Growing local food produces security

VICTORIA (CUP) — Food security affects anyone who eats.

As a province, B.C. imports more than half of its food. Canada as a whole imported about $24 billion worth of food in 2007. And when you live on one of the small Gulf Islands between Victoria and Vancouver, just about all your food comes from somewhere else.

A report recently released by the Islands Trust recognizes this and wants local food production to be considered when determining land use priorities.

The Islands Trust is essentially the municipal government for the Gulf Islands, with a specific mandate on land use issues. Their report, titled “Exploring Food Security in the Islands Trust Area,” highlights some of the challenges farmers and other food producers in the Trust Area face.

“Really the intent of it is to make a case that when you plan for food, you’re really planning for everyone, because everyone eats,” said Kaitlin Kazmierowski, a planner with the Islands Trust and co-author the report. “It’s a simple way of thinking about it, but it’s really true because if you can incorporate food into all your long-term planning considerations for how land is being used, you’re going to wind up with a very holistic, diverse community.”

Kazmierowski hopes the report will create discussion around some of the barriers that exist for local food producers. She cites the rising cost of land as one key barrier, noting that arable land is increasingly worth more developed than planted with crops. This places food security for Trust Area residents at risk.

“I know Salt Spring produces maybe five per cent of what it eats, and it’s by far the largest island in the Trust Area, and probably with the most infrastructure for local food and local producing,” Kazmierowski said. “And then when you factor in things like ferries and peak oil and climate change you start to see it’s quite precarious.”

The cost of land isn’t the only factor contributing to the decline of local, small-scale farming. Consumers, accustomed to cheap imports at the grocery store, expect their favourite fruit or vegetable to be available 12 months a year. Timothy Trebilcock and the Victoria Downtown Public Market Society want people to refocus on seasonal, local produce.

To help accomplish this, the VDPMS started the monthly Victoria Winter Farmers’ Market in Market Square. It’s been so successful that they’ve added a day in February and March and will run on the 19th and 26th of each month. The market has had cabbage, carrots, winter artichokes, beets, mushrooms, sprouts and root vegetables, despite catching farmers off guard.

“This was completely out of left field with us this year, so the farmers we contacted to participate were scrambling to try to find stuff because they just weren’t prepared for a winter market,” said Trebilcock, who is trying to establish a permanent, year-round public market space in downtown Victoria.

A permanent market would allow local farmers to expand their business model by moving beyond just the summer markets, he explained.

“But what it’s doing is spurring them to grow more food and that’s what food security is all about. It’s about making food production, farming … more viable.”

Another way to increase local food security is to grow your own food. At the University of Victoria, the Campus Community Gardens has 50 8-by-15-foot plots available for university students, faculty and staff. There’s currently a waiting list of about 45 people, said club president Andrea Zittlau. This is similar to most of the community gardens around the city, showing just how popular domestic gardening is.

After an initial investment to purchase good soil and maybe some tools, just a few dollars in seeds each year will keep you eating home-grown greens all summer.

Zittlau points out it’s also an easy first step towards bigger change.

“Growing your own food is one of those small things that you can do to reduce your impact … which is really rewarding. It feels great when you make a salad with vegetables that you’ve grown yourself,” said Zittlau. “And it’s a great tool for people who want to eat local organic food, but can’t afford what’s grown by local farmers because it is quite pricey if you are on a low income.”

So whether through better government stewardship of limited food-producing land, providing year-round retail opportunities for farmers, or just getting your hands in the dirt, increasing food security equals increasing local food production.

“If you really want to be in charge of your food system,” said Kazmierowski, “and have control over it and know it’s not going to get cut off, the more you can grow locally, the better.”