Have you ever had to choose between food or shelter? Recently, I was stunned to find out that, in Clayoquot Sound in British Columbia, Canada, many respondents to a survey on food issues had to choose between paying their rent or mortgage and buying their groceries. This was not a recession issue. In an area where low- and middle-income households share local resources with luxury resorts and million-dollar vacation homes, this was truly disturbing.
This food-shelter dilemma is the tip of an iceberg called “food security.” The name is a catch-all for issues related to the universal access to healthy, affordable and predominantly locally-supplied food. Food security has nothing to do with foreign terrorists poisoning our crops or water supplies. This is not a military issue but it is an intensely political issue. It is also a socio-economic and cultural issue that impacts urban, rural and remote communities across North America.
We often think food issues affect the rest of the world, especially when we see scenes of drought and starvation devastating communities and entire nations on other continents. We are not immune to the impact of drought. Much of the Western United States, including central Alaska is abnormally dry right now. This is affecting both crop areas and freshwater sources. Australia has been ravaged by drought and has been served up as a climate model for the future of the American Southwest. These problems will not be solved by governments or industrial food production companies. Regardless of climate change and leadership voids in both the political and corporate world, communities need to take back control of their food supplies.
It can be paralyzing to look at these issues globally. Sometimes action is most effective at the local level. To paraphrase Margaret Mead, I have learned not to underestimate a small group of people and their capacity to bring about positive change. Our food security projects succeed when the community identifies the challenges, the priorities and the actions needed to create greater independence and self-sufficiency. Because the communities include First Nations (The Canadian term for Native American communities), community-based solutions ensure culturally-relevant and sustainable solutions.
Each community needs to define “food security” so it resonates in a meaningful way. I may rely on the Community Food Security Coalition to understand food security as providing a “culturally appropriate, nutritionally sound diet through an economically and environmentally sustainable food system that promotes community self-reliance and social justice.” However, my friends in the Hesquiaht First Nation call it “Cha me ta ha-uuk” or “Eating the right way.”
Solutions to local food issues are as diverse as the challenges. While community gardens and greenhouses may work for one community, establishing a local farmers’ cooperative may make sense in another area. Training on organic gardening or nutrition and diet education may be relevant depending on the goals and the environment in which you are working. Simply connecting with local and regional farmers can make a difference.
If most of your food is traveling hundreds or thousands of miles before you purchase or consume it, food security affects you. If you are dependent on food corporations in other parts of the world, where climate conditions, profit margins and economic policies determine how much you pay for your groceries, food security affects you. Whether you live in the middle of the city or in a remote area with poor food production conditions, you can help your community take back its food future.