Chilliwack meets a food challenge head on

A difficult year for many also included progress towards improving vital food programs used by many people

By Tyler Olsen | January 7, 2022 |5:30 am

Last year, a sprawling new report from the University of the Fraser Valley captured the difficulties many people in Chilliwack have in accessing food programs, and the challenges the organizers of those programs themselves face.

The report showed where improvement is needed. But Larissa Kowalski, the report’s lead researcher, says there is also plenty to be positive about, with a community-wide effort focused on trying to ensure people have access to good, nutritious food.

We recently spoke to Kowalski about what she learned about Chilliwack’s food challenges, and the positive signs she sees in the community.

FVC: What surprised you most about what you found doing this research?

Kowalski: I would say what was most surprising and interesting, at least the first piece of it, was …comments about how the pandemic actually eased some food security concerns. Of course…there were some residents who were food secure before the pandemic and became food insecure due to layoff. But what also happened is the government, whether that’s federal government, provincial, municipal—as well as other organizations like United Way—really mobilized and came together, recognizing that there were more food security needs. So we saw really an influx in funding. And then also residents themselves…found there was a greater influx of volunteers. So what really happened is that some of these programs that were running traditionally were able to grow in size and support more and more individuals.

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Larissa Kowalski says Chilliwack has taken significant steps in the last year towards improving food access. • 📸 Greg Laychak/UFV
Larissa Kowalski says Chilliwack has taken significant steps in the last year towards improving food access. • 📸 Greg Laychak/UFV

FVC: Do you think people who don’t rely on those types of programs realize how wide ranging they are now? Because I didn’t.

Kowalski: It’s amazing to see how food food programs that are out there, especially in Chilliwack. Like there’s the example of Extra F.A.R.E, which was established during COVID with COVID funding through the United Way, and their program provides food supports for those with dietary restrictions. So that’s something that I think most people, when they think of food insecurity, might think of “food bank” and not think of something like Extra F.A.R.E. Again, COVID funding supported the Hands Up Chilliwack program and a similar program that has actually got a component of food literacy. So helping people understand how to shop efficiently, paying attention to nutrition and the final dollar, and then using that to prepare foods with family. So there’s a wide scope of food programs that are out there.

FVC: Going through your report, one of the things that stood out were the physical barriers that exist for some people to access some of these programs. What did you make of that?

Kowalski: So I think it’s really important to be attentive to [those]. When individuals are expressing a food need, that is very challenging and hard for them. It’s sad that people will fall back on this outdated perspective that if you’re in need or on welfare, then you’re not a person who’s wanting to work. And that’s certainly not the case. You have people who have so many different needs and complicated needs. And they’re bringing that into accessing food programming. So whether that’s someone who is on social assistance or on disability, there are some physical barriers when you have to get to a program to get the food you need, whether that’s take a bus, take a cab, walk. And before you even do that, it’s also that mental piece where you have to admit that you are in need of food. And that’s hard.

FVC: I also read about the challenges of lining up and the weather that many don’t really think of.

Kowalski: That’s the piece I want to get at with individuals who are on social assistance or disability: generally, there are reasons that they’re on that … whether that’s physical impairment, or mobility impairment … or sensory impairments. So sometimes standing in line…it’s just a bit overwhelming, the stimulus. And sometimes you might be waiting there for a long period of time. So just small things such as having a bench or co-ordinating times where people can come can help offset those barriers.

FVC: People are obviously [operating programs] for a good reason. But is it sometimes hard to realize the challenges that exist until you maybe see them in writing? Is that kind of the idea behind some of this?

Kowalski: I think the interest of the report was saying: we recognize that we have unmet food needs, and we want to understand where, how, and what we can be doing to better support our residents who have those needs. And also recognizing that it’s not one particular population: that food insecurity is complex, and it’s differentiated, and there’s a host of demographic characteristics that factor into it, as well as circumstantial and contextual factors as well.

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The Chilliwack Food Hub opened in early November, shortly after this interview was conducted. It provides help to better organize both the storage and distribution of food donations.

FVC: Can you tell me about the food hub?

Kowalski: So the Chilliwack Food Hub was an idea conceived over the pandemic, and the City of Chilliwack has been really instrumental in supporting its creation. It’s a physical site to kind of localize food donations. So, for example, say [the food bank] gets a large donation of non-perishable items or perishable items and … they don’t have the storage capacity. What ends up happening sometimes is—as amazing as the coordinators of these programs are—they’ll try and call around and see if someone can use them, but they might not have an ability to use them. So that storage challenge was a major issue.

So the food hub is going to be an area for food programs in Chilliwack to centralize storage. So there’s tons of dry food storage, there’s an industrial-style and -size kitchen. There’s a walk-in freezer, fridge, storage, all of that. So you don’t have, and this is sometimes the case, individual program coordinators—who are sometimes volunteers—storing food in their own deep freeze downstairs, or they’re storing it in a church basement on the other side of town.

You’ll see, especially in the report, residents are really expressing a need for the things they want: fresh fruit, fresh vegetables. Because they want to eat healthy, and they want to do all these things, but it’s hard if the only food that they’re getting in a food hamper is food that is not very high in nutritional value. It’s not always the most appetizing because it’s food that’s discarded that other people don’t want to eat, right.

So [the food hub] allows [organizations] to store those things and ensure that they are incorporated into a hamper. And then if, for example, a local farm has some produce that is about it’s kind of nearing expiry, then they might be able to drop it off, and it might be able to be included in a hamper that is going out in the next couple days.

FVC: What are the most pressing needs that need to be addressed, whether it’s by local people or more broadly by larger forces in government?

Kowalski: I’ll talk about it from a top-down approach. What makes things challenging is that when you have municipal efforts to address something like food insecurity, it’s amazing [but] they can only do so much. If people are, for example, on low income, and we continue not to have living wages, or our low-income subsidies are not sufficient, then food security is going to continue to be a challenge.

So I think that speaks to the national level where we need to think about rethinking some of those support systems for those most in need. And then thinking more so at some of the more provincial levels [and] municipal levels for those who are funding granting agencies; trying to think about ways that they can offer more long-term funding to help plan for the long-term. You would be amazed at how creative some coordinators can be, and how they can stretch the dollar to attend to different needs. And that would be very, very helpful.

And then I think, of course, in all municipalities, whether you’re looking to Chilliwack or not, there are ways that food programming can be enhanced. And I think that was also a major component of the report. So things like removing barriers, attending to the physical mobility needs, or another example is some of those barriers to access such as proof of income, or proof of need. Sometimes that can be challenging for residents who are having to go into a nonprofit and say, “Hey, I have need,” and then having to show the physical evidence. So there’s just small little things like that that could help.

FVC: What else would you like to share?

Kowalski: The other aspect about this research that makes it challenging is that, as I’ve said, food insecurity is quite a complex issue. And it affects individuals differently. And one of the challenges to assessing food insecurity on a municipal level is that there is some food security prevalence data where you can identify the prevalence and scope of it. But it’s really dated, like that data is from 2012. And the other challenge is it’s not municipality specific. So we might be able to identify that for the Fraser Health Region. And then the Fraser East region, which is where Chilliwack is situated. But it’s really challenging when you start talking about food security if you’re not dealing with updated statistics.

So I just can’t imagine how much benefit it would be if we had a really great survey instrument that collected that more regularly. So that we could have traced the increase in demand, for example, over COVID, and then how demand is being met. And so that’s an area of future research that I think would be really, really beneficial. And there’s ways to coordinate across municipalities, and being able to do that inter-municipality comparison would also be very valuable.


Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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