Skeena—Bulkley Valley MP Taylor Bachrach hosted a virtual town hall about food security on Tuesday (July 28), to discuss how to support local food production across northwest B.C., especially in light of the ongoing pandemic.
Bachrach was joined by guest speakers Jessie Housty, the executive director of the Heiltsuk QQS non-profit society in Bella Bella, and Alistair McGregor, the Cowichan-Malahat-Langford MP and NDP Agriculture Critic, as well as over 80 residents.
“The pandemic has made us all think more about the resilience of our communities … and what we need to survive,” Bachrach said, before introducing the speakers.
Housty spoke about how the 2016 spillage of 110,000 litres of diesel and heavy oils in Heiltsuk territory by an American-owned tugboat impacted traditional food harvesting, as well as how starting a community garden proved to be a powerful tool for agency and healing.
“For us it was about growing food, but it was really about the mental health and well-being of our community,” she said, adding that they built momentum by starting with familiar foods.
They now have four “Granny Gardens” — similar to victory gardens, but with a name that resonates more with Heiltsuk ancestry — and produce an “amazing quantity of food” in partnership with other community agencies.
In response to the novel coronavirus they have given away bags of soil as well as garden starter kits, and provided online instruction to encourage people to think of gardening as carrying on their ancestors’ work.
“It’s not enough to say that you’re sovereign, you have to act like it,” she said. “Food sovereignty is … a way of expressing our sovereignty.”
McGregor spoke more about how food security translates into federal policy, and how he thinks COVID-19 exposed vulnerabilities in the food system, such as “huge bottlenecks” in meat processing.
For example, a meat processing plant in High River closed after about 350 cases of the novel coronavirus were linked to it, a number that eventually rose to 1,500.
“That caused a huge, rolling backlog with livestock right across the country,” he said of the temporary closure of the Alberta plant and others.
To better prepare for the next pandemic when it comes — “and it’s not an if, it’s a when,” he said — a more community-based approach to food production is needed.
“I really think food systems are going to take a very prominent spot in talks of recovery,” he said before the town hall moved into its question and answer period.
Ken Shaw, who helped establish the first community garden in Prince Rupert in 2009, told the host and speakers there are a “tremendous” number of municipal rules that block local food production, citing the removal of two goats from the city last year due to a livestock bylaw.
Shaw asked: what role can federal MPs play in helping municipalities move forward faster?
In response, Bachrach and McGregor acknowledged that municipal governments have a lot of power when it comes to setting policy. However, the federal government has more “fiscal firepower,” they said, and MPs can help bring resources to bear.
McGregor said he would like to press the federal government to commit more money to the Local Food Infrastructure Fund, a five-year, $50 million initiative ending in March 2024.
In response to a question about how to support local dairy production, McGregor also said he would like to see the “milk quota” system — Canada’s system of supply management for dairy farmers — adopted on a regional basis.
A questioner from the Metlakatla First Nation later raised the issue of members living off-reserve having difficulty accessing traditional foods, prompting Bachrach to note the importance of rebuilding Skeena River salmon populations.
Housty said food security is not just about farming and the traditional food gathering of Indigenous people often gets “left behind” in conversations, and encouraged the Metlakatla member to “take space.”
“I just hope that that conversation can get more nuanced,” she said.
A food producer in the Hazelton area raising the profile of Food Secure Canada, a pan-Canadian alliance of organizations and individuals working together to advance food security and food sovereignty, also prompted a discussion about food product labels.
McGregor said “it would be nice … to make labels much easier to understand” so that consumers can make more informed choices, not only when it comes to nutritional values, but also where and how products were made, including labour and environmental practices.
“I very much believe that as consumers of food we ultimately have the right to understand what we’re putting in our bodies,” he said.
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