In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the brokenness of our local food system is finally exposed, without a mask. The media have uncovered two critical issues in the past few weeks.
- People do not have enough to eat.
That number of people has increased over the past decade as more turn to food banks for help. Intended as a stop-gap measure in times of crisis such as we are currently facing with COVID-19, food banks have become a permanent part of the fabric of our food system, supplying about 23,000 children and adults annually in New Brunswick.
Prior to the pandemic, most of the one in six New Brunswickers facing the daily decision of whether “to heat or to eat” would never seek assistance from a food bank. Now food banks are struggling to keep up, with some experiencing increases upwards of 30 per cent over the past month alone.
Meanwhile, $31 billion of food is annually wasted across Canada. Approximately one-quarter of these products never leave the farm because of strict retail specifications. Take the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s standards for cucumbers as an example. Unless they have “a minimum length of 6 inches, a maximum diameter of 2 3/4 inches, and a good characteristic green colour,” they are unfit for retail.
So, these items left behind in farmers’ fields to rot, turned away at the loading dock of grocery stores, or unsold then composted. And food banks receive Kraft Dinner.
The question of how to get people food that is healthy, enjoyable, and culturally appropriate is as important now as ever before.
- We are unable to feed ourselves with our current food supply.
Local food has been seen as elite, expensive, or inconvenient. I think buying an $8 out-of-season dragon fruit from Southeast Asia is elite, expensive, and inconvenient, but that is a conversation for another day.
Only 8 per cent of the fruits and vegetables we eat in New Brunswick are produced in New Brunswick and nearly half our farmers need to keep an off-farm job to feed their own families. Food production for our communities is viable but we have often taken it for granted. This was even more apparent at the start of the pandemic when the grocery stores’ produce shelves were bare without bananas and only a few bags of local apples remaining.
I hope that through this pandemic, our desire for quick, easy, and cheap everything expires.
Local food has been said to be higher in quality and nutritional value, both of which are often lacking in food donations. Research shows that the majority of food bank clients prefer fresh local fruits and vegetables, but barriers such as a lack of distribution, minimal storage space, and labour shortages on the farm and at the food bank present logistical challenges to be solved.
The land of opportunities
How do we create the infrastructure for food banks to receive more fresh local fruits and vegetables? How can local farmers be encouraged to donate to food banks when they are already operating at maximum capacity trying to market their sellable crops? This has been the question for my masters’ research at the University of New Brunswick.
My research has focused on a method already implemented by four other Canadian provinces (British Columbia, Quebec, Ontario, and Nova Scotia): a Fresh Food Tax Credit policy. This policy provides agricultural producers with non-refundable tax credits of 25 to 50 per cent of the retail value of fresh food that is donated to food banks. The goal is to determine the possibility of implementing a similar scheme in New Brunswick.
The grocery stores may not accept a bent cucumber, but it is as nutritious and delicious as a straight cucumber, and someone will appreciate that. My research is shaping one piece of the puzzle that will show how to get local produce to people who want and need it.
Feeding a new system
I keep hearing people say that they “can’t wait to get back to normal”.
At first, this sounds like a nice idea that might lead you to reply, “me too” – especially when things feel like they are spinning out of control. When motivated by fear, we reach for what is familiar. And familiar feels normal even when it’s messy. Sort of like that old college sweatshirt that has seven holes in it. No, it won’t keep you warm on a cold day and you certainly do not want to wear it out in public, but it’s normal.
Normal is…well…comfortable. But what is the normal we are trying so hard to get back to?
Where normal is dumping seconds on the most vulnerable people in society is acceptable and since we have done our due diligence, we do not have to go the extra mile of inviting someone into our home for a meal?
Where normal is buying imported food from a farmer whose name is unknown when our neighbor down the road has squash composting in her field because she has no market to sell it to?
I am guilty of both of these, but I don’t ever want to go back to that normal.
Instead, I want to look forward to normal.
A new normal where “all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (where we achieve food security).
A new normal where community members nourish each other around the table by sharing good food grown in our backyards.
A new normal where local food production is supported, and we remember that if we don’t make it an essential priority when we have the choice, it won’t be available when we have the need.
In the coming weeks, I will continue to explore the capacity, culture, and practices of New Brunswick food banks to receive more fresh local fruits and vegetables while asking agricultural producers about the economic incentives needed to increase their volume of donations.
If you would like to share ideas about a Fresh Food Tax Credit policy in New Brunswick, please contact me. Together, we can look forward to creating a more resilient food system in New Brunswick.
Jessica Wall lives in Moncton, New Brunswick. She is a Research Assistant with the RAVEN Project (Rural Action and Voices for the Environment) on the Growing a Better Future Project, the Co-Chair of Our Food Southeast NB, and an advocate for rural community development. Jess can be reached at email@example.com.