When Blare Conlin conducted morning inspections at Duncan’s Kin Park as part of her job with the Cowichan Green Community, she found herself wondering why, in the heat of summer, people were lighting warming fires in the park. Conlin and other staff working at the Kin Park Youth Urban Farm eventually realized the fires weren’t for warming, but for cooking.
“When we realized folks were cooking food gathered from the gardens (or elsewhere), we had to swallow the difficult reality of how frequently food insecurity shows its undying face,” Conlin said in a statement.
In an interview with The Discourse, Conlin says the realities of food insecurity, made visible in a local park, was something the staff at Kin Park Youth Urban Farm sat with for some time. Conlin says she considered that if she were facing food or housing insecurity, she’d likely resort to cooking over a fire in a park as well.
“We realized the people [lighting fires] aren’t the problem, but what they’re experiencing is a problem,” Conlin says.
So Conlin jumped at the chance to try to do something about it, thanks to a grant from the Vancouver Foundation’s Neighbourhood Small Grants Program.
She and the team at Cowichan Green Community sought to find a systemic solution to a problem that is all-too-prevalent in the Cowichan Valley: food insecurity. And Conlin decided to do so by collaborating with community members to construct a free food pantry in the park.
The pantry, made of local materials including sturdy western red cedar, now stands across from the Kin Park Youth Urban Farm. It is stocked daily by the community, Conlin says, and is a judgment-free zone that anyone can visit to access fresh produce, dry and canned food and even personal hygiene products and harm reduction supplies.
Food security in the Cowichan Valley
A report from Community Food Centres Canada says food insecurity is largely a result of poverty, affecting 13 per cent of Canadian households to varying degrees.
According to the BC Child Poverty Report Card, nearly one in four (or 24 per cent of) children in the Cowichan Valley live in poverty. This is seven percentage points higher than the all-residents poverty rate in the Cowichan Valley of 17 per cent. Children in lone-parent families have a poverty rate of 56 per cent — five times higher than the rate of children in couple-parent families, at 11 per cent.
A 2017 University of Victoria report says that, in 2011 and 2012, 11,571 people who were 12 years of age or older in Central Vancouver Island were moderately food insecure, with 7,399 people in the same age group severely food insecure. Of those aged 20 to 34, 4,659 people were moderately and severely food insecure and 1,426 people aged 65 and older were moderately and severely food insecure.
To be food secure, Cowichan Green Community says community members should “have access to enough nutritious, safe, ecologically sustainable and culturally appropriate food at all times.”
Food insecurity can have hidden impacts, according to Community Food Centres Canada. It can take a toll on people’s physical and mental health and also limits people’s ability to participate in social activities, cultural celebrations and relationship-building with family and friends. Physical and mental health challenges associated with food insecurity can also create barriers to employment.
And while food banks have become the primary intervention to address food insecurity, Community Food Centres Canada says not everyone who is food insecure uses a food bank due to reasons like stigma or a desire for fresh, healthy foods and social connection that may not always be available at food banks.
It’s this stigma and social isolation that Conlin hopes to address, at least in a small way, with the free food pantry.
“This is not charity — it is sharing between one another [and] building an interdependence that is much needed in these times,” Conlin says in a statement. “It is meeting each other at eye-level, giving what we can and taking what we need. No policing. No judgment. Just respect.”
A collaborative effort
Conlin says the act of building the food pantry brought people of different skills, ages and backgrounds together as well.
Carpentry students at Vancouver Island University designed and pre-fabricated the pantry using western red cedar and transported it to the site at Kin Park.
Around 17 volunteers from the Fraser Basin Council Youth Program joined Conlin and the Cowichan Green Community to install cobb, a natural building material, within the walls of the pantry. They held a “build day” where volunteers offered their skills to help build the pantry and paint signs for each of its shelves.
“They absolutely put their all into this,” Conlin says. “There was easily up to 40 people involved in building this.”
Since building it, the pantry has been stocked daily by Cowichan Green Community and community members with fresh produce, canned food, grains, snacks and more. Conlin says they try to keep the food in the pantry as accessible as possible by ensuring it can be eaten without much preparation or tools.
Lookout Housing and Health Society, as well as local food banks, have also helped keep the pantry stocked with food and supplies, including feminine hygiene products, personal hygiene products and harm reduction materials.
“We’ve noticed we can’t keep the fresh food stocked for long enough, which is amazing to see,” Conlin says.
Building home and connection
Everyone involved in building the pantry contributed to making it feel “cozy” and “like home,” Conlin says. It was their goal to make it feel that way so community members can take ownership of the pantry and care for it into the future.
Conlin says that feeling “at home” also includes having access to food in the community you live in. Resources like the free food pantry and other placemaking initiatives like little free libraries help foster community connections between neighbours.
“It’s very easy to feel isolated, especially with how the last couple of years have went,” Conlin says. “It’s been so good to break the mold, come together again and help each other. We want to see more things like this in the community.”