How COVID-19 has transformed neighbourhood food networks

·4 min read

Sarah Kim began thinking differently about food after starting a zero-waste vegan food delivery service — one that she said made her starkly aware of the inequalities that exist in the Lower Mainland.

“The more that I was involved in this business, the more I was seeing the injustices, so I started to question that and started learning more about food security and food systems,” she said.

Now, she’s the food networks co-ordinator at the Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks (VFN), a web of community groups working on promoting and advocating for food security across the city.

Canada’s National Observer checked in with Kim about the importance of food networks and how they’ve pivoted throughout the pandemic.

Why is it important to break networks down into neighbourhoods rather than having a blanket resource?

I think the advantage of having different networks across the city is that they are hyper-localized, and they have the ability to be adaptable. Our neighbourhoods are actually quite different from each other based on demographics, so being able to have a network that’s able to cater to their needs is really important.

With any type of food program we run, neighbours come together and build relationships. All of a sudden, they’re building friendships in their neighbourhood, (and) people can reach out if they are in need. The food networks are all about community development and using food as a vehicle for communities to connect.

A recent VFN update talks about how seniors’ food security has specifically been impacted by COVID-19. Can you speak on that?

It’s really hard for a lot of seniors to get out due to mobility or health issues. Through my work with seniors, I heard some were having difficulties accessing food. It was one of the main problems they faced during the pandemic. First, it was waiting in long lines in grocery stores. Then, it was trying to adapt to food delivery services and apps, which often cost money.

On the flip side, I’ve seen organizations respond to that need. United Way has a program called Safe Seniors, and Collingwood Neighbourhood House has free grocery delivery for seniors, as well as phone calls and check-ins. I think seniors are having a harder time dealing with the pandemic — period.

What’s something VFN has achieved recently that you’d like to highlight?

Food access was not something that any of the food networks had done prior to the pandemic. Our food programs were more about community development: community kitchens; community lunches; gardening workshops.

What I find really astounding is that when the pandemic started, all of the networks did a 180 and started running emergency food relief. None of these networks have the capacity to operate like a food bank, but all of a sudden, they’re doing it. And they continue to do it all these months later.

On the topic of food banks, can you tell us about a response you were involved in when the Greater Vancouver Food Bank announced it would implement income means testing?

They announced they would implement income means testing, which means you have to prove your income in order to access food. This was something that they were going to implement at the very beginning of April last year before the pandemic. I was part of a coalition that came together to meet, we started a petition. It’s pretty terrible that this was something they were going to implement — they thought people were abusing their system, but they’d just be creating barriers to people who need food. The pandemic hit mid-March, and then they realized they couldn’t implement it, but they haven’t said that they thought it was a bad idea or that it won’t happen in the future.

COVID-19 has obviously changed the way we think about food security. Do you think there have been any permanent changes or shifts in Vancouver’s food system resulting from the pandemic?

I don't see any permanent or positive shifts from a government level, and that's disappointing. Where I do see a positive shift, particularly when it comes to food security in Vancouver, is the connections that have been formed over this period. You're seeing a lot of new partnerships, a lot of new relationships, a lot of people working together. For me, I know a lot of those relationships will stick around.

Something else I’ve noticed is a lot of social service organizations that didn’t have food programs before the pandemic hit, now do. All of a sudden, there are new players in these conversations. Whether that’s a permanent shift, I don’t know, but it’s fantastic that we're all talking about food security. It’s so important that there are more people thinking about it and understanding what it is.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Cloe Logan / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Cloe Logan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer