Activist groups tackling food insecurity issues plaguing rural N.L.
Food First N.L. and Fogo Island Pride continue food program to aid rural communities
Food prices are soaring in Newfoundland and Labrador's cities and larger towns, but the problem is likely worse in outports. After all, rural communities are farther from food sources, the price of gas needed to drive to major centres has soared, and local shops are limited in what they can carry.
But some organizations, concerned with they see as a lack of provincial government assistance, have started seeking their own solutions.
"No data, no problem, no solution," said Trevor Taylor, co-founder and co-director of Fogo Island Pride, in a recent interview. "That is the main issue surrounding food security in outports. Rural communities aren't getting the help they need because nobody is investigating the problem."
Taylor acknowledges it's unusual for a Pride organization to tackle issues of food accessibility, but the pandemic intensified an already significant need on Fogo Island.
"When we launched Fogo Island Pride in 2019, the goal was to be a place to support all the LGBTQ2+ people living on the island. We didn't plan to get involved with food, but the pandemic hit hard."
He credits a former committee member for leading the way and convincing the non-profit to get involved.
"Celina Parfitt had a deep, vested interest in food security. We'd have long conversations about the community's needs. We received a grant from the second harvest program through Food First, and our Pride organization suddenly found itself working in food security."
Fogo Island Pride's first food program was a nomination-based system. Community members could suggest or recommend neighbours who they thought could use $100 to $150 in groceries per month. This program continued for six months, according to Taylor.
"We had about 35 nominated families. We mostly helped seniors, folks on fixed incomes, and people who live with a disability, and in the early days of the pandemic, we assisted young families too."
The food program with Fogo Island Pride has grown since 2020; the non-profit is currently set to begin renovating a building in the community of Fogo, where they'll operate a permanent food bank and construct a community kitchen.
Taylor says their long-term plans include building a community garden, but more immediate challenges are ahead.
"Currently, the biggest struggle will be getting folks to and from the food bank. There are 11 communities on Fogo Island. Some people don't have a car or can't afford the gas."
In recent years, the sheer remoteness of Fogo Island has also made food accessibility a challenge.
"Shelves have been bare because the ferry couldn't run," said Taylor. "Fruit and vegetables cost more here and go rancid quickly, so folks will buy canned goods instead. Several folks have launched community gardens, and farms are setting up shop on Fogo. Both non-profits and individuals are out here working toward solutions."
As Fogo Island Pride's food program grows, Taylor says the provincial government could do much more.
"If you're going to promote rural Newfoundland as a destination, you must support the folks actually living there," said Taylor. "The problem of food security isn't discussed enough, and money goes where problems are identified and discussed. The province sells this romantic idea of people persevering on a remote island in the cold North Atlantic, but the reality is way more complex."
Groups eager to hear from 'anyone with a good idea'
Josh Smee, CEO of Food First N.L., says it's essential to have a more robust food landscape, with options closer to more people.
"A year ago, you might have had the money to make a 300-kilometre round trip into a bigger town for the groceries you need for a few weeks, but that might not be possible anymore," said Smee.
Food First N.L. is launching a new program, called Great Things in Store, that aims to strengthen food accessibility for low-income Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, especially in rural and remote areas of the province, by providing staff time, and public consultations, and funding support to retailers.
"This idea is a fluid one," said Smee. "For example, maybe a small store will say to us, 'We want to sell meat to our customers, but we don't have a meat freezer.' Well, they could potentially use the funding from this program to upgrade their store."
Food First is open to other solutions, too.
Smee says mobile vending, connecting with local farms, community engagement and store improvements are all possible ways to use the program.
"We are looking for creative solutions, and we know there are rural food retailers interested in offering more options to their customers, but they haven't had the time or money to make it happen," he said.
In September, when the application portal launches, program co-ordinator Carla Saunders will spend most of her time on the phone assisting retailers from across the province as they apply.
"We're very open to anyone applying," said Saunders. "A farmer's market or co-op can apply. Farmers selling directly to their community should apply. Anyone with a good idea can apply."
Saunders stressed that the application process will not be onerous.
"We did the strenuous part," she said. "It's not going to be like applying for a federal government grant. Our job is to ensure that the retailers' process is easy. After all, we know that in Newfoundland and Labrador, many people get their groceries from small, local businesses, and we're here to help them."
While the program won't solve the province's food insecurity problem, said Smee, it will highlight what different communities need most.
As for who would make a good candidate for the program, Smee says anyone who views their space, store, market or farm as a community hub should apply.
"Fuel prices and price inflation will make folks more dependent on smaller retailers, and this project will only work if the retailer sees themselves as having an important role in the community," said Smee.