Food consumes thought at Community Food Assessment Open House

FOR THE NEED OF FOOD- Rachel Wong, a registered dietician with Hastings Prince Edward Public Health, presents at Prince Edward Learning Centre during a recent Community Food System Open House. (Sarah Williams/Gazette Staff)




Just as Prince Edward County’s profile as a foodie paradise has risen, there has also been a growing preponderance of the population that does not have enough to eat. Over 2,000 County residents struggle daily to put food on the table-an issue that was brought to the table at Prince Edward Learning Centre (PELC) last week during a Community Food System Open House.

Though PELC is not a food centre, they are part of the Food Collective. This group consists of 25 organizations and four community members who came together in late 2017 to try and find ways to combat local food insecurity, drawing upon the collective to achieve what one organization alone would struggle to accomplish.

Many of those community members were present to hear presentations from consultants and organizations such as Bronwynne Wilton, Erin Pratley, Hastings and Prince Edward Public Health, and  PELC Program Facilitator Jonah Schein among others.

Rachel Wong, a registered dietician with HPEPH began by introducing the open house as a way to learn more about the strengths, challenges and opportunities within the food environment.

“Our community food assessment has two goals,” she said. “The first is to learn what the important food security concerns in our community are. The second is to learn how we can collaborate to address these concerns.”

For ease of understanding, Wong broke the food system down into six categories: food production, food manufacturing/processing/distribution, food procurement, food access and consumption, food waste and food policy/governance.

Due to the breadth of the food assessment, the session at PELC was limited to discussion around food production, food procurement, food access/consumption and food policy.

“So far, through the community assessment, we’ve looked up work that’s already been done. So, this is the first event, we’re moving on to gathering information and picking your brains to see what ideas you might have along with what you’ve seen and what experiences you’ve had,” she said.

Diane Milan from the Food Collective also spoke. She is the Coordinator of The County Foundation as well as being the Vital Signs Coordinator.

The 2018 Vital Signs report assessed that about 10 per cent of the county’s population is food insecure. The report further states that this can be caused by many things, including limited income, the high cost of housing, lack of transportation and ‘food desserts’- a phenomenon wherein families have to travel long distances to access nutritious, affordable foods.

The ramifications of food insecurity are multifold, and include negative physical, mental and social impacts, increased healthcare costs, as well as many effects on the well-being of children.

“One of the interesting bits of data is that half the people who are food insecure have wages. They are working-they’re working people!” exclaimed Milan. “ The idea that somehow people in that situation are just lazy, it doesn’t really fit the reality.”

Anyone in our community could be facing food insecurity, stated Milan, and anyone in our community could end up facing food insecurity in the future.

This really isn’t an affordable community to live in, she added.

“The conversation is shifting from ‘what’s wrong with these people’ to looking at the system and looking at the facts-the jobs don’t pay enough and it’s too hard to get affordable housing,” said Milan.

Schein brought the discussion full circle, reminding the audience as to why they were meeting at PELC.

“We do all the work-as much as we need and can do-to try and help people focus on their learning goals. Often, that’s just making sure there is food in the classroom,” he said.

Schein, along with various PELC Staff, has been spearheading a major food project at PELC, to help bring the issue of food insecurity to the forefront.

The group of students has met each week to explore various farm to table aspects of the food system here in the County.

“There are many poignant moments when we see the devastating impacts of a broken food system. Everyday, we see people who are in precarious situations, falling behind and struggling to pay the bills and to be healthy. Although we live in a very generous and prosperous community, it’s clear that our economic system is not working for people,” noted Schein. “Low-wage, seasonal work, combined with inadequate social assistance programs and high costs of housing and transportation are squeezing people’s food budgets.”

The Food Education Project at PELC, according to Schein, feeds into the broader community food assessment that is being conducted by HPEPH with the aim at reducing the deleterious health effects associated with poor nutrition.

“As an adult learning centre, we see the need for ongoing teaching and learning about food issues so that we can have a healthy community. We will continue to work with community partners and the Food Collective, and we hope to mobilize more people in our community to work on food security issues and join our call for a Food Strategy in Prince Edward County,” Schein said.

Sam Dorey, a student at PELC, extrapolated on their objectives to build awareness in the community about this issue.

“Our goals are to make the county healthier, to reduce the harm of the food system, to help support a local economy that serves our community, while making sure the community has access to healthy food,” said Dorey.

Dorey detailed some of their learning activities, from learning to cook various dishes to visiting food banks and local farms. The learning activities, as Dorey noted, were built around the concepts of: food and health, food and the environment, food and the economy and food and inclusion. All of these affect food insecurity.

“When we meet with council, we’re going to be asking them to strike a working group to create a food policy- a strategy for Prince Edward County. We know the community can do more,” echoed Dorey.

“For example, when the municipality considers future investments, they could be setting a procurement target for that money. We could have a plastic bags ban. Students talked about a levee, that might be a hard one, but students talked about charging a certain amount to tourists and putting that money into an emergency food fund. So, we’re excited to present those ideas to Council.”

Schein further iterated this goal.

“We are excited to make a presentation to Council in the new year and to ask Council to create a Food Strategy for the County,” he stated. “We want more people-including policy makers-to be thinking about and working on food security issues. We want the County to be a model community when it comes to food security in Ontario. We want Council to use a food security lens when they make decisions about our environment, development and land use, economic development, supporting farmers and food workers, securing affordable housing and creating guidelines and food procurement policies for municipally funded projects.”