A Deep Dive on Vancouver Island Food Security

How we feed ourselves — how our food is produced, distributed, sold and consumed — effects everyone in the food community, from farmers and retailers to chefs and consumers.

Emily Harris of The Plot Market Garden harvests cherry tomatoes. This is the third season the small farm has provided fresh produce to local restaurants and CSA customers. Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet.

One positive thing about the current world pandemic is that it’s offered us time to rethink the issue of food sovereignty.

“The pandemic exposed some serious cracks in our supply chains, in particular the global supply chains,” says Linda Geggie, executive director of the Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable (CRFAIR), a network of organizations devoted to local food security. “The COVID-19 outbreak created an unprecedented impact on sales of locally- produced food in the Capital Region.”

“With 97 per cent of sales in the region being through direct sales from small mixed farms,” she adds, “the closure of restaurants and limits to local farm markets created a very difficult situation.”

But the pandemic also exposed the resiliency of small-scale food production. As the crisis evolved, the food community rallied, with new ideas and initiatives that make it easier to buy food produced and prepared close to home. Supporting food security.

Food Security on the Farm

The sudden uncertainty around markets and sales imposed by the pandemic meant farmers had to move fast, even as they prepared for the new growing season.

“It was really difficult to know what to plant, but in that moment, we decided to diversify,” says Emily Harris of The Plot Market Garden, an intensive quarter-acre farm in West Saanich.

Harris and partner Tyler Browne designed their business to supply city chefs with unique produce, but like many small farmers, they were suddenly caught with crops to harvest and no restaurant orders. So they quickly shifted to retail sales, supplying local grocers and expanding their weekly box program with a new online market and delivery service.

Sales grew from 10 CSA boxes per week to 50, and Harris included products from other producers in her online store. Along with The Plot’s $30 weekly box of organic produce, customers could buy wild berries from forager Lance Staples, Old Soul Jam Co. salsas, mushrooms from Foragers Galley and Symphony Vineyard wines.

Savvy consumers were the winners, with new access to ingredients once destined for top tables. The Plot boosted their production to meet demand, even contemplating a greenhouse to extend the season.

It was the same situation across the region, with small farms proving they were nimble and creative in a crisis.

“Some farms reported losing 40 per cent of their sales in the first few months,” says Geggie. “On the other hand, direct-to-customer box programs soared and farm gate markets were experiencing booms with up to 400 per cent of local sales. We also saw a burgeoning of interest in Victorians around cooking and growing their own food.”

It was a chance for consumers to see the Island food system in action and learn more about the local food supply chain.

Still, the region is far from food secure — less than 10 per cent of the food consumed in the CRD is produced here. The goal, set by CRFAIR’s Good Food Network, is to reach 25 per cent by 2025. The CRD’s 2018 Regional Growth Strategy also set a target of 5,000 additional hectares of land in food production by 2038.

With agricultural land prices increasing faster here than anywhere in B.C., up 25 per cent in two years, the costs facing new farmers can be daunting.

But by using bio-intensive, regenerative farming methods — with zero-till, 30-inch
beds and hand tools, not tractors — Browne and Harris make the most of their small plot, proving it doesn’t require a lot of land to produce a lot of local food. Kale, greens, and baby vegetables are their staples, rather than potatoes and onions, crops that require a longer growing season.

“We do focus on quality and, very particularly, on tasty vegetables and crops with a quicker turnaround,” Harris says. “I do think Vancouver Island could support itself with food if more people took this approach. There’s so much room for local farming to grow.”

Field To Market

CSA food boxes, farm stands and markets are all bustling, but beyond direct sales, there are other innovative ways farmers are getting local food out to hungry consumers and embracing food security.

The owners of the new Urban Grocer, at the Junction of Oak Bay Avenue and Fort Street, hoped to open by the end
of September. The store will prioritize produce, feature a deli with in-house chef creations, and offer a full selection of everyday grocery items. Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet.

Both the Moss Street and Esquimalt farmer’s markets reorganized spaces to allow for social distancing, spreading their vendors across large outdoor areas. Both also now list their products online via localline.ca, allowing for pre-orders for pick up and delivery.

They’re following the precedent set in 2014 by the Cow-op, the non-profit virtual farm market connecting Cowichan Valley farmers directly with consumers using a pioneering online retail and distribution model.

More than 100 valley food producers — including farmers, cheese makers, bakers and others — list their wares on the cow-op.ca site. Customers place their weekly orders online, and farmers deliver to the Cow-op’s food hub, where orders are packed for pick up and delivery in Duncan and Victoria.

Cow-op manager Derrick Pawlowski says sales “increased ten fold” when the pandemic hit, with volunteers springing into action to make sure orders were filled and delivered.

“It meant a complete change to our original system,” says Pawlowski, explaining that the Duncan warehouse was set up to process a maximum of 60 orders per week.

“In one week, 27 orders were typical, but, all of a sudden, it jumped to 68, then 160, and went to 240,” he says. “I think this is going to change the Cow-op forever.”

Another innovation that’s evolved as a result of COVID is the South Island FarmHub, a new farmer-driven produce distribution centre based in Victoria. An injection of capital via the Rapid Relief Fund helped fast track the hub.

“This was a solution where charities who wanted to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to those impacted by losing jobs or economic pressures would be granted Farmbucks to buy from local farmers who had lost their markets,” says Geggie.

“Having the Good Food Network, Farmer2Farmer and the Food Share network in place allowed us to mobilize quickly, launching the SI FarmHub in less than 30 days, to distribute local produce to agencies serving the most vulnerable in our community.”

