Prince Albert citizens looking for food security solutions

Jodi Schellenberg
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Food security is a huge challenge in the city, with many people unable to access nutritious food.

Rick Sawa, president of the Prince Albert Food Coalition, leads a group discussion surrounding food security issues on Tuesday.

A group of concerned citizens from many different organizations gathered at the Prince Albert Food Coalition meeting on Tuesday to discuss food security issues people may be facing.

“We have people we call food insecure, which means they aren’t getting the right food or the right amount of food that is culturally relevant and healthy and nutritious,” said Rick Sawa, president of the Food Coalition. “We have come together as a group to figure out what we can do about this problem.”

Some of the organizations at the coalition meeting were YWCA, the Prince Albert Food Bank, the Community Kitchen, Jessy’s Garden and many others.

“It is a large group of people who have come together and not all of them are dealing directly with food but the lack of food affects what they do,” Sawa said.

The Food Coalition would like to see more organizations working together to come up with solutions.

“What normally happens is everybody gets a little bit of money and they all do a little bit and they don’t know what the other one is doing,” Sawa said. “Our hope is that we can put that money together somehow and go to government with a plan and say, ‘We have a plan for Prince Albert and this is what it is going to take.’”

The main topics that were being discussed at the meeting were funding, awareness, collaboration and challenges.

“We are just hoping at the end of the day that we have some plan in place that we can move forward,” Sawa said.

There are several challenges that become barriers to access healthy food, said Cathryn Abrametz, a public health nutritionist for the Prince Albert Parkland Health Region.

“Today we are here to discuss what some of those challenges are, some of the barriers to accessing healthy food and how to overcome those issues and work together,” Abrametz said. “Some barriers people might face are transportation, getting to the grocery store, having enough money to buy healthy foods, having the knowledge to cook healthy food and things like that.”

The main issue is people do not have enough money to buy healthy food, Sawa said.

“If people have enough money, other reasons for not having enough food would be access, like if you live in the west flat, for example, you have to catch a bus and go out to Superstore, Walmart or Sobeys,” Sawa said. “That is another issue.”

Awareness is also an issue, Sawa said, since many people do not know what nutritious food is, how to get it and what they should be eating.

Abrametz works with other community groups and tries to come up with ways to overcome the issues they face.

“Some ways we might do that are through community kitchen groups, I provide nutrition support to groups,” she said. “There are a lot of organizations in Prince Albert working towards achieving food security for our community. I provide support to those groups.”

There are a lot of health issues people can develop when they do not have a healthy diet, Abrametz said, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

“(These) are long-term chronic diseases we can prevent or diminish just from healthy eating and physical activity,” she said. “Children today are facing issues from a sedentary lifestyle, lack of vegetables and fruit in their diet and that is setting them up for a tougher life later on for sure.”

One of the largest issues around food security is the confusion around best before dates, said Wes Clark, co-manager of the Prince Albert Food Bank.

“A vast majority of food out of the stores winds up directly in the garbage -- a great deal of it happens in the home as well, but the other part is the retailers,” Clark said. “Of course, for them, you are not going to see anything past a best before date on the shelves. The assumption is once it is past the best before date this food is no longer safe. That is not the case.”

About $27 billion of food is wasted annually and half of it is due to confusion. Clark explained the best before date is the manufacturers’ guarantee of peak freshness -- in most cases the food is still good after the date labelled.

According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, manufacturers are only required to put best before dates on items that will spoil within three months, Clark said.

Food banks in Canada are allowed to have donated non-perishable items to hand out that are up to a year past their best before date, he said.

“This enables us to talk to retailers and get those foods,” Clark said.

The Good Samaritan Act will protect retailers who donate food, he added.

With many food security issues facing the citizens of Prince Albert, the food bank has been busy this year.

“Typically in the winter is our slow time and the summer is the busier time,” Clark said. “This year, however, our numbers have been exploding.”

Most winters, they would see about 40 to 80 people a day, but this winter they have seen more than 100 most days.

“Last month, we actually did our busiest month ever in our food bank program and we gave out 600 hampers,” Clark said. “We are actually quite concerned about our capacity and where we go from here.”

The numbers have been spiking since January, which is unusual.

“We expect December to be busy with Christmas and everything on the go, but the fact that both January and February were busy months definitely lead us to be quite concerned,” Clark said. “At the moment we are doing OK for food but we always typically have issues around summer when people are gone out of the city and donations tend to slow down to a crawl.

“We are almost at the point where we have looked at future strategic planning, where we might think of splitting the two programs -- the Share a Meal housed downtown and the food bank moving to another location,” he added. “That’s how busy we are.”

Although the food bank provides the majority of food to those in need, they are not the only ones that do so.

“We do handle the vast majority of it and in fact our numbers work out to be about 200 thousands pounds of food a year, between Share a Meal, the food bank and other help we get,” Clark said.

He also noted food security is an issue a wide spectrum of people, including working people, students and seniors.

“I think the biggest roadblock right now and we can show clearly out of our statistics is rent -- rents are high,” Clark said. “That is definitely the biggest barrier people are facing -- pay the rent or eat.”

Organizations: Prince Albert, Prince Albert Food Coalition, Prince Albert Food Bank Community Kitchen Walmart Sobeys Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Geographic location: Canada

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