The people of Comox Valley broke many molds to keep people fed through COVID-19 and got its government’s attention on food security.

By April M. Short

Hunger and food insecurity have increased worldwide since COVID-19 took hold. In December 2020, the United Nations warned of the threat of “catastrophic global famine,” urging worldwide governments to prioritize food security and humanitarian needs in their COVID-19 response plans. The global, industrialized food supply chain is strained and fraying. Production and shipping delays are increasingly commonplace. Given the lack of substantial response by many governments to food insecurity, it has often fallen to individuals to step in and feed their communities. Neighborhood-based volunteer groups across major U.S. cities and beyond have come up with strategies to support themselves from within, working to curb hunger with creative initiatives like community free-food fridges, volunteer grocery deliveries and other mutual aid efforts.

For those living in remote rural areas, the pandemic has shed a glaring light on the fact that a few weeks of delayed food shipments can have significant impacts on daily life. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a clear need for regions to cultivate and strengthen local food options and become less reliant on shipments from far away.

The first few months of 2020, when a variety of basic foods and supplies disappeared from grocery store shelves around the world, served as a wake-up call to address the potential disasters that could occur should the production and shipment of food get interrupted on a larger scale. The situation demonstrated how easily this might happen, whether due to the worsening global climate crisis or another unexpected disaster like the pandemic. A growing movement to bring back local food production and distribution methods has expanded out of the necessity of the moment. One community in the Comox Valley, British Columbia, Canada, came up with some particularly flexible and forward-thinking solutions that offer models for resilience and food security in rural places.

Pooling Resources

“[When the pandemic began] I saw unprecedented demand for local food, as people were really scared that their food supply was going to disappear,” says Arzeena Hamir, co-owner and co-founder of the 26-acre Amara Farm on Vancouver Island. In addition to running a local farm, Hamir is also an elected official, serving as a director for the Comox Valley Regional District. “[From] the example of the toilet paper shortage, people could easily see what could happen with food.”

The Comox Valley, which has a population of about 65,000 people, is spread out over roughly 666 square miles. It has three municipalities: one city, one town and one village, and Hamir says that almost half of the population lives spread out in rural areas. Being on Vancouver Island, the population is somewhat accustomed to experiencing supply chain interruptions or delays, and typically keen to support local farmers. However, Hamir says 96 percent of the community’s food is shipped in from outside the island.

“We were watching what was happening with agricultural workers who were unable to safely plant or pick food—especially in the U.S., where a majority of our food is coming from—and we were all thinking, ‘Is this the collapse of the food system?’”

Prior to the pandemic, Comox Valley already had some structures and support systems in place around food security, including a Food Policy Council, which is comprised of elected officials, supportive services organizations and other stakeholders. The regional district government supported the local nonprofit LUSH Valley Food Action Society to create the council, and its role has expanded significantly since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.

Maurita Prato, executive director of LUSH Valley, says as the pandemic began, the Food Policy Council and the organization’s food supply disruption subcommittee was watching closely what was happening locally, provincially, nationally and globally around food supply, and sending briefings to elected officials.

“We were concerned about what was happening with the global supply chain… the worry was what happens when there are disruptions with one or two of those players in the global supply chains,” Prato says. “Looking back, that system has actually been resilient, but it did get a lot of people thinking about food supply. There’s not a lot of transparency in the [global food supply chain] system, and those of us that have been doing [work around food security] for a long time know from the food growers’ and producers’ perspective that farmers aren’t making a fair wage. Shortening that supply chain is always a part of what we aim to do [at LUSH Valley], and we offer brokerage between the farmers and the producers to make the process more efficient.”

Hamir says LUSH Valley—which also educates the public about local food systems and works to increase public access to locally sourced foods—already had the necessary relationships in place with farmers, officials and organizations to ramp up its operations in a big way in response to the pandemic.

“We do have this community that has been working toward food security for a long time, not predicting a pandemic but [because we are located] on an island,” Hamir says. “We’re lucky that these things were already in place.”

Hamir says when an unprecedented demand for seeds began to cause shortages for some local farmers in the early months of the pandemic, the local Comox Valley Growers and Seed Savers played an important role. Their seed bank stores seeds in freezers across the valley—particularly storing seeds for high-demand crops like tomatoes, kale and squash.

“Gardeners and farmers had a huge crunch in the supply of seeds as everybody was gardening [in 2020],” she says. “We put out a call to the seed savers and they began packing more seeds and making them available to the community.”

One factor contributing to worsening food insecurity during the beginning of the pandemic was the fact that the usual volunteers in food services—places like food banks and soup kitchens—are typically elderly.

“[They] were not comfortable volunteering when [COVID-19], which was affecting the elderly in particular, was first starting out,” Hamir says.

In its first meetings in March 2020, as the pandemic began to spread, the Food Policy Council began to hear the stories of how people on the ground were being impacted by slowdowns and closures of public spaces. Prato says during these meetings, the Comox Valley Coalition to End Homelessness shared that many people lacked basic access to toilet facilities, clean water and food. In response, the council switched from monthly to weekly (sometimes biweekly) meetings and began turning up some creative solutions.

