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A Vancouver Island community has seen a dramatic shift in how it approaches food insecurity — and hopes the change is here to stay.

Maurita Prato, executive director of LUSH Valley Food Action Society and co-ordinator of the Comox Valley Food Policy Council, lives and works in the Comox Valley.

Prato and her team, with help from other community members, organizations and funders, were able to start a "Good Food Box" program, where healthy, free boxes were delivered directly to people’s homes at the beginning of the pandemic.

In the 1950s, 85 per cent of local food came from farmers on the island. Now, approximately 96 per cent of food is being imported into the Comox Valley, which LUSH wants to change. In spring 2020, 100 per cent of the food going into its boxes came from local farmers.

“We worked primarily with 12 different farms,” Prato said. “I think it’s a necessary local food distribution tool because we can support farmers (and) even when there is a potential glut in one specific crop, we can still distribute it to people.”

Canada’s National Observer spoke with her about the community’s response and its plans for 2021.

The Comox Valley Food Policy Council started pre-pandemic in 2019. How did it set the stage for emergency food efforts?

The food policy council consists of elected officials, a board director and a number of other representatives from across the food system. This group was in its infancy when COVID-19 hit. We had already done a community consultation and set some goals, which all focused on how to get more local food to people dealing with housing and food insecurity. We received three years of funding through the Vancouver Foundation to hire a food access manager to help. That was in January 2020, and one of the main projects was to start a food box and hot meal program.

And where are the meal programs at now?

A #COVID-19 food box response redefined food access in the Comox Valley, with 100 per cent of products in the boxes in the spring coming from local farmers. Now, Maurita Prato is hoping the changes are here to stay.

The programs took off so well. Our area’s most vulnerable people didn’t have access to food support in March 2020 — the food bank was shut down. They didn’t even have access to water from community buildings. They were all closed, so we made water taps available in community gardens. Meals on Wheels also ended service, so restaurants immediately stepped up.

A chef who had been laid off started making 1,000 meals per week out of a kitchen in Courtenay. It was like this really interesting scramble, but like an incredibly rich sort of creative and innovative time where we just chopped through the red tape and got things going in a couple of weeks. By December 2020, we’d delivered 11,400 boxes of food to people. The program has changed a bit since then, and is now available through other organizations LUSH works with, such as Comox Valley Family Services. We’re working on redefining how to continue the program throughout 2021.

How did you see unlikely bodies or partners step up?

The school board got bus drivers who weren’t working at that time to drop off boxes. The education assistants who were also off the job helped pack boxes and started a phone line for people to call for food delivery.

You’ve seen this really amazing response throughout the pandemic. What has that shown you about the potential to tackle food insecurity in your area?

My real hope is that we develop a system with all of these community members and organizations where we continue to collaborate because it only worked and happened so quickly because of the range of people involved. I think it's totally possible to continue, but it will take effort. There will likely be less money for emergency food support in 2021, so we need to look for funding to keep it going.

Do you think you’ve seen a permanent shift in your local food system?

We have been able to see how quickly we can mobilize and change during a state of crisis. But there’s a cautionary tale here: It requires a lot of effort to keep that momentum going. Just as easily as this system has been set up, it could fall apart and return to status quo.

We can't let go of continuing to create these solutions, of feeling the pressure of food insecurity. Things like a food box, a hot meal program or one of our other programs shouldn’t be an emergency measure. These are solutions that we need ongoing in our world. The crisis of climate change certainly hasn’t gone anywhere, the gap between the rich and the poor is still there, and we have no idea what the long-term effects of a post-COVID recession will have on our food system. It’s a marathon — we have to keep going and stay aware. I hope we can move from an emergency model to a sustainability model this year. That’s the challenge.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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

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