No matter who you are or where you come from, food is a part of life—a big part. Everybody, everywhere, eats.
Some people have too much food, some not enough. Some people die because of its unavailability, and food production is one of climate change’s leading causes. In fact, the primary driving force behind the deforestation of the largest rainforest on Earth, the Amazon, is cattle ranching; I’ll bet you can guess what the cattle are used for.
Since it is such an important aspect of everyone’s life, one might think that many people are producing food. However, the percentage of Canadians engaging in food production has been steadily declining.
The most recent agricultural census from Statistics Canada showed a decrease in agricultural workers and total farms. Simultaneously, the size of many existing farms increased, meaning that less land is available for small-scale farmers. This, paired with the fact that the price of Canadian farmland has been rising, means getting started in agriculture has never been more difficult.
Projects like BC Hydro’s Site C Dam—which is scheduled to flood 4000 hectares of the most fertile soil in Northern BC—are exacerbating the problem, and COVID-19 threw another wrench at Canadian agriculture when it sparked a massive worker shortage in 2020.
While solving the world’s food issues is a complicated endeavour, there are some simple truths. We need more Canadian farmers participating in more sustainable agricultural practices, and we need them now—farmers like Craig Evans, who has been bringing organic farming and Nanaimo’s community together for decades.
Evans’ interest in organic farming stemmed from his time at Malaspina College (now VIU), where he studied greenhouse technology in the ’80s.
“I came out of the two-year program realizing that I had been taught to spray pesticides,” Evans said in an interview. “I’d been taught to be a middle-level manager in an industry that I considered kind of abusive. It was all about paying low wages and how to manage your people for the most productivity … I came out of that thinking that I would feel a lot better trying to organize people, trying to work together to grow organic food, to kind of help solve some of the poverty issues that were developing out of the big recession that started in the early ’80s.”
So, as soon as he got out of college, Evans started the Nanaimo Community Gardens Society. The society, with other organizations’ help, led to start-ups of the Nanaimo Foodshare Society and the Growing Opportunities Farm Community Co-op.
Today, Evans is a director for Growing Opportunities and Nanaimo Foodshare.
Nanaimo Foodshare is a charitable organization dedicated to building food skills, such as production and preparation, and addressing hunger in the community. Growing Opportunities is a non-profit that manages people who work at two local community farms leased by Nanaimo Foodshare.
“What we do is we grow veggies for the Good Food Box Program, which Nanaimo Foodshare runs,” Evans said.
Good Food Box is a group buying program that buys products in bulk, reducing the cost of healthy foods in the community. “Once a month, you get 100, or 200, or 300 people each [putting] in $10,” Evans explained. “So now you’ve got $3k, and you can go to suppliers and say, ‘I’ve got $3k. I want to buy 10 items. Give us your price list.’”
Taking this lump sum to suppliers allowed Nanaimo Foodshare to buy produce in bulk, significantly reducing individual items’ unit costs. These items are then distributed evenly into individual Good Food Boxes. So, a Good Food Box that costs $10 to assemble could contain more than $20 worth of food.
“I have a lot of people say, ‘If I had $10 in my pocket, I couldn’t go to the store and buy this much food, and I wouldn’t. Because I’d probably buy Kraft Dinner, a couple loaves of bread, that kind of stuff,’” Evans said.
Nanaimo Foodshare’s Good Food Box program tackles food poverty in Nanaimo in a meaningful way. It isn’t just a Band-Aid solution that throws resources at a larger problem. With the help of Growing Opportunities, the program employs people who need the work and produces healthy food for people who really need it. It’s a program that benefits the community at every level.
The program has also been a major success story through the pandemic.
Before the pandemic began, Good Food Boxes were going out once a month. But, Evans explained, “once COVID struck, we realized people were actually afraid to go to the store, and we thought we should do these every two weeks.”
“So, we started doing it every two weeks, and then more people joined in,” Evans said. He explained that the Nanaimo Foodshare team initially thought they would get two groups of around 100 volunteers to assemble each bi-monthly set of boxes. However, they ended up with 200 volunteers for each bout. “And then we thought, ‘Well, what if we do it weekly?’”
Now, Good Food Boxes are going out every Thursday, and the program offers delivery. The contents of the box vary from week to week, but you can be sure to find a good variety of 7 to 8 kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Perhaps the best part is that the Good Food Box is available to anyone who wants or needs it, with prices ranging from $0 to $15. Since the Good Food Box relies on purchasing in bulk, the more people who buy the box at full price, the cheaper the food is for everyone involved. Growing Opportunities also provides much of the food included in the boxes, which further reduces costs.
You can order a Good Food Box online from Nanaimo Foodshare’s website.
In addition to growing food for the Good Food Box, Growing Opportunities aims to provide flexible employment and training to those who need it.
“We hire and work with people who have challenges and need life-skill and work-skill training, so people have an opportunity to maybe learn how to work cooperatively,” Evans said.
Evans recognizes that not everyone can work a job where they are expected to show up every morning—Growing Opportunities tries to accommodate for that, working with its workers’ schedules.