LUSH Valley sprang into action, funded in part by the regional district (which Hamir says reallocated about $400,000 in administrative funding it had planned to use for in-person events and travel expenses in 2020, into LUSH Valley and other local service programs focused on pandemic recovery and response). The majority of LUSH Valley’s funding for the Good Food Box program came through federal sources, and they also received community donations.

Also, Bo Del Valle Garcia, the LUSH Valley community garden coordinator, worked with Hamir and others to create the Grow Food Everywhere Comox Valley Facebook page to help pivot LUSH Valley gardening and food growing work to offer online options for new growers.

LUSH Valley worked closely with Indigenous Education, which is a branch of the public education system in Comox Valley, and Wachiay Friendship Centre, a nonprofit.

LUSH Valley also received a number of community donations to support its efforts, and its team, composed of younger volunteers, began to coordinate with farmers and restaurants to create meal boxes for those in need.

The effort found a water tap in the community garden and made sure that people were aware of its location so they could have access to fresh, clean water. The local government helped convert regional district buildings that were sitting empty into volunteer spaces. The school district reallocated its school buses, and drivers volunteered to deliver food to people in need. Volunteers packed and delivered boxes of food to go out each week, via their Good Food Box program, and by April 1, 2020, the effort was delivering 1,000 meals per week to homeless communities and other people in need, Prato says.

“Then, we started having conversations about getting food to people that were living in isolation,” Prato says.

As the effort grew, it needed an aggregation site.

The regional district turned over the local curling rink, which was closed and emptied of its ice, to the cause. It was converted into one of the main hubs of operation for the food security effort.

“The connection with local government was so important because as we grew, we didn’t have space to run our programs,” Prato says. For example, the organization was able to start a hot meals program because the city agreed to open up the local recreation center’s kitchen, and a cook who was out of work volunteered for the job.

“We just started pumping out meals and connecting with all the agency programs that had shut down,” she says. “We started out [by] trying to aggregate food and as much as possible stick to local food.”

By mid-May 2020, the effort was relying on 100 percent local foods, adds Prato, and by December they’d delivered about 11,400 units of food to people’s doorsteps.

“What’s so amazing about it is that everybody came to the meetings with their whole self, their whole heart, just asking, ‘What can we do to address what’s happening?’” Prato says.

Hamir notes that while different branches of the local government, businesses and community organizations typically tend to be siloed and focused on the given parameters of their jobs, when the pandemic hit, everybody began to break out of their normal molds to figure out tangible, on-the-ground solutions.

“It gave our staff permission to think outside the box and creatively solve problems,” Hamir says. “That was amazing.”

Prato says that as the operation grew in scale, she was moved by the many unprecedented collaborations and relationships that developed.

“The school district’s bus drivers that weren’t driving kids to the schools started driving food out to people that needed it, we had schoolteachers and other support workers come and volunteer. It was such a generous, collaborative machine,” Prato adds. “Arzeena [Hamir], as well as my staff who worked in the community garden, noticed that we had a ridiculous waitlist at our community gardens as people really wanted to learn how to grow food, so we started gardens in other locations.”

Prato says because of the collaborative nature of the effort, their volunteer programs were actually able to respond to community needs as they arose. Hamir worked with Garcia to start the Grow Food Everywhere Comox Valley Facebook page that offered online tutorials, and it had 2,000 followers within a week. LUSH Valley started seed libraries and soil distribution with its various partners, including Indigenous Education and the Wachiay Friendship Centre.

Getting the Government to Address Food Security

Hamir says if the pandemic has any silver lining, it is that it has made more elected officials aware of the necessity of local governments to address food security.

“I’ve been advocating for more agricultural plans and more work around food security since I got elected, and initially I was getting a lot of pushback from my fellow elected officials, and even staff, that this is not the role of local governments,” she says. “What the pandemic showed was that it is nobody’s role apparently, and if it continues to be that way, we are going to have some very hungry, angry people. Thankfully our local government decided to take up that slack. Now, the food hub is on the top of the list for our economic recovery task force to work on.”

Hamir says after advocating with the provincial minister of agriculture for providing funding for a food hub in Comox Valley, the regional district recently received funding to create a business plan for a food hub.

“The idea is to bring all of the players—LUSH Valley, farmers, the folks who would be buying—together in one room to figure out what the needs are, what systems are missing, and then come up with a plan of how a site like this would work. The government has said if we get our plan in by June 2021, there should be some funding coming up later on [in 2021] to actually [create] a proper food hub in Comox Valley.”

Hamir says she thinks the higher levels of government are beginning to pay more attention to food security because of the advocacy of many groups that are making it clear that food is a crucial issue for people.

“The message coming up to the ministers, and provincially, is, food security is your Achilles’ heel and you forgot about it, and you need to fund it now,” Hamir says. She adds that food security could be an economic driver for Comox Valley.

“This is not a charity kind of model,” she says. “We want farmers to be paid; we want everybody working in this to be paid a living wage. We think that there is an actual business model here, where everybody benefits. We’re excited that it’s happening, and sadly, it did take a pandemic to kick us in the butt a bit, to show how vulnerable our community is and what can happen when we don’t pay attention to food security.”

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.