On a chilly Tuesday evening, taking a trip through the aisles of Freestone Produce evokes a similar feeling most Calgarians have experienced – the post-work stop at the grocery store. Somewhat on autopilot, people typically stroll past the stacks of shoulder-height produce and pass other shoppers with full carts everywhere they go. Children equipped with toques and jackets help their parents as they approach the cashier.
From crates full of ripe mangoes to seemingly limitless jars of pickles, the establishment is packed with a range of consumers, everyone from lonesome looking single shoppers to large groups buying in bulk – with more people packed into the space than a typical Walmart or Superstore. However, Freestone isn’t aiming to undercut the competition. They’re looking to provide cheaper alternatives for people who simply can’t afford to pay supermarket prices.
“It [helps] people with fixed income or low income,” said Freestone Produce owner Mike Soufan, from his warehouse in northeast Calgary. “Their incomes stay the same and everything else is going up. I don’t know how people who are earning minimum wage, or have limited income are gonna keep up with that. But we here at Freestone love to sell cheap. And I always find a way to keep my prices lower.”
Soufan’s business gives otherwise wasted produce a purpose. But it illuminates a serious issue within the city. The sheer number of families waiting to get inside. In a country as prosperous as Canada, food security isn’t supposed to be a problem. It’s conceivable the issue would burden those stricken with unemployment or chronic homelessness, but reliable meal access is not typically assumed to be a problem of university students and families in middle-class suburbs. Calgarians aren’t imagined to be the ones impacted by what is largely cast off as a third-world problem. Yet the city is still afflicted by this insidious food insecurity issue.
In August of 2015, after months of internal structuring and planning, the United Nations General Assembly gathered to release a landmark collection of global transformation targets, aiming to tackle everything from renewable energy to world hunger. Coined the Sustainable Development Goals, these ambitions hoped to create a true “sustainable future for all” by 2030. Yet only seven years later, these optimistic objectives appear to be a pipe dream for many across the globe. Perhaps one of the most subtle problems highlighted by the global goals impacts Calgarians more than they think.
The second goal of the SDGs is eliminating world hunger and malnourishment by improving food security and access worldwide, a largely man-made issue impacting over 250 million people. And this includes so-called “developed countries.” In 1996, the World Food Summit defined the human right as the situation where humans “at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet dietary needs for a productive and healthy life,” a definition still used today by the UN. It’s a goal which the UN itself admits is not only likely to miss its targets, but is actively deteriorating from it’s status in 2015. And the issue seems to have only worsened amidst the long-winded waves of the COVID-19.
Before the pandemic, it was estimated that approximately 12.7 per cent of Canadian households experienced some level of food insecurity, a number that has likely increased along with the rest of the world during numerous waves of lockdown, unemployment and uncertainty. Julie Van Rosendaal sees this in her extensive work in Calgary’s food scene. She is a best-selling cookbook author and the food editor for the Globe and Mail. She highlighted the misperception surrounding those who are frequently impacted by food insecurity.
“Food security can mean [more than] affordability and it can mean access,” says Van Rosendaal. “A lot of different communities have different challenges in terms of food security. When schools closed in March of 2020, that cut off kids from a key source of food over the course of their days. We’ve seen a lot of job losses and a lot of people losing their incomes and they need to feed their families.”
She notes while the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) provided a small cushion, many have yet to fully recover since the pandemic began. This lack of funds is compounded with the monetary inflation of food products skyrocketing, leaving many Calgarians feeling priced out and finding it difficult to secure healthy and sustainable meals for themselves and their families. And it doesn’t look like this problem will be solved any time soon. Canada’s Food Price Report forecasted average food prices to rise between five and seven per cent nationwide in 2022, the highest projection in the report’s history.
Meaghon Reid is the executive director at Vibrant Communities Calgary, an organization which oversees the Enough for All strategy – a community poverty reduction initiative within the city. She noted how the inflation of food has resulted in many having insufficient funds to put towards consistent and healthy meals.
