Taking Stock

ECF investigates Edmonton’s food security

When Carla Brenner got divorced, it was hard to make ends meet. Suddenly a single parent with two kids and significant debt, she wasn’t considered low-income and therefore wasn’t eligible for the vast majority of social services. “I had to afford the place I was living in, because I needed that many bedrooms. I needed the car so I could get to work. I felt like I needed everything I had in my life, which was bare minimum, but I didn’t have enough food,” she says. According to Health Canada’s Household Food Security survey, there are 172,000 Albertan families affected by food insecurity. And Brenner’s case is among them: while she could pay her bills, she struggled to buy enough nutritious food to feed herself and her two sons. Then she found the Wecan Food Basket Society, a non-profit organization that helps people like Brenner make sure they have enough food to last the month.

Wecan is essentially a food co-op. Members pay $5 a year and $25 at the beginning of each month, and at the end of the third week, when money may be running short, they pick up their food baskets from one of Wecan’s 25 depots in churches, schools and community centres around Edmonton. A Wecan food basket typically contains three kilograms of meat, three kilograms of fruit and a selection of fresh vegetables. Wecan clients include single parents, the formerly homeless, fixed-income seniors and many others, but the organization places no restrictions on membership. That’s because food security impacts everyone.

In 2011, 1.6 million Canadian households – approximately one in eight – had difficulty getting enough nutritious food to eat.

Along with supporting organizations like Wecan through funding, this year the Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) is putting out its Vital Signs report, which compares national data with local data while looking at the issue of food security. In 1996, the United Nations’ World Food Summit defined food security as existing “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” And while you might think that food insecurity is primarily an issue in impoverished and war-torn countries, it’s on the rise in Canada.

In 2011, 1.6 million Canadian households – approximately one in eight – had difficulty getting enough nutritious food to eat. That’s up from 1.4 million in 2008 according to the Household Food Security survey. The survey also says that in Alberta, 12.3 per cent of households were impacted by food insecurity in 2011, the highest rates observed since monitoring began in 2005.

This isn’t just happening nationally and provincially, but right in our city, as ECF found out when they contacted Leger to conduct an online survey gauging Edmontonian’s ideas surrounding food security locally. Close to half of respondents agreed that food securityhas become a significant problem within the city, saying that both government and individuals should be responsible for ensuring people not only have enough to eat, but access to nutritious food. And it was evident from the responses that food security is a complex issue, one that encompasses factors such as increasing access to locally grown food, educating people about food wastage and reducing barriers to access healthy food, to name a few.

For some, food insecurity means a constant sense of worry about whether there will be enough to last the month. Families may limit what groceries they buy, sticking to cheaper and potentially less nutritious options in an effort to save money. In more severe cases of food insecurity, individuals miss meals or may even go days without eating according to the Household Food Security’s survey.

In urban areas, poverty is the primary cause of food insecurity. But it’s not necessarily just the inability to afford food. The phenomenon of “food deserts,” communities that lack access to grocery stores, is less common in Canada, but a 2006 study identified nine such areas in Edmonton. Grocery-free zones in Edmonton have been created as a result of legal agreements put in place by grocery chains to prevent competing stores from opening in the same area as one of their stores. As they’ve closed urban stores in favour of more profitable suburban locations, those restrictive covenants have remained in place, preventing new stores from moving in to fill the gap. These food deserts disproportionately impact the poor and elderly, who may not have access to a vehicle in order to get to the nearest grocery store. Instead, they have to rely on friends, public transit, or local convenience stores, which tend to be more expensive and have a poor selection.

On a larger scale, food security isn’t just about whether families can afford to buy groceries – it’s also about whether there is enough food available for a community to support itself. Food security and food sovereignty proponents argue that Edmonton is less and less able to feed everyone in the event of a catastrophe, due to the disappearance of farmland surrounding the city. In 2006, Statistics Canada shows there were 66,543 acres of farmland surrounding Edmonton. By 2011, that number had fallen 80 per cent, to just 13,011 acres. That means Edmonton is increasingly dependent on food imported from outside the immediate area, and less able to sustain itself in the event of an emergency that cuts off access to external sources of food.

That’s part of the push behind new initiatives to improve the city’s food infrastructure. In October 2012, the city released fresh, a new food and agricultural strategy for the city, which directed the city to establish the 15-member Edmonton Food Council by June 2013. Edmonton Food Council’s mandate is to expand agriculture in the city, develop local food demand, supply and infrastructure, and facilitate food education.

Individuals, too, are looking for ways to improve their own food security. That’s certainly a motivating factor behind shop local campaigns like Live Local Alberta, which supports locally grown food. For those suffering from food insecurity, however, shopping at the local farmers’ market isn’t always an option, due to the higher prices. Fortunately, there are other ways to ease the strain. One of fresh‘s goals is to encourage Edmontonians to grow their own food at home, and even those without a backyard can try their hand at container gardening with access to a small deck or patio. Many neighbourhoods now have community gardens for those who don’t have any gardening space of their own, or who need help getting started. Learning to cook, and specifically learning to make the most of less desirable cuts of meat, can help significantly reduce grocery bills, as can starting or joining a food co-op.

There are also many organizations in Edmonton that help people impacted by food insecurity, many of which are supported by the Edmonton Community Foundation. Edmonton’s Food Bank feeds more than 14,000 people every month, including more than 5,600 children. E4C, a not-for-profit that provides a variety of services including emergency and affordable housing, also provides several programs aimed at improving food security, such as subsidized hot lunches and snacks at city schools and the Young Chefs program, which teaches students in grades four through six how to cook.

The decision to access those services, however, can be difficult. Brenner says that while she had used Edmonton’s Food Bank before finding Wecan, she felt guilty. “I wanted to be self-sufficient,” she says. In her case, Wecan provided a good alternative because it allowed her to contribute. “I didn’t feel like I was dipping into the coffers or other people’s pockets, since I was paying for it myself.” And while Brenner’s situation has improved – she completed a master’s degree in engineering – she’s still a member of the organization, and serves as the vice-chair of Wecan’s board of directors. Wecan is volunteer-driven, and having experienced food insecurity first-hand, Brenner wants to give back to the organization that helped her.