BC Association of Community Response Networks

Feeding People During COVID-19: CRNs Addressing Food Insecurity, Social Isolation

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed gross inequities in BC households.

The guidelines of hand hygiene, physical distancing, and keeping our social bubbles small have kept community members safe from contracting the virus, especially if individuals comply. However, these same safety measures, specifically physical distancing and self-quarantining, have put several households at even higher risk of experiencing poverty, abuse and neglect, food insecurity, and isolation – all public health concerns that affect physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Ian Marcuse of the Vancouver Grandview Woodland CRN (Photo: I. Marcuse)

In our lead feature, we’ll look more closely at how CRNs continue to mobilize during the pandemic to address local food insecurity and isolation issues. In writing this article, we also talked with Ian Marcuse, co-coordinator of the Vancouver Grandview Woodland CRN, community food developer for the Vancouver Grandview Woodland Food Connection program, and a seasoned community developer and organizer working in East Vancouver for his input.

What is Food Insecurity?

The BC Centre for Disease Control (BC CDC) defines a food-insecure household as one that “worries about or lacks the financial means to buy healthy, safe, personally acceptable food”.

Food insecurity is worse in households with children, and worst of all in single-parent households. Indigenous communities, recent immigrants, seniors, the homeless, injection drug users, and people with disabilities or suffering from diseases are also more likely to experience food insecurity. Communities affected by poverty, colonialism, and oppression are also more likely to be food insecure.

One in nine households in BC is food insecure, which translates to approximately half a million people in the province.

“Diet is critical to health,” says Ian. “We hear about elders and seniors not cooking because they can’t cut things, so they’re living off of frozen dinners. Or, because of the pandemic, they’re afraid to go out for groceries, or are unable to buy food because they can’t get out, or don’t have the money to do so.”

Food banks are part of the front-line response to food insecurity in the community. However, since the onset of the pandemic, local communities, including CRN volunteer teams, have quickly risen to the challenge and found creative solutions to assist the community’s most vulnerable with safely accessing nutritious food.

“As COVID swept into our communities and lockdowns were announced back in March, we were most concerned about people’s access to food, especially the seniors, elders, and those with compromised health who were isolated at home,” adds Ian. “We started getting calls from people who had empty cupboards and fridges, and who were worried about getting any food. We quickly deemed food access an essential service at our centre [at Grandview Woodland in Vancouver].”

Local CRNs Step Up

The Castlegar CRN through the Kootenay Increasing Recreation in Seniors (IRIS) Program does weekly lunch deliveries to seniors in the community. (Photo: Kootenay IRIS Facebook)

Even before the pandemic, several CRNs were delivering healthy lunches, hot meals, and celebrating holidays and special events by hosting a community meal. Some teams were delivering regularly, and others were holding one-off events.

The impacts of the pandemic were swift.

Prices spiked on goods. There were shortages of essential items, like food and toilet paper, as a result of panic buying and hoarding. The sudden increase in demand disrupted the global food supply chain. Grocery stores were experiencing extraordinary line ups. Doctors’ offices and clinics shut down and when they reopened, had to work through backlogs of medical appointments. People’s health conditions were sometimes exacerbated further. The effects hit people on fixed incomes single-parent households and vulnerable adults the hardest.

CRNs in Revelstoke, Cranbrook, Vancouver Renfrew-Collingwood, the Sunshine Coast, Ladysmith, Chilliwack, Castlegar, and even in the remote Mount Waddington region rallied community volunteers and businesses to deliver essentials – groceries and medications – to residents who could not go without. CRNs in Prince George and Logan Lake launched delivery programs of their own.

Revelstoke CRN partnered with local markets to deliver groceries (Photo: Revelstoke CRN Facebook)

CRNs that weren’t doing food delivery, found funding, partnered with local grocery stores and caterers, quickly recruited volunteers, and created programs on the fly to get food to isolated community members. The Kelowna CRN launched a meal program serving its vulnerable adult communities. The Golden CRN launched a weekly hot lunch program, delivering soup to seniors