“Over the past six months, the price of dairy has gone up 15 per cent. Meat in Alberta has also gone up by over ten per cent. Those are huge increases in cost,” says Reid. “In [dealing] with poverty, food tends to be the first thing to go. This results in people eating cheaper and eating less. This also leads to smaller meals without a lot of protein, or cheaper, carb heavy alternatives… not enough to keep up with their dietary needs.”
The state of widespread food security may seem grim. However, many grass-roots organizations, businesses and communities are looking to tackle this growing issue to make nutritious meals and ingredients accessible to everyone.
An easy solution to some may just be the myriad of food charities operating throughout the city. However, a widespread food charity system does not necessarily spell the end of food insecurity facing Calgarians. While many food charities provide a quick band-aid fix to the issue, they may not result in the instant food security many individuals picture when a bundle of groceries is handed out. Van Rosendaal noted how while food charities do provide a tangible benefit to many, they are far from the all-encompassing solution needed to eliminate the issue.
“People who live with food insecurity might not be able to have the time to cook. A lot of people are working two jobs. They have families, they might not have kitchen tools or the knowledge to cook. Not everybody knows how to turn ingredients into a meal.”
Instead, she notes an innovation that has stemmed out of the closures in the pandemic – the rise of catering companies working in collaboration to use overlooked spaces to produce nutritious meals while simultaneously providing work for those preparing the ingredients.
“There are a lot of restaurant kitchens that are very underused. It might be open for only lunch or only dinner,” says Van Rosendaal. “The idea is we partner with community kitchens and generate a more sustainable social enterprise. We can engage the hospitality industry and tap into those underused kitchens to help feed people. A lot of those kitchens have closed during the pandemic. So tapping into the restaurants and catering kitchens to feed people in those residential situations, to help feed more people through places like the food bank.”
In the meantime, organizations such as the Leftovers Foundation in Calgary have also been providing countless meals to less fortunate individuals throughout the city. Centering their operation around collecting both food donations and partnering with local suppliers to find food which will otherwise go unused, the organization looks to repackage and distribute food and ingredients back to the community.
Cory Rianson, executive director of the Leftovers Foundation, noted how the group hopes to temporarily tide over those suffering from food insecurity. “We call it community mobilization,” says Rianson. “We identify donor businesses who have excess food at the end of the day, like a restaurant or a bakery. Now expanding to both Edmonton and Winnipeg among other locals, the foundation aims not to eliminate, but to simply get efficient use of what the cities already have.
Rianson spoke how even if the company perfectly redirects every piece of underutilized food, it will not eliminate food insecurity. He noted how while the company doesn’t alleviate the problem entirely, they’re helping families make it through the day. “It’s still a band aid fix, but hopefully it becomes a really good band aid that is quite comprehensive.”
Additionally, many food pantries have sprung up around the city. The Calgary Community Fridge initiative on Centre Street relies exclusively on donations from the surrounding area, providing reliable housing for the ingredients until they are picked up by those in need. But charities aren’t the only solutions to the lingering issue of food insecurity. There are many innovations that could spell the end of endemic food insecurity within city limits.
Many local businesses have stepped up to help reduce food waste and provide shoppers with healthy ingredients at a discounted price. Throughout the city, more grocery stores are popping up offering discounts on produce for buying in bulk, such as Freestone Produce. Soufan, Freestone’s owner, spoke on the advantages of the bulk grocery model, giving back meals to the community that would otherwise go to waste.
“We’re focusing on buying number two products,” says Soufan. “What I mean by rejection, is if any of these big chain stores get product that’s not up to their standard, and they refuse it for quality or temperature reasons, we buy it and sell it at a cheaper price. We’re doing our best to keep our prices down. We don’t make a lot of money from our product. We get in and out and we keep things flowing.”
Establishments such as Freestone obtain most of their supply by purchasing produce rejected by many major retailers. It is a common misconception that the food offered by these establishments are inedible or expired. It allows the businesses to order the shipments at a slashed rate, charging patrons substantially less for the product. Purchasing from these stores not only gives consumers heavily discounted produce, but provides support to the local retailers, actively preventing hundreds of tons of food from being wasted every year.
A CITY-BACKED SOLUTION
These grass-roots innovations to help feed the community are not being overlooked by the City of Calgary. In fact, the city has been actively pitching in to help Calgarians increase food security for the past decade.
