Cape Breton-Richmond MLA pushes for food security

ST. PETER’S: To ensure food security and sustainability are addressed in the constituency, the MLA from Cape Breton-Richmond has begun to discuss the issue with local organizations across Cape Breton Island.

Alana Paon says the support and promotion of local food producers are key to food security and self-sufficiency, maximizes community self-reliance and social justice, and provides overall economic benefit to the province.

On March 10, the final day of the spring sitting of the Nova Scotia Legislature, Paon introduced Bill 258, the Food Security and Self-sufficiency Act. The bill aims to ensure Nova Scotians have reliable access to locally produced, quality and healthy food by supporting and promoting local food producers.

“Local food is always the ideal choice in terms of a good source of quality and healthy food,” Paon said. “And being able to source more locally produced food is certainly a step towards addressing one aspect of food security.”

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has affirmed the need for food security.

In response, the Independent MLA has hosted two on-line food security forums bringing together local, regional, and provincial stakeholders such as producers, food banks, the Cape Breton Food Hub, the Cape Breton Partnership, United Way Cape Breton, Feed Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture, Dr. Kingston Memorial Community Health Centre, the Seniors Take Action Coalition, as well as producers from across Cape Breton-Richmond.

The forum is meant to give stakeholders an opportunity to discuss immediate issues arising from the state of emergency and continue to work collaboratively as food producers, processors, distributors, and buyers.

“Getting food from the field to someone’s plate is very difficult,” Paon said. “Growing food, whether it’s livestock or fruits and vegetables, there’s so many variables that can go wrong within the process from getting it from farm to plate.”

She said governments must provide farmers and processors the proper resources and support systems to increase capacity across the province.

“But in our case, really focusing in on Cape Breton Island and what we can do in our own backyards to increase capacity and grow more of our own food,” Paon said of the forums. “And make sure more of that food is available to people at home.”

She suggested once the pandemic hit, things changed extremely quickly for the supply chain.

Previously, a lot of attention was placed on exports of seafood, and blueberries from vineyards, and Paon said it’s wonderful to see those areas thrive, however, lobsters and wine are not items that are the general meat and potatoes that feed people on a daily basis.

“Those are specialty items for most Nova Scotians; we need to really focus in on increasing production on those everyday items on people’s plates,” she said. “We produce less than 20 per cent of what we consume here in Nova Scotia, over 80 per cent of what’s on our plate every day is being imported from outside the province.”

That model puts Nova Scotia in a precarious position when there is a shift or disruption in the supply chain, like a pandemic or natural disaster, Paon suggested and that speaks to how quickly things can change when there’s a reliance on receiving imports, not just from overseas, but from across Canada.

To Paon, the forum acted as a collaborative approach to a food insecurity issue, noting the motivation for hosting it is the astronomical levels of child poverty in Cape Breton and that just under 85 per cent of Nova Scotian households feel food insecure.

As the virus entered Nova Scotia, there was more urgency to buy local and she said the Cape Breton Food Hub, which offers locally grown and sourced meat, ran out of food for its boxes.

“So to me as much as that is an issue, I see it as an opportunity to increase capacity,” Paon said. “So next year, there is no issue of running out of meat to put into those boxes.”

With social distancing measures in place and Farmer’s Market’s currently closed during a time of year when they would normally be in full swing, many producers don’t have access to sell some of their value-added products directly to customers.

Additionally, restaurants are no longer able to market local Nova Scotian produce as a niche, since there are no tourists able to visit Cape Breton, and some local establishments aren’t open, so producers lose those customers.

“Producers now don’t have that either as a market to sell their products,” Paon said. “They’re being pinched from every single angle here, that’s why the Food Hub is an extremely valuable resource in being able to get fresh and locally produced food.”