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HALIFAX—Lori Stahlbrand is the founder of Local Food Plus, an NGO that runs a local and sustainable food certification process in order to support regional food economies. “[The price of food is] below the cost of production and it means that farmers cannot make a living.”
At the same time farmers are struggling to make a living, some people in Nova Scotia are unable to afford the local, organic food that they grow.
Cathy Johnson, a wife and mother who supports her family on income assistance, recognizes this tension clearly. “We [live] under the poverty line. And I know that the farmers do too.”
It’s a conundrum many concerned with food security in Nova Scotia grapple with: How do we create a sustainable, healthy regional food system for everyone?
Despite the surge of interest in local food, farms and farmers are disappearing across the country. Young farm operators are dwindling. Only seven per cent of farmers are below the age of 35, according to Statistics Canada, while 45 per cent of farmers are above the age of 55. Furthermore, every year since 1991, the average age of farmers has increased by one.
An over reliance on food imports in Nova Scotia is cited as one major problem. Markets are flooded with cheaper alternatives that force local prices below a level that would allow the farmer a living wage. As a result, says Stahlbrand, “We have more farmers leaving or selling their land to developers.”
This trend is having a profound effect on the local food system, which relies on the diversity and plurality of local farms to be strong and resilient, notes David Greenberg, a farmer and educator, who warns, “We have an unstable, insecure industrial food model right now that just cannot handle the challenges coming up...The only way to have food security long term in the province is to have lots of viable farms.”
Strahlbrand argues the future of food security in Nova Scotia will rely on a shift in how we value food and how much we are willing to pay for it.
“In Canada we pay the lowest for our food of any country in the world,” she says. “In Canada and the United States people on average spend about 10 per cent of their income on food. And if you look at Western Europe, Japan, or the UK, you'll find that people are spending anywhere from 25-30 per cent of their income on food, depending on the country you look at.”
Greenberg believes if higher importance is placed on food and farming, people would pay above market value for the food that they eat today as a way of investing in a healthy food system for tomorrow. “You're investing in your own food future and the future of that farm,” he says.
But what about those who can barely afford to eat at all?
Johnson lives on income assistance in Halifax. She and her husband receive $597 per month, which gives them $1194 to cover their basic needs. After paying for rent, utilities, transportation and other costs, she is left with approximately $160 per month to spend on food. She relies on the Parker Street Food Bank to fill the gaps.
“When you can't buy the things that you want to be able to eat it affects you tremendously,” she says. “We know that because we can't afford the food, we're not getting the best that we can eat. So we worry about our health and our finances... It's very hard to make ends meet... It’s all stress.” Johnson relies on processed and frozen foods to fill out their meals. She has learned to be savvy to find meat or dairy on special so she can fit them into her budget.
Johnson's health suffers from the holes in her diet. “The hardest thing is with fruits and vegetables. We can't afford to buy enough of them. Because we have liver problems [Johnson and her husband are on disability] it would help our immunity if we were able to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. We wouldn't get colds and everything so much—like I have today—if we got more vitamins.”
Although she can’t afford local and organic foods, Johnson understands their benefits. “I'm educated enough to know that’s the best you can eat... A lot of people would like to be eating organic but it’s more expensive than the regular fruits and vegetables. If I had my way I would rather eat organic fruits and vegetables...and keep our money in a local area, than eat things that come from California.”
To deal with these shortcomings, Johnson would like to see the income assistance program reformed to be more accessible and supportive. She argues the program “could better assess people, have better communication between client and worker to really get to know the client's [needs]. Work together towards keeping a person healthy.” She would also like to see the community services system support programs aimed at those on income assistance that allow them to supplement their incomes.
While reforming income assistance is important, growing attention is being paid to alternative food economies and community supported agriculture. Jill Ratcliffe, an urban farmer and food politics activist argues, “We need to consider people on income assistance... but not as much by working towards reform as by building equality in our systems.”
Ratcliffe gives the example of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model. CSAs usually consist of a network of individuals or families who sign up and buy shares in a farm's harvest before the season begins. CSAs are good for farms because they give farmers an added level of support and allow them to set realistic prices for food (prices they can't reach through market farming or wholesale). Within the CSA model, the consumers and producers share in the risks and benefits of the natural farming season. Farmers are covered in cases of crop failures and are left in a more secure position to support themselves and their families. Further, insecurity in agriculture can often lead to a reliance on potentially harmful farming practices as a form of risk management. The security of CSAs offers a balance to this risk.
Ratcliffe, an advocate of the CSA model, argues it can work to create crucial connections between communities and farmers. “In terms of food we need to move away from dependent relationships—like with large corporate grocers—or any kind of mediating body that has control over our supply of food. [We need to be] breaking down those dependent relationships—constructing something that is connected and interconnected.” She states that marginalized communities can be included in the CSA model in a manner that the current system doesn't allow. “The CSA [could] work whereby people would pay different amounts, in an equitable distribution process. There [could] be a subsidized CSA process where people would get food based on their income.”
SunRoot Farm, located in East Hants, Nova Scotia, has run a subsidized CSA program for the past 10 years. Initially the farm partnered with the Department of Community Services, which provided the funds needed, but these funds became increasingly difficult to obtain. In response, SunRoot established a non-profit organization. Steve Law, a farmer at SunRoot, says this was always the model they wanted to use. “When it came time to start we weren't interested in just providing to whomever could pay. We all had a strong sense of social justice and environmental stewardship. We weren't just acting as a commercial farm but looking at creating a community development project.”
While Law advocates for the subsidized CSA model based on its benefits for farmers and marginalized communities, he acknowledges its limitations. “With the current economic model it's not exactly a lucrative endeavour [to run a CSA]. You don't see a lot of CSAs last. We need people to cover the true costs, but this is a system that we don't have in place yet. Until we use a true cost model it will always be difficult to run programs like CSAs.”
In order to support farmers, Law calls for a system that appropriately values their unique public contribution. “A more radical solution is to make farmers public servants like teachers and nurses. As public servants they would receive benefits through the province.”
Law feels that, ultimately, the de-comodification of food is necessary to achieve food security in Nova Scotia. “Making food free is really what we need to do—take the food system out of the commodity market. Until then everything that we do is just band-aid solutions. There will always be hunger in the province until we take that drastic step and decide that everyone should have access to nutritious, local, organic food...We need to take responsibility for our food and the health of our communities.”
While CSAs can help bridge the disconnect between communities and farmers, they alone will not and cannot address all the food security issues in NS. There are a lot of people to feed. But there are people working on solutions.
According to Stahlbrand one thing is clear: “We have to find ways to solve the problem that are not on the backs of farmers.”
Kayleigh MacSwain is a freelance writer and a member of the Food Action Committee at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax.
This article was produced by the Halifax Media Co-op.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.