Food Desert in Bloom

Food Insecurity Meets Self-Sufficiency

Mulgrave Park didn’t stand back and submit when its only local grocery store turned into an NSLC storefront a few years ago. It built garden beds and started growing fresh vegetables, and it hopes to also profit from the produce of a mobile market this spring.

“The most amazing thing is to see the young kids around here walking with a cucumber in their hand,” said Crystal John, the executive director of the Mulgrave Park Caring and Learning Centre, and a lifelong resident of the community. She has plans to expand the community garden and high hopes for the mobile market. “A snack is a cucumber, or a couple of beans out of the garden. That makes a difference nutritionally. That’s money their parents don’t spend on packaged snacks; it eliminates their having to spend money on vegetables that are sometimes the most expensive.”

This ever-resilient residential neighbourhood—also a public housing community of over 250 families, or about 700 people—is in the North End of Halifax, in what’s known as a food desert: an urban area where it is difficult to buy affordable and healthy fresh food.

“To get to the closest grocery store you’re climbing up a very steep hill with no direct bus route from a community where most people can’t really afford, or don’t really have, cars, and even if they do, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have money to do giant grocery trips all the time,” said Paige Farah, the executive director of Communities in Progress Association. She leads Progress in the Park, a community development initiative seeking to empower Mulgrave Park’s residents through entrepreneurial action inspiring inclusiveness and challenging stigma. “To walk a half hour to the nearest grocery store in a city just for fresh produce seems a little ridiculous.”

The largely marginalized community currently faces two options for those without their own set of wheels to find fresh produce on a year-round basis: to take one bus the length of the city to the Barrington Street Superstore, or to take two buses and walk to one of the franchise’s other locations found on the corner of Young and Windsor Streets. Typically, those who do the latter taxi home, spending precious dollars that could have stocked more cupboard shelves.

Food Deserts

“The food desert issue impacts people the most if they’re not able, either economically or physically, to actually get themselves to a place where food is provided,” said Erica Fraser, the community facilitator for the North End Community Circle, who cites correlations between people living in food deserts and having higher rates of diet related diseases, such as obesity or diabetes. However, the health impacts don’t stop here. “There are so many mental illnesses that are related to micronutrient deficiencies. It just so happens that we get a lot of these micronutrients from fresh vegetables,” she said.

Food security, defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, is something that exists when, “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” Household food insecurity is an issue a growing number of Canadians face as the cost of food rises.

A report called “Household Food Insecurity in Canada, 2013,” states, “The majority of food insecure households (61.1%) were reliant on wages or salaries from employment.” Aimee Carson, the EAC’s senior community food coordinator, suggests precarious or low-wage employment is a factor contributing to this statistic.

The community has its own food bank, run voluntarily by its tenants’ association, that is open on Saturday mornings from 10:00 am until noon. “It is always full. We serve 20 to 30 people every week,” said John, who describes a long line up. To combat these food security issues, this North End community has taken a holistic approach. It has turned to capacity building and creating more sustainable methods of self-sufficiency. The geographic area now has close to 60 garden beds—13 of which belong to Mulgrave Park.

Farah, a former resident near the area, established these plots as an initiative of her association. She, along with volunteers, take on development tasks the neighbourhood’s organizations wanted— such as gardens, or a playground—but were unable to build because of their set mandates. Three of these garden beds are specifically for Farah’s programs. She offers food literacy and engagement opportunities, including community dinners or potlucks and cooking programs for youth that entail everything from harvesting the vegetables to eating the final product and eventually taking these recipes home. “It’s not just about putting food on people’s doorsteps and saying, ‘Here you go, you can eat now.’ It’s about creating a culture around the system of getting that food and using it,” she said.

Mobile Food Market

The area is also to be a host of the Halifax Mobile Market: a new pilot project where a public transit bus will travel to the particularly food insecure places of Fairview, North-End Halifax, East Preston, North Preston, and Spryfield. It will have previously purchased fresh produce to be sold at prices similar to those of discountedgrocery stores. The bus will visit each region on a bi-weekly basis, stopping at three locations each Saturday, over a period of 21 weeks. The project’s organizers include Partners for Care, Public Health, the Office of the Mayor, the EAC, Halifax Transit, and other local organizations and businesses, but it will rely on host teams within each community to support the roll out of the market.

“Any kind of project is going to be more successful if it comes from the community rather than being brought to the community from the outside. That’s something we’re really going to be working toward addressing with the mobile market,” said Fraser, who hopes to work with the local teams to ensure a welcoming and familiar environment is provided.

Farah is confident the mobile market will work, where other social enterprise food related businesses have failed, because of its flexible model. “By taking away the full pressure of maintaining a full business—having a continuous influx of customers coming and going and having to really brand yourself as a business constantly offering something,” she said. She is keen to build a relationship with the mobile market so excess garden produce may be sold through the market’s operations during the summer months.

It’s set to launch in early May. An evaluation will follow its duration, and the hope is some iteration of the market will be sustained over time. “When I was growing up here in this community, we had a fish man who came in with local fish, fresh vegetables, and fruits. He would come in and say ‘fresh fish, fresh mackerel,’ and people would just come and buy right off his truck,” said John, detailing some nostalgia of simpler times requiring fewer legal restrictions and the notion that this idea is not entirely novel.

“The more self-sufficient the communities are, the more they’ll realize, ‘Oh, I don’t have to use the resources out there that are increasingly increasing in price,’” said John, who hopes residents learn to turn tomatoes to sauce for winter and wishes to install a small green house somewhere to grow food year round. “I think that’s the key to helping people. I just don’t understand why we’ve changed so much, I mean, when I grew up, my grandparents grew everything—they hardly went to the grocery store.”

As originally published in Ecology&Action Spring 2016 

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