Ask people about buying food in Newfoundland and Labrador, and you’ll start hearing a few consistent comments: that fresh produce can be very expensive, that storm-related shipping delays can cut off the supply of food, and that the island of Newfoundland has, at any given time, [only] three days of fresh food on the shelves.
…Food security, conceptually, isn’t limited to the idea of running out of food on the shelves. It can mean that you just can’t afford the spinach that is on the shelf, and are left to other, less nutritious options. It can also mean that there is nowhere from which to procure food, or that the shipments can’t make it. All of these conditions can apply to Newfoundland and Labrador.
And as climate change advances, such circumstances can change—and get worse.
…“There’s a high rate of unemployment, and there’s a high correlation between suicide ideation and addiction issues when there’s nothing to do during the day. There’s no job, there’s no fisheries and you’re home,” Halley says.
The garden project, which began last year with help from a grant from Eastern Health, would give Halley’s clients the chance to work the land and eat the produce they grew. Eight raised beds were installed at the cathedral.
…“The population I work with… they can go to soup kitchens, they can get some assistance from the government,” Halley says. But “the quality and the standard of food that they’re able to buy is very poor.”
The social worker says she supports people from all walks of life, including those with lucrative professions, but those who struggle economically were most interested in the garden project “because they don’t have access to the quality of food that their bodies want.” She cites the example of one person who can’t work and feels constant stress from bills. He found comfort in the garden, being able provide himself with fresh vegetables.
The garden project has also built community, Halley says.
…On the coast, iorn places like Rigolet, Brace says—an area connected to larger cities by warm-weather ferry service and fair-weather flights. She says that while there is a government subsidy for food, quality goes down as winter comes. Despite best efforts, the weather can destroy fresh, sensitive produce—even exposure between the airport and the store is problematic. “Greens won’t make it, like lettuce—it’s too far, too cold. When I go to the grocery store, even in some of the best times of the year, it’s produce that wouldn’t be left on the shelf here.”
Nevertheless, “prices go up in the winter, but they never seem to get back to the prices before the winter months. It’s just steadily climbing, and jobs are not as plentiful.”
…In communities like Hopedale and Rigolet, the high costs of shipping food have prompted people to consider alternatives old and new: keeping traditional means of hunting and gathering alive while exploring gardening and hydroponics.
…Problems with food availability in Rigolet, combined with traditional views on living off the land, have spurred this involvement. “We have one supplier, one grocery store. In this town there’s no competition,” Michelin says. “The prices are really high. Very often, too, we have low-quality foods, when it comes to produce and frozen meat.”
And with one airline serving the town, sometimes food from afar is just not available, she says. Ships come in the summer—but summer weather can be long delayed. “That hasn’t even started yet, and it’s almost July—it’s a very short shipping season,” she explains.
…The Good Food Box project was born, Brace says, as a way of addressing a quandary particular to coastal Labrador: the only people who can afford grocery store prices are also the only ones who can afford to buy their food in advance at wholesale prices, leaving others to fend for themselves. The Good Food Box project pooled money together, allowing Rigolet residents to bulk order frozen meat and share the discount.
…The economic realities in places like Rigolet help dictate their need for self-sufficiency. In a globalized world of international trade, tiny Rigolet doesn’t exactly fit into grand economic schemes. “One thing about Rigolet, unfortunately, is our lack of economic development—we have none,” Michelin says. “We’re a town that doesn’t export anything, we don’t process anything. So, it’s poor.”
Michelin, who is Inuit, says the people of Rigolet have been living off the land for many years—but increasing modernization has meant increasing prices. Seaworthy watercraft and outboard motors can cost many thousands of dollars. Guns are expensive, ammunition is expensive, snowmobiles are expensive.
…She says she would like to see a shift in political rhetoric around how to respond to food insecurity in places like Newfoundland and Labrador. After hearing a politician promise to fly food via helicopter and plane to Labrador following “storm after storm,” she wondered why politicians haven’t suggested more empowering approaches to the problem.
“I’m thinking, people in Labrador are really smart, and they’ve been hunting and fishing for years,” she says. “Why aren’t we supporting them with a hydroponic green house? We provide employment, they become self-sufficient. We’re flying in food for people when they can grow it here, and it gives them something to do.”
However, she says, approaches have to be practical. Halley cited the infamous case of Newfoundland’s ill-fated cucumber greenhouse. Advanced by former Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Brian Peckford and Philip Sprung’s Enviroponics, the Mount Pearl-based project consumed more than $13 million from taxpayers—and $22 million in total—before Enviroponics went bankrupt and the facility was sold for a dollar. The greenhouse shut down soon afterward. The story is so infamous that CBC Archives wrote about it again last year.
Halley says she remembers the project and its unearthly orange glow, visible from St. John’s at the time. The problem, she says, is that the hydroponic greenhouse wasn’t used to grow produce of local interest. Instead, Peckford proposed that Newfoundland might position itself to dominate the world cucumber market. The plan failed, and cows ate many of the 800,000 cucumbers grown—at a cost of $27.50 per cucumber to taxpayers. The problem, as the CBC reported at the time: Newfoundlanders ate, on average, half a cucumber per capita per year.