The city introduced the Calgary Food Action Plan back in 2012. This funding gave residents the land and permits to operate their own initiatives producing various goods from gardening, local production, and even animal farming. The city’s website notes how “the goal of the Food Action Plan is to provide more places to grow food and sell local food so that more Calgarians can access local food and support our local and regional farms,” providing a mix between charity and economic stimuli.
Over a decade since its inception, the project has continued to be updated by the city, promoting local initiatives with the resources necessary to feed their communities in a sustainable manner. Community gardens have been a successful endeavour. Sprinkled in underutilized fields and parks across the city, the programs have resulted in countless households coming together to grow local potatoes, roots, gourds and flowers for both themselves and those less fortunate.
“The key to getting through this is paying attention to the people in our communities and how we can help, trying to spot where the needs are. It’s hard for people to ask for help. But it’s easy for us to ask.”JULIE VAN ROSENDAAL
Julia Hinman is the chair for the Inglewood Community Garden in southeast Calgary. Since taking over the position nine years ago, Hinman has witnessed the grass-roots operation expand substantially. But the garden has taken up an innovation, incorporating community beds in which crops produced are given back to those in need within the city. In 2021, the garden grew over 6,000 pounds of organic vegetables.
“We have a mandate – to grow organic vegetables for marginalized Calgarians,” says Hinman. “If you’ve seen the prices, you realize people are feeling the pressure of the costs of fruit and vegetables. It’s really important to do this for people that are not in a situation currently to grow their own vegetables.”
The garden provides numerous beds to individuals who struggle with food insecurity, free of charge. Those struggling are encouraged to grow their own crops alongside the community’s hobbyist green thumbs, gaining vital skills while putting organic food on the table. The garden subsidizes these spaces with the rental costs of the other 120 available beds. But even if individuals cannot tend their beds, Hinman and other volunteers will hand deliver the produce, ensuring it gets used by those who require it the most. Perhaps most importantly, this endeavour isn’t limited to the repurposed field in Inglewood.
“There are now hundreds of community gardens, but anyone can learn to grow fresh vegetables on their balconies. Everyone can participate,” says Hinman. “If you have extras, there are many groups that would take extra vegetables. Drop off extras at a food bank or community kitchen.”
With the proper documentation filed alongside an approved plot of land, the city will subsidise up to $5,000 for a new community garden, giving aspiring gardeners a space to hone their craft and donate the excess to those in need.
This isn’t the only hopeful solution within the food action plan. Coming within the next year will be a new licensing giving Calgarians the opportunity to channel their inner farmer whilst providing ingredients for themselves and those in need. The Food Action Plan will be piloting new urban hen housing and beekeeping in the spring of 2022, providing locals with a few new friends alongside the egg and honey produce they will respectively provide.
The hen housing program will be limited to only 100 households to begin, but following a successful launch, could result in its expansion to more Calgary households. The only issue surrounding these plans is their reliance on local goodwill. Should this food make its way back to the community, it can provide a sustainable and local remedy for food insecurity. However, the city has not implemented any incentives to ensure these products are not wasted or stockpiled.
BREAKING THE STIGMA
But alongside all these solutions, the insidious nature of hunger comes from the sheer social construct of power the status holds. To handle wide-spread food insecurity, Calgarians will additionally have to tackle the stigma that surrounds the issue. Suffering individuals may be too afraid to call for assistance when they and their families truly need it.
Van Rosendaal calls upon Calgarians not to rely exclusively on explicit visual cues of food insecurity, but to foster a sense of camaraderie that ensures dignity alongside the struggles many individuals and their families are experiencing. From students to seniors and even families in the neighbourhood, to offer an ear and the willingness to share a meal not only helps to lessen the shame of the stigma but forms a bond within a community.
“I don’t think the answer [to food insecurity] is about writing a check. The key to getting through this is really paying attention to the people in our communities and how we can help, trying to spot where the needs are,” said Van Rosendaal. “It’s hard for people to ask for help. But it’s easy for us to ask.”
While these initiatives on their own are by no means going to eradicate food insecurity entirely, they are nudging the city closer towards the ambitious goals set out in 2015 by the UN.