The FarmHub is now set up for both wholesale and retail customers and offers
a weekly home delivery service of curated, seasonal food boxes from more than 20 CRD farms.

FarmHub promises to be a game changer for farmers, consumers, retailers and restaurants, another vital piece in the food security puzzle.

Food Security at the Grocers

Even as the pandemic caused food sales to spike for big box retailers like Walmart and Costco, Victorians filled their freezers and pantries with local food, supplied by local independent grocers.

Small retailers could pivot fast to serve both their communities and their suppliers, keeping the local supply chains intact by buying more food from Island farms and setting up shopping and delivery services.

Local grocers like Pepper’s Foods and The Root Cellar offered comfort in uncertain times — neighbourhood anchors where shoppers turned for a sense of safety and trust.

“Customer engagement has gone through the roof,” says Daisy Orser who owns The Root Cellar with her husband Adam Orser. “The amount of gratitude and endorsement we have received for our local focus and COVID-risk mitigation efforts has been astronomical these past few months and is a concrete indicator of our consumer’s awareness of the impact of where they’re spending their food dollars.”

Just as the pandemic has come in waves, so has the panic around food buying. In late March, as consumers stocked up, there was a 45 per cent surge in grocery sales, with canned goods, rice and pasta, baking supplies and flour flying off the shelves. That shopping frenzy has since stabilized but consumers are still buying more groceries, shifting their food dollars away from restaurants and cooking more at home.

Orser says The Root Cellar’s customer count was down by nearly 50 per cent at the beginning of the pandemic, while the average “ticket” rose by 46 per cent. By mid-summer those percentages dropped to 25 and 20 respectively, leaving the local grocer with a nearly steady balance sheet.

On the supply side, Orser says sales of local SunWing bunch carrots reached 1,871 in July, compared with 326 a year earlier, and customers have bought 2,458 pounds of their beefsteak tomatoes (225 pounds in 2019). The Root Cellar has sold nearly 42,000 Island-grown English cucumbers, a three-fold jump.

It’s the same story in the meat department.

“We are buying six whole local lambs a week to break down in The Chop Shop, compared
to one per week last year at this time,” Orser says. “Some of the increases will be because
we have emphasized our local focus and made more available, in an effort to further support local growers. Some will be because local growers simply had more available, and some will be because consumers are being more conscientious of their choices.”

The Root Cellar also announced plans to open a second location in Cook Street Village, in the space currently occupied by Oxford Foods.

Though four large chain operators dominate Canada’s grocery business — including Loblaws, Metro, The Jim Pattison Group (Save- on-Foods, Quality Foods, Choices Markets)
and Empire Co. (Sobeys, Safeway and Thrifty Foods) — the Retail Council of Canada says smaller grocery stores are gaining market share. Statista.com reported Walmart was the most popular store in Canada for purchasing food and beverages in 2019, with Real Canadian Superstore and Costco not far behind, but 2020’s crisis may forever change buying habits.

Grocery trend watchers also point to growth of specialty grocers that offer curated selections that appeal to consumers’ aspirations – including food security.

Victoria’s organic Lifestyle Markets and the package-free Zero Waste Emporium are prime examples. Two new independent grocers recently opened their doors, too.

Lorne Campbell, son of Thrifty Foods co-founder Alex Campbell, opened a city branch of The Old Farm Market in Oak Bay, after purchasing the longtime roadside produce market near Duncan in 2017.

Leigh Large, whose family founded the Island’s Country Grocer supermarket chain, is behind Urban Grocer, a new upscale market at the junction of Fort Street and Oak Bay Avenue.

Set to open by the end of September, it promises a contemporary shopping experience, with sleek black shelving and white tiles, with a deli/coffee bar for take-out salads and sandwiches, and a fermentation station for local kombucha, to enjoy on the adjacent patio.

“We will be making a sincere effort to carry as much local product as we can, to support our local farms and vendors as we have always done, but especially during the pandemic,” says general manager Shawn Fahr.

Vegetables from small farms — including Salt Spring Island’s Duck Creek Farm, Haliburton Farm, Gobind Farms and The Plot Market Garden — will be featured.

“Whatever they can grow, I will buy,” says produce manager Mario Prudhomme.

A Sustainable System

The topic of local food security is always top of mind here in the relatively isolated confines of Vancouver Island, and consumers will have a hand in how the future unfolds.

Tyler Browne covers greens at The Plot Market Garden. The quarter-acre farm in Saanich grows seasonal root vegetables, artisan greens and summer vegetables. Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet.

The Retail Council of Canada, which represents the largest Canadian grocery chains, acknowledges that ”sourcing locally and domestically has helped compensate for disrupted or delayed supply chains during the pandemic,” but also warns that “Canadians will have to pay more for local goods and have seasonal diets” without reliance on global supply chains. Companies will need to “find a balance between sourcing locally, domestically and globally,” but consumer choices can shape that balance.

Nearly half of those surveyed in a recent Angus Reid poll said they plan to cook at home more often, even post-pandemic. Investing time in sourcing high quality, local food may be part of that shift.

“COVID created a huge opportunity to fast forward our personal growth in this area,” says Daisy Orser. “Whatever your values may be, they have been affected, and you are more aware of the impact you can have with your food dollars.”

She adds, “Knowing your farmer or your grocer has become more rewarding for many. My personal hope is that it’s like a local strawberry, or a still warm garden-grown tomato, that once people realign their values around food sourcing, they won’t be able to go back.”

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