Growing Opportunities also collaborates with Nanaimo Foodshare on their Cultivating Abilities program, through which the co-op provides training and employment to people with disabilities.
Agriculture is becoming dominated by corporations looking to maximize profits; this is concerning when one considers that agricultural workers are not entitled to things like stat holidays or overtime pay. However, Growing Opportunities treats its farmers with respect.
“[Farmers are] the frontline of the frontline workers. There’s no one who doesn’t rely on agriculture to survive,” Evans said. “So, I always try to raise the bar a little and make sure that agricultural workers have a decent salary and have better working conditions.”
Providing people with training and access to farmland is a huge step in tackling the agricultural crisis we find ourselves in, because most people simply cannot get access to farmland independently.
Evans pointed out that, unlike in his grandparent’s day, young people simply don’t have access to farmland.
“You want to buy something on Vancouver Island and farm it?” Evans asked. “[I] hope your grandfather had the farm before you, because what are you going to do? Are you going to buy something and then work as a farmer and pay off your mortgage? You’re just not going to be able to.”
The problem is that, unlike industrial corporations, it’s hard for small-scale farmers to make a reasonable profit.
“Even the major sources of sales are all sewn up by bigger corporations,” Evans said. He explained that selling to large retailers involves jumping through a lot of hoops. “That’s why most farmers sell at farmers markets, but you never know who’s going to show up at the markets, and with COVID, people haven’t been showing up.”
While all this may make him sound a bit cynical, Evans is no such thing. He believes that everyone can, and should, participate in agriculture.
“Maybe everyone should spend 10, 15, 20 percent of their week engaged in farming,” Evans said. He explained that farming is a great way to get exercise, and is a rewarding endeavor.
“Farming is all about hope. You plant seeds and, ‘Oh my God they germinated!’” Evans said, interrupting himself jovially. “Now we get to transplant them. Every day there’s something that builds on the day before—‘Oh, look, it’s flowering now.’ It would be good to have [agriculture] in everyone’s life.”
If you want to engage in farming, Nanaimo Foodshare is always looking for more growers and volunteers. “If people want to get in touch with us, they can contact Nanaimo Foodshare,” Evans said. “We hire a lot of students. Every day there seems to be more money to try to make it easier for students to get summer jobs.”
Bringing more food production into the community is a big part of Growing Opportunities and Nanaimo Foodshare, and so is sustainability.
Evans explained that Growing Opportunities does a lot of its own seed production, which is an important aspect of sustainable farming. The problem with industrial seeds is that they are created in perfect conditions, which the plants become accustomed to over generations. When these seeds are planted in the real world, they simply don’t survive as well as organic seeds do.
Producing resilient seeds is not just sustainable practice; it’s a regenerative one too. Organic crops better suited to real world conditions produce organic seeds of similar heartiness.
Growing plants that are well suited to the local climate is also important in sustainable farming. While it may reduce the variety of foods available, Evans believes shifting to a more seasonal and climate-oriented diet is an important step.
“If stuff’s really easy to grow, then perhaps what’s needed is to find a way to cook it so that you’ll eat it more,” Evans said. “At first, I was kind of like ‘Ew, kale.’ But it grows like stink here … Then someone said, ‘No, man, you have to check out the recipes. If the stuff grows that easy, figure out how to eat it five different ways you like and put the energy into doing that.’ And they were right, so now a large portion of my diet could be what grows easily, which can be harvested like 10 months of the year.”
If more people ate a seasonal diet, it would not only reduce emissions from food transportation, it could also lower food costs.
Evans explained that the cost of our food is not only reflected in its price, but also in the cost of maintaining roads and other modes of transportation required to transport food, not to mention the greater cost to the environment. “There are so many factors [in] the social responsibility of where your food comes from,” Evans said.
As for other ways to support organic farming, Evans encourages people to simply buy from local farmers. “You vote with your pocket. If you didn’t buy everything in supermarkets and bought from local growers, local growers would have more money. They’re just trying to pay off their bills and trying to expand their business, so that’s probably the best bet.”
Supporting local farmers in Nanaimo has never been easier with programs like the Good Food Box. If you would prefer getting more specific items delivered, you could try out Nanaimo Farmers Market Online.
The online farmers market operates under Growing Opportunities, and they deliver right to your door.
Sara Drew, an education student at VIU and Nanaimo Farmers Market Online’s manager, explained how the market operates.
“We work with vendors across Vancouver Island to have locally grown food. We have a website where you can order food online, and we deliver it to you on Thursday afternoons,” Drew said. “Right now, we have a lot of winter squash, a wide variety of microgreens from two vendors, frozen blueberries, lots of frozen soups, coffees, and teas.”
As it is a farmers market, the selection is seasonal, but you can keep up with the market’s products on its website.
While buying a Good Food Box or shopping at Nanaimo Farmers Market Online isn’t going to solve world hunger or stop global deforestation and land degradation, it’s a good start. Besides, solving any problem starts at home—food for thought.