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Access to healthy, affordable food harder during the pandemic, compounded by climate crisis

North Shore communities are feeling the pinch of the rising cost and limited access to healthy food

COVID-19 has seemingly affected all areas of life, and according to survey results released at the end of last month, most respondents said the pandemic has made healthy food unaffordable.

Compounded by this is the climate crisis that saw recent heat waves and flooding occur in the province, affecting supply chains and means of distribution.

The survey by BC Alliance for Healthy Living Society found a third of people said healthy foods, like fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and proteins, are not affordable.

It also found that 93 per cent of respondents are “not getting the recommended five to 10 daily servings of fruit and veggies. On average, most are eating just two servings per day.”

Not only do rising costs affect individuals and families, but organizations that specialize in supporting people’s access to food, like North Vancouver’s Backpack Buddies, have also taken a hit.

“We are finding it a lot harder to obtain some of our staple items. Suppliers are saying that deliveries aren't coming. And you know, we have food that has been committed, so we are having to scramble to find new sources,” Founder Emily-anne King said. “We’re not able to go to the local grocery store and buy the amount that we need,” adding the organization requires 15,000 breakfast items every two weeks.

As inflation sits at an 18-year-high, with grocery costs rising 4.7 per cent in November alone, King said people are really feeling the pinch more than ever. Backpack Buddies monthly operating costs have risen about $7,000 from inflation alone.

“What's really challenging is the access to the fresh produce and the things that nourish our bodies and our minds, especially for young growing kids that need to be fuelling their bodies with. And when it's not affordable or accessible for families, that's a really, really, heavy toll on the families and parents who want to give their kids the best that they can,” she said.

King notes that as hard as it is for her organization, what she and her organization bring to the forefront of their mind is how hard it is for the individuals who are experiencing food insecurity.

“For the single mom who is just trying to get by right now. With inflation, and all of these things compounding, that's my biggest worry. And I worry about kids slipping through the cracks, so we're just doing everything we possibly can to step up and do what we can,” she said.

Backpack Buddies expands reach

This year saw the supplemental food program expand into communities outside of urban areas, including the Kootenays and Vancouver Island. While regularly supporting about 4,000 children each week, Backpack Buddies saw their contributions change dramatically during the recent floods in southern British Columbia.

Partnering with Helicopters Without Borders previously to airdrop supplies to isolated and remote communities across the province, the partnership came together again in November, to drop food and essential supplies to communities in the Fraser Canyon, such as Spuzzum, Boston Bar, Kanaka Bar, and Lytton.

“They've been doing flights every day, and some have been strictly our product and others have been in partnership with many agencies who are filling the needs of the communities. So things like cat food and diapers and wipes, and then of course, hygiene and food for people,” she said.

For Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation’s) Ayás Méńmen (Child and Family Services), the rising cost and changing availability of healthy food is an increasing concern for the families it supports. The healthy living survey also found that 64 per cent of Indigenous peoples face difficulties affording healthy food.

“People are concerned about being able to feed their families,” Kelley McReynolds, director of Ayás Méńmen said.

Greens grown in shipping container

To address food insecurity concerns, earlier this year the Nation invested and set up its own modular Growcer hydroponic farm at X̱wemelch'stn, and while McReynolds said there were some challenges in the beginning, it has changed the way the Nation has been able to support families who find themselves food insecure.

The hydroponic farm sits in a 40-foot shipping container and now provides a year-round supply of fresh produce, including leafy greens, herbs and traditional medicinal plants.

“It’s a really innovative idea to be able to address some of the food security issues and food sovereignty as well,” she said. “For us, we're smack dab in the middle of a big city, where real estate is prime, and we don't necessarily have huge spaces to have farming fields.”

The year-round farm has meant the Nation is able to quickly and easily distribute food to its community members when needed. The Nation has both a biweekly and monthly food distribution, along with its just-opened food pantry that allows members to access food when needed.

McReynolds said even with the rising cost of food, being able to fill freezers and cupboards full with food is the beauty of community, and how Squamish and Indigenous people take care of each other.

“There's always been a lot of adversity in life, and so being able to have a positive view on life, and our future goals, and continuing to look at the resilience of our communities and how we come together and adapt for floods, fires, and viruses.

“It isn't about having easy access to nutritious food, but it's trying to assure the safety and the well-being of our community to work together. The power to bring positive, measurable change to our community, to people and to the betterment continues to be the focus,” she said.

Although the Nation’s own food sources weren’t affected too badly by the summer’s heat waves and recent flooding, McReynolds said the devastation and impact to Indigenous communities across the province has been heartbreaking.

“Our prayers and strength go out to each of them, and the losses that they've all experienced,” she said, adding that these events have shown how vulnerable we are.

“We give thanks to the creator for what we've got, because it can change at any given moment. That's the reality of it,” she said.

Charlie Carey is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

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