The COVID-19 pandemic should be a wakeup call for governments to address the importance of self-sufficiency and community resilience in New Brunswick.
Reduced accessibility to healthy, nutritious food has become somewhat of a new reality for many living in New Brunswick. Since the COVID-19 pandemic reached the province in early March, worldwide shutdowns have exposed the true lack of food security in the province.
Before the pandemic, food insecurity was prevalent in New Brunswick, with food banks supplying about 23,000 children and adults annually.
But since COVID-19, increased unemployment and delayed financial assistance has left even more New Brunswickers falling through the cracks. Food banks across the Maritimes are struggling to keep up with the recent rise in demand, with some facing increases of approximately 30 per cent over the past month.
Provinces in the Atlantic region have “very vulnerable” food security, according to Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.
More than 90 per cent of New Brunswick’s produce is imported from out of province – and when systems fail, or pandemics strike, the fragility of our current food system is exposed.
New Brunswick relies heavily on imported food to feed the province. Food is an essential service and we are fortunate that it will continue being imported to New Brunswick, but inter-provincial border closures should spark a conversation about local food production and our province’s ability to support itself in times of uncertainty.
Local food production can be an effective way to address not only food security but also food sovereignty in New Brunswick.
Food security exists when everyone has physical and economic access to nutritious food, but often that food is produced under environmentally destructive or exploitive conditions.
Food sovereignty emphasizes food as not only a commodity but also something that can support sustainable livelihoods, reduce distance between suppliers and consumers, resist dependence on unaccountable corporations, place control in the hands of local food suppliers, reject privatization of natural resources, promote knowledge and skills, all while working with nature in a responsible, productive manner.
Knowing exactly where your food comes from and how it is grown, and maintaining a nutritious diet while supporting local businesses makes uncertain times like this a little less scary.
Locally-based food systems can build community resilience, increase self-sufficiency, benefit the environment and support local economies. This sounds ideal, so why isn’t it already a reality in New Brunswick?
Many barriers prevent people from buying locally-produced food. Local food is often seen as too expensive. The price of local food in New Brunswick reflects the hard work and resources that go into its production, but many people are unable to support local farmers because it is beyond their budget.
In an open letter to Premier Blaine Higgs, the Conservation Council of New Brunswick called on the provincial government to include more local food security in agriculture and fisheries in New Brunswick’s COVID-19 recovery plan.
Louise Comeau, the Conservation Council’s director of climate change and energy solutions, stated that this is an opportunity for New Brunswick to rebuild and become more resilient.
“Going back to normal isn’t going to make us safer, healthier and more resilient. We’re looking for solutions that are better than normal,” she told the CBC.
So, what could our new normal look like? How can all New Brunswickers start accessing local food and supporting our province’s farmers?
Mark Trealout, farm manager of Hayes Farm in Fredericton’s Devon neighbourhood, had some suggestions from a farmer’s point of view on how the government could support food security and food sovereignty in the province.
Trealout said that for vegetable production, smaller, decentralized farms are the way to go. In contrast, government policy traditionally encourages bigger and bigger farms producing everything and exporting it out of the province.
Smaller, decentralized farms can to serve the immediate population around them, creating much more security in the food system. If one farm has problems, many other farms could support it.
As for financial barriers, while direct subsidies to farmers can be beneficial, Trealout said he would like to see more power given to food consumers.
“What would happen if we subsidized the eaters? If the eaters had a choice, and money wasn’t an issue… are they going to buy the cheapest chicken available, or are they going to buy the free-range organic chicken? Let them lead the way.”
COVID-19 is forcing governments to reflect and reconsider most aspects of our society and how it operates. New Brunswick will soon be unrolling a recovery plan, which – if done right – could provide an opportunity for New Brunswick to rebuild in a sustainable, supportive and effective way.
Though so much is uncertain, one thing that everyone can do is imagine what the future of New Brunswick could hold, and what our ‘new normal’ could look like.
Hannah Moore is a recent graduate from St. Thomas University, currently working as a Food Security and Regenerative Farming Reporter for the RAVEN project at the University of New Brunswick.