Burnaby develops a new food systems strategy

The strategy aims to improve food security across the city

Burnaby senior social planner Margaret Manifold presented an update of the city’s draft food systems strategy at the Social Planning Committee meeting on Jan. 24. The new strategy, which is still a work in progress, started in 2021 when city council gave direction to the city staff to develop a new food systems strategy and was supposed to be completed in 2022. 

According to Manifold, the project stalled for two years when the original planner moved on to another project until city planner Helen Garbiec-Ho started working on it in 2023. 

City staff worked with project advisors Upland Agriculture Consultants and Urban Food Strategies to develop the strategy. Manifold defined a food system as a complex web involving growing, production, processing, transport, distribution, and consumption. 

According to the presentation, 7,000 Burnaby residents sought food support from food hubs every week in 2022. However, the numbers are probably higher as food hubs such as the one at Burnaby Neighbourhood House (BNH) are seeing weekly increases in residents accessing their services. 

“Unfortunately, every month, we’re still seeing usually several dozen more people coming to us for food support,” said Janey Cameron, coordinator for the food hubs at BNH. Cameron said BNH now provides 140,000 meals every month to residents. 

Food hampers at Burnaby Neighbourhood House food hub in North Burnaby. Photo: Lubna El Elaimy

The new food strategy is meant to improve food security for Burnaby residents and ensure all residents are within a 15-minute walking distance from a grocery store. According to Manifold’s presentation, the city developed its draft strategy through engagement with members of the community and local nonprofits. After incorporating feedback from the committee and staff, the final strategy will be presented to council for approval in March. 

In her presentation, Manifold discussed a number of themes. The first was growing and harvesting, which included urban agriculture, backyard hens and community gardens. She also spoke about the food economy, which involves local producers and businesses. Other themes included policies, regulation, climate change, housing affordability and poverty. 

During the meeting, there was some discussion about the viability of these strategies. Coun. Richard Lee supported the idea of increasing local food production but said the city would need to look into ways to increase the efficiency of food production and land use. Coun. Gu mentioned that land for future development is often unsuitable for community gardens due to toxic contaminants.  

Gu said that in conversations around local businesses, it is necessary to expand the meaning of local businesses and who looks like a local business owner. 

“I find that oftentimes when we come at it from a ‘white’ perspective of grocery stores and businesses, we completely miss the conversations around greengrocers that exist who are often business owners or are run by racialized individuals; they also happen to offer more affordable foods and offer a competitiveness because of smaller floor space and a more niche type of food, and they also provide culturally appropriate foods,” she said.

Volunteers packing fresh produce at Burnaby Neighbourhood House food hub. Photo: Lubna El Elaimy

While most committee members welcomed the strategy, some expressed criticisms. Resident representative Swapna Antony said, “I feel very sad and disappointed when I see this tragedy, the way I’m seeing it is food security is such a deep issue, which is mostly systemic and structural in its etiology. But when it comes to the solution, it seems to be so watered down. The problem seems to be watered down, the solutions seem to suggest that we’re now shifting the onus of food security and production to the individual, when we know that the issues are systemic and structural.” Antony added that thousands of residents are struggling without sufficient food, and even some of her daughter’s classmates have been coming to school without breakfast. 

However, the discussion did involve addressing several systemic issues contributing to food insecurity such as poverty, the housing crisis and income inequality. 

“The biggest challenge for food security is that the root problem is obviously income inequality, and that is largely driven by issues that are very much outside the control of municipalities. Municipalities can take a very diverse approach to address all aspects of food insecurity, it’s not just being unable to pay for food it’s also being able to buy nutritious food or fresh food, food that is culturally appropriate and food that you actually want to eat,” Gu told the Beacon last week.

This piece was made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

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