Island Health Food Security Hubs are growing a healthier Vancouver Island

By Myles Sauer

VANCOUVER ISLAND SPANS 32,134 square kilometres, with a population of approximately 799,000 people—nearly half of whom live in the Greater Victoria area. And while it probably goes without saying, every one of those people needs to eat.

Ensuring that a population spread over such a great range has healthy, secure access to food takes a coordinated effort between communities across every region. To that end, the Island Health Food Security Hubs were established in 2009. The now seven hubs are based on a model Vancouver Coastal Health has used since 2006. They support robust food systems, address food insecurity, and ultimately improve health across Vancouver Island.

Analisa Blake, a project manager for Island Health and overseer of the hubs program, says each one receives a small amount of annual funding. In turn, hubs act as a focal point for communities to carry out work relating to food security.

The hubs operate in accordance with the goals of the Vancouver Island Food Charter, which states that a “just and sustainable food system in the Island region is rooted in healthy communities, where no one is hungry and everyone has access to nutritious, culturally acceptable food.”

“The beauty of the Food Hub model is that it is so adaptive,” Blake explains. “It is designed so that each region can focus on their specific food system needs—which will of course vary substantially depending on the physical and social geography of a place.”

While the impact of the hubs may look different in remote versus urban areas, Blake says they are equally relevant in comparison to one another.

PLANTING COMMUNITY SEEDS

Erika Goldt is the hub lead for the Eat West Coast initiative on the Island’s wet west coast. She has worked on food projects like the Tofino Ucluelet Culinary Guild for over a decade and joined the hub three-and-a-half years ago.

Eat West Coast got its start in 2012 with a small amount of seed funding from Island Health under the new-at-the-time food hub program. The hub includes Tofino, Ucluelet, Hot Springs Cove, and five First Nations—eight communities in total. “We’re pretty small,” Goldt says. “Our total population on the coast is only about 6,000 among everyone.”

Located within the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Nuu-cha-nulth territory, the region features an incredibly diverse range of ecosystems, from ancient rainforests to rocky shores and long beaches. Goldt explains that while the West Coast has a mild climate, it’s pretty wet, and there are days where the fog doesn’t burn off until noon—if at all. Even after a warm day, summer evenings can be cool. This makes it hard to grow heat-loving plants like tomatoes outdoors, making it all the more important to teach residents how to extend the growing season all year.

“It’s kind of a unique, interesting place to work,” Goldt says over the phone from her home in Tofino. “You get both the community aspect and the balance of living in such unique environments. We’ve become quite a culinary destination, with all our amazing restaurants, and people are obsessed with wanting to try local foods. We have a really strong First Nations culture around food. It’s so important in every aspect of life.”

Three people examine winter greens growing in hoop greenhouses
Farming on the wet West Coast. Photo: Eat West Coast

Living so remotely can come with a high cost. A Clayoquot Biosphere Trust (CBT) report states that the region has the highest calculated living wage in B.C. at $19.27, as of 2016, and 67 percent of residents earn less than that.

To top it off, only two of the eight communities have an accessible grocery store due to lack of transit or living on isolated islands. One of Goldt’s goals as hub lead is to support people in producing their own food, whether that’s fishing, foraging, harvesting, or gardening.

Goldt explains that Eat West Coast’s work encompasses “a good cross-section of stuff,” ranging from gardening workshops to establishing school gardens, inter-community feast projects to marine food initiatives like restoring wild salmon habitat and encouraging shellfish farming.

“We really do our best to get people from the different communities to get together, whether it’s for gardening or for eating,” she says. “We have an absolutely burgeoning garden growing group of passionate people. It’s been exploding the last few years—let me tell you!”

Much that growth is thanks to a series of long-term investments amounting to $114,000 through the CBT, which runs grants every year. “We’ve gotten grants from everywhere, from the government to the Vancouver Foundation, Island Health, all those sorts of things, and they come through the Biosphere Trust,” says Goldt. “We definitely bring together funding from a lot of different sources to make things happen.”

FEEDING THE NORTH

Elsewhere, in the northern reaches of the Island, the Mount Waddington Community Food Initiative connects the region’s agencies and institutions to support healthy food systems.

The Mount Waddington Regional District is home to around 11,000 people spread across 21,463 square kilometres, including sections of the Central Coast, and takes up one-third of Vancouver Island’s land mass. Much of the area consists of either rugged mountainscape or remote islands and includes the municipalities of Alert Bay, Port Hardy, Port Alice, and Port McNeill, as well as the traditional territories of the Kwakwaka’wakw people.

The Mount Waddington hub is a partnership between the Mount Waddington Health Network and Island Health. That partnership was initiated in 2011, and brought funding into the region which is now held by North Island College, according to hub lead Leslie Dyck.

Dyck got involved with the hub in 2011 after moving to the Island from Kamloops, where she worked as a disability services advisor at Thompson Rivers University. She was hired for a six-month contract to lead the transition work into the partnership with Island Health and stayed on.

While the hub is still developing, “it is and has continued to be a community initiative,” Dyck writes via email. “I am happy that we started out small and have had successes and opportunities for learning along the way.”

A group of women and children holding a West Coast Seeds sign
Mt. Waddington Seedy Saturday. Photo: Mt Waddington Community Food Initiative

The Mount Waddington hub undertakes various kinds of work each year. Dyck highlights the hub’s urban agriculture workshops, the Indigenous and International Food Project, and the North Island Farmers and Artisans Market as successful projects the hub has undertaken.

