Community gardens not a 'silver bullet' when it comes to food security, expert says

When people think about what cities have done to increase food security this decade, they might think of the community gardens that have sprung up in many neighbourhoods.  

But a food system researcher at Kwantlen University says those gardens are not exactly the best way of addressing the "food gap" —  the growing gulf between people who have access to healthy, fresh meals, and those who don't.

"Urban agriculture right now is used a bit as a silver bullet," said Naomi Robert, who has written a paper on municipal policy on regional food systems in B.C.

"The demographics that benefit from community gardens sometimes are not those that are the most food insecure, or that wouldn't benefit from more intersectional ideas."

However, Robert believes there are plenty of other things municipalities can do to help the most vulnerable get access to the food they need. 

"Food planning is something that is relatively new ... and at a local government level there's a lot of opportunity to influence that," she said. 

A patchwork in Metro Van

In the last decade, dozens of municipalities in B.C. have incorporated elements of food security into their official community plans. 

"They play the key role in terms of providing services and making land-use decisions on the ground," said Marcin Pachcinski, who oversees Metro Vancouver's regional food system action plan, which was passed in 2016.

He and Robert said that can mean anything from ensuring critical food services are distributed around a community, providing resources for local food hubs, setting up farmers markets or distribution centres, or providing direct funding to non-profits or food banks.

Both Pachcinski and Robert agree there's a "hodgepodge" of support at the local level — and while some of that stems from some city halls not prioritizing food planning, some of it is due to the region's complex geography and governance structures.  

"Food systems aren't fully contained within one jurisdiction," said Pachcinski.

"Farming areas providing food are part of a larger system that includes distribution, wholesalers, retailers that are part of a larger network. So there is a lot of collaboration that needs to take place to solve some of the challenges."

Ben Nelms/CBC

'Always steps you can take'

Not every municipality has the reach and budget of Vancouver, which provides three meals for less than $2.50 every day at three different locations.

But some are punching above their weight.

"In New Westminster we take a particular pride in doing things first and trying to be top of the line," said Councillor Jamie McEvoy. 

In 2018, the city passed a food security action plan with 38 recommendations, many involving work the city could do with businesses or non-profits, and earlier this year the school board launched a subsidized lunch program.

Even before that, Metro Vancouver's 2016 report noted that New Westminster was a leader in the region for trying to improve access to nutritious food among vulnerable groups.     

"We have a number of groups that provide meal programs or food banks or these kinds of things. But nobody was really bringing those folks together or pursuing any city-wide goals," said McEvoy. 

A simple example McEvoy mentions is how the city provides brochures at every food agency, telling people where and when they can get food at other locations. 

"When I think about other municipalities, I think that sometimes these issues seem quite massive and people might start just off the bat thinking there's nothing they can really do," he said.  

"But there's always steps you can take."

CBC British Columbia is holding its 33rd annual Open House and Food Bank fundraiser on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. You can visit or call in to donate then, or go to cbc.ca/openhouse.