When the team behind the Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable saw a study released last month that showed Canada has four food-based charities to every grocery store, they said the statistic didn’t surprise them much.
“Unfortunately, it wasn't as shocking as maybe it should be,” said Ana Méndez, the roundtable’s communications and engagement coordinator.
Through their work in the community, they collaborate with many charities and nonprofits working on the ground to fight food insecurity—an issue that, during the pandemic, has only gotten more severe. During the early months of the pandemic, about one in seven Canadians reported being food insecure.
The fear some Victorians felt when panic-purchasing emptied the shelves in local grocery stores early in the pandemic was just a small taste of the everyday reality of those who are food insecure.
“It isn't that there's a lack of food in Victoria—it’s that there's a lack of food access,” said Megan Chan, the events and programs coordinator for the roundtable.
For access to improve, they say, it will take collaboration and an effort to learn from those most impacted by food insecurity. Fortunately, Greater Victoria has an abundance of people and organizations passionate about taking on that challenge.
This is the intention behind the Good Food Gathering, an upcoming annual event bringing together food accessibility advocates, Indigenous leaders, local policymakers, and the wider community to hear from those on the front lines of food insecurity in Greater Victoria and work together to eliminate barriers to accessing food. From Nov. 26 to 27, this year’s event will feature a series of virtual and in-person workshops, panels, networking opportunities, and interactive sessions focused around the theme of 'Listening to the Land.'
A network for food security
Greater Victoria is full of food-based nonprofits and initiatives taking their own approaches to bring food to residents—from food banks like the Mustard Seed, to food hampers assembled by neighbourhood groups, to the region’s first community fridge that opened in Rock Bay earlier this year. Together, these organizations make up the Good Food Network.
“There's so many great people doing all this really important work in our region,” Chan said. “We try to connect all of these people together and create a shared vision and shared goals so that we're getting somewhere with all of our work.”
According to Méndez, the event has evolved over several years from a small event with roundtable sessions to the large regional summit it is today. Every year, she says, the event grows bigger. And with more community buy-in, they hope to have an even bigger collective impact.
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The Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable works closely with the Capital Regional District’s many municipalities, particularly Saanich and Victoria. Each year, Méndez says every mayor and city councillor receives an invite to the Good Food Gathering—typically garnering participation from local officials from across the South Island.
“I think it is a great space for municipal governments and anyone interested in food policy to attend,” Méndez said. “There is a lot of space to network, collaborate, and learn from what each municipality has been doing in the last year around food [security].”
Some of this year’s sessions include a tour of the Sandown Centre for Regenerative Farming, a talk on Indigenous Food Systems and ecosystem restoration, and a panel with advocates and community leaders on how to apply ‘listening to the land’ within work to tackle food insecurity.
“All the content in these sessions is driven by people that are doing the work on the ground and interacting with these [food insecure] communities on the day-to-day,” Chan said. “As people who are working one level removed from that work, we wanted to really highlight and give them the microphone.”
Asking individuals to share their own experiences with food insecurity can put them in a very vulnerable position, Méndez said. However, she knows how powerful storytelling can be in revealing the nuance and lived experiences that make up the full picture of food instability in Greater Victoria.
That’s why the Good Food Gathering will conclude this year with a screening of “Food is Land, Land is Body,” a documentary that focuses on Indigenous food sovereignty through intimate stories about relationships with food and the land.
“I think it's going to be a lot of fun,” Chan said. “It’s one of the more celebratory portions of the event.”
However, this is far from the only part of the two-day gathering that Chan feels will be a moment of celebration—from the large representation of youth at the forefront of these discussions and local initiatives, to the significant strides that have been made to provide food in the community throughout the challenges of the past two years, there is a lot to appreciate.
Heading into the Good Food Gathering, however, their work is only beginning. Through the collaborations that make the Good Food Network possible, Méndez is hopeful they are progressively achieving deeper changes in the community that will help end food insecurity.
“You can give someone food and they will eat for that day, but at the root of it, food insecurity is really an income problem,” Méndez said. “I think people recognize that it’s deeper than just providing free food to solve it.”