Dyck says she’s proud of the urban agriculture workshops and the learning opportunities they provide. “As a group we walked our way through the bylaws and figured out processes that would make it easier for the end user—the public,” she says. The workshops were a valuable opportunity for residents to learn more about hosting farm stands, keeping urban hens and mason bees, and to connect with district office staff.

Like the other hubs, Dyck says one goal of the Mount Waddington initiative is to increase access to locally grown and healthy foods. “A large part of this work is done through supporting the North Island Farmers and Artisans Market, and now the development of the Port Alice and Port Hardy markets,” she says.

At its annual Seedy Saturday, which takes place in April, the hub offers skill-building workshops to increase regional food literacy. “We also offer free seeds, a plant swap, and encourage conversation between the experienced and the new grower,” Dyck says. “This year we added a market and community tables to the mix.” Their enthusiasm has paid off: 150 people attended this year, compared to just 25 five years ago. “It was so awesome to see so many garden and market enthusiasts in one place.”

SETTING THE TABLE

Moving further south, Jen Cody leads the Nanaimo Foodshare Society hub. She talks about the society’s work in the region—specifically its engagement with seniors and the Urban Farm Project established four years ago at the Five Acres Farm located in the Harewood neighbourhood of the city’s south end.

According to Cody, the Urban Farm Project allows people of all skill levels, particularly those with disabilities, to work on a small piece of farmland and learn agricultural skills. “Quite often it builds a skill set so that those individuals can be more independent,” Cody says.

“[The farm] has positive outcomes in terms of mental health for a lot of different folks, and physical health as well,” she continues. “That site has collected a bit more of a community around it. The people who are living in that area are aware of that property and drop in, and it creates a little bit of community around that aspect of it.”

A field of flowering kale in Nanaimo
The Nanaimo Urban Farm Project. Photo: Nanaimo Foodshare Society

In partnership with the Seniors Connect Centre, the Nanaimo Foodshare Society makes use of other mediums to promote food security within the city—namely, documentary film.

Setting the Table is a community documentary project that had seniors working together with a local filmmaker to produce a series of short vignettes about food. Around 300 people came out to watch the shorts’ premiere. “It really brought a spectrum of different food projects that were highlighted,” says Cody.

The Setting the Table project has empowered both those who are highlighted for working in food and the seniors who are encouraged to share their creations, fostering a sense of connection for everyone who participates.

A COLLABORATIVE STRUCTURE

All the various hub leads say that having the support of an Island-wide structure makes it easier for individual groups and communities to do their work. Dispersed as the hubs may be, being a part of the whole provides a connective tissue that strengthens the singular parts.

Eat West Coast’s remote location, for example, means its volunteers are spread out across a significant area. “We don’t have a lot of capacity, so having this hub support as a backbone to help coordinate all these initiatives and keep them going has been really important,” says Erika Goldt.

“I work with Leslie Dyck because we have so much in common in terms of the challenges in our communities,” she continues. “The hub gives us that platform and support to be able to work together, because otherwise we may never have.”

Dyck agrees, telling me that the Mount Waddington initiative functions as a connector and a resource. “I was surprised to find so many organizations doing food work that were not aware of similar projects happening in their community or in the region,” she says, mentioning community gardens in Port Hardy, Port McNeill, and in First Nations communities like Quatsino and Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw, among others. “The hub collective gives us a platform and support for collective action and resource sharing.”

A girl plants seed plugs into a vertical farming tower
Vertical farming with Eat West Coast.

The Nanaimo Foodshare Society collaborated with other Island food hubs to create a searchable online database of ongoing food security projects. The database contains public reports, resource guides, toolkits, and studies related to food security with more to come.

Thanks to the database, the community knows where food resources and projects are and how to access them, creating a more coordinate network within communities and between organizations.

Beyond the financial support and ability to connect with other hubs, Goldt says the third benefit of the hub system is how it raises the profile of food issues outside the typical urban centre.

“A lot what happens in the rural communities doesn’t get thought of, and being part of the [food hub] program enables us to really raise our profile,” she says. “This is important for the Island as a whole, but also for the people who are here—to feel like we’re being heard and being considered and part of something a little bit bigger.”

ROOM TO GROW

Moving forward, Analisa Blake says the hubs program will continue to build on the partnerships and collective action that has carried it this far, while also ramping up its work in poverty advocacy and addressing food insecurity.

One focus in particular is Indigenous food sovereignty and the need to partner more with First Nations across the Island. “It’s a priority for this group,” Blake says. “Indigenous food sovereignty is a huge part of our food systems on the Island, and we can’t have a healthy food system without it.”

That means continuing to host a traditional foods conference each year and making sure that when we’re talking about food systems, we’re talking “about all of the wild foods that our Island produces and all the traditional ways of using those foods.”

As each hub fills out their respective corners of the Island, Erika Goldt says the net effect on food health and security will only get stronger. “Because of this program, we’ve been able to link people together better, share our resources, and get bigger pots of funding because we’re all working together,” she says.

Whatever shape Island Health Food Security Hubs takes next, what’s readily apparent is that it’s already succeeded at building an interconnected community for the hundreds of people involved in promoting the Island’s food security. And it’s a community that makes 32,134 square kilometres feel like no great distance at all.

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