per week. Photo by Cheryl McManus
Little Mountain Neighbourhood House hosted the On the Table event in 2019 sharing food and conversation with community members in the Riley Park Community Garden. Photo by Michelle Huisman

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.

South Vancouver Food Network Harvest Fest booths ‘vegetable print painting’: an excellent way for children to connect with food, nature, and their artistic skills! Photo by Ana Pozas

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