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Starving for a solution
Food Charter pledges commitment to creating affordable, nutritious options in the city

Meagan Leonard
Northern News Services
Friday, July 31, 2015

The city has pledged to improve food security and access to healthy options in Yellowknife, but has not yet determined how it will do so.

NNSL photo/graphic

France Benoit, chairperson of the Yellowknife Farmer's Market, makes cheese to sell at the market in March 2014. Benoit, through the farmer's market, brought the idea of the Food Charter to city council earlier this year. Council voted unanimously to support the charter this week. - Erin Steele/NNSL photo

During its meeting July 27, council unanimously passed the "Food Charter" - a document drafted by the Yellowknife Farmer's Market board of directors which affirms the city's commitment to work toward "a just and sustainable food system."

The document identifies a number of issues such as the reliance on imported food and limited agricultural infrastructure. It does not, however, provide any solutions or goals.

Deputy Mayor Linda Bussey said this is because it was only meant to raise awareness, then the city will be able to work with community groups to find solutions.

"It's a statement and the statement creates awareness for people about the importance of food security and sustainability," she said.

Part of this awareness is education, she said - teaching people it is possible to grow vegetables and have livestock in the North.

She said many gardening programs implemented in area schools will mean there will be a shift in how food production is

viewed in the future.

"The idea of farming has changed," she said. "We have temperature and we have sunlight and that's all you need to grow (things)... when you're in school and aware of the situation, (you learn) how important it is for us to be our own best ally."

With only three grocery stores - two on Old Airport Road in the West end and one downtown - many residential areas fall into what is categorized as a "food desert" - an urban area where it is difficult to buy healthy or affordable food - typically more than two kilometres from a supermarket. Residents living in these zones tend to rely on convenience stores for groceries and have higher instances of chronic illnesses such as diabetes.

Bussey said while it would likely not be feasible to build more grocery stores and community gardens, greenhouses are a good alternative to provide outlying neighbourhoods with fresh produce.

She cited collectives already established in Kam Lake, Niven, Old Town and Ndilo - along with the Farmer's Market at Sombe K'e every Tuesday evening.

"We need the store for many different things. I'm not saying we replace it totally, but if we can have a community garden and greenhouse in partnership, that would be great," she said. "People need to realize the potential we have ... that's why this charter is such an important statement."

Agriculture is also something the GNWT has cited as a priority in urban areas. In collaboration with the federal government, the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment has committed $1.1 million annually toward its Growing Forward 2 program.

Manager of traditional economy, agriculture and fisheries John Colford said the department is in the process of drafting an agriculture strategy which will be released in the fall.

Ultimately, the department is hoping to reduce the staggering cost-differential of food in the NWT compared to communities in the south. While Yellowknife's food costs are only 15 to 20 per cent higher than Edmonton's, remote hamlets such as Fort Good Hope are 94 per cent higher. He said one way to achieve this is to encourage more home grown food production through education and providing funding for those looking to start greenhouses

or raise livestock.

"We're working to develop and foster interest in agriculture within the economic development framework," he said. "We want to see opportunities rise out of this so people can not only provide for themselves but also provide opportunities for income and economic development."

He says governments have had to adapt to constantly changing definitions of "food security" since the buzz word first appeared in the 1980s.

"I remember the first time I heard the term ... I was on a teleconference in the 1980s involving the Somalian famine," he explained. "They were food insecure because there were no grains in Somalia. Well, things have changed significantly since then ... it's more than having a bag of potatoes or bunch of carrots - it's all-encompassing."

Farmers Market chairperson France Benoit said the committee will discuss how to publicize the charter and what the next steps will be during a meeting Aug. 17.

"We are pleased with (the city's) unanimous vote," she told Yellowknifer by e-mail. "We will work with the city and other community groups to seek more endorsements of the charter and work toward more food security for all Yellowknifers."

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