Food security stakeholders come together at landmark Municipality of Inverness County conference

May 8, 2024

More than 40 delegates from local, Island-wide and provincial organizations came together in Mabou on Friday, May 3, to discuss the complex and urgent topic of food security in the Municipality of Inverness County.

In a day of wide-ranging discussions, organizations including Feed Nova Scotia, the Island Food Network, Pan-Cape Breton Food Hub and numerous Inverness County volunteer groups discussed themes such as food poverty, access to quality food, farmers’ livelihoods, food security and food skilling.

The day kicked off with a scene-setting speech from Jody Nelson, Network Director of the Island Food Network. Nelson described the complex nature of food security, pointing to the different roles of each level of government as well as grassroots community groups. She highlighted the importance and power of collaboration for community solutions to food security challenges.

Mary MacNeil of the Margaree Food Security Program gave a current example of how much can be done through grassroots organizations. She described how, with help from Cllr Blair Philips (District 2) the Margaree-based organization was able to set up a bank account and a phone line. That’s all that was needed for a dedicated team of volunteers to begin their work of fundraising and distributing grocery gift cards to households in need, and the operation has only become more robust from there.

Like many who spoke during the day, MacNeil emphasized the importance of trust, privacy and dignity when providing this sort of service.

“The honour system gives people agency over their own choices, and helps to reestablish self esteem,” she noted.

Mary MacNeil (standing) reports back to the group on possible solutions to challenges, and suggested next steps.

Michelle Greencorn of Eastern Counties Regional Library (ECRL) shared the news that libraries have very recently received provincial funding for food initiatives. $60,000 has been earmarked for ECRL itself, which will be enable initiatives promoting food literacy amongst other things.

Alix Redden, board chair of the Pan-Cape Breton Food Hub was one of several speakers who accentuated the importance of focusing on local production and distribution. The Food Hub aims to create long term sustainability by fostering access to markets for local producers, while also working to understand consumer needs.

The conference was an opportunity for councillors and municipal staff to hear about the challenges faced by local organizations, which included Mill Rd Social Enterprises in Inverness, the Chéticamp Kinsmen and the Judique Tartan Gardens.

These challenges are complex and interconnected, and include: staffing, access to finance, physical locations and distribution, reliance on volunteers leading to burn-out, regaining traction after the pandemic, and responding to consumer needs particularly in a cost of living crisis.

While this may seem like a daunting list, there was a lot of determination and optimism in the room. After hearing updates from Nick Jennery, Executive Director of Feed Nova Scotia, and from the Beyond the Bank project lead by New Dawn Enterprises, the delegates broke out into groups to discuss solutions and next steps.

Attendees listen to a keynote speech from Feed Nova Scotia’s Executive Director, Nick Jennery

There was consensus around the need for asset mapping, to understand who is already doing what, and what resources (physical, human and financial) could be made available. What commercial kitchens exist in the county, for example, and could they be used to support food security during times when they are sitting idle?

Many who spoke expressed the desire to see a municipality-wide initiative to support and amplify the various groups who are already working hard in their own areas.

Ideas included a unified meals on wheels program to support access to nourishing food. Several people mentioned the need for physical locations to foster multiple operations including a commercial kitchen, and access to resources such as family cooking classes and more.

Kerry Walkins (standing), Manager of Mabou Farmers’ Market, reports back to the group on possible solutions and next steps

People mentioned the need to invest in young farmers. An example would be to make resources and skill-building opportunities available on themes such as business planning. This would help to ensure that local food production is a viable economic choice.

Building local research partnerships – with Cape Breton University, for instance – was also identified as a priority in order to produce quality research and quality metrics which will underpin applications for long term funding.

While the challenges ahead are undeniable, delegates to the food security conference left feeling energized and optimistic.

“This was a very inspiring day, a great opportunity to regroup and refocus,” said Janet Gillis, Director of the Margaree Food Security Program. “As we’ve heard a number of people say today, working in this field can sometimes feel overwhelming, but a meeting like this really gets you going again.”

Jody Nelson, Network Director of Island Food Network agreed: “It’s so hopeful to see a room full of people committed to meeting the food needs of our community,” she commented.

“From a ‘grow a row’ program, to a ‘food bank’ out of a car trunk, to connection over a cup of coffee that sparks new ideas and collaboration, Cape Bretoners are looking out for each other and are dedicated to ensuring that people have enough of the foods they want and need,” Nelson added. 

Municipal Warden Bonny MacIsaac, who attended the day along with several councillors, echoed Nelson’s positivity: “This was a wonderful and constructive day,” says Warden MacIsaac. “It was inspiring to hear from so many community members leading important work, as well as to really lay the groundwork for greater collaboration and progress on such an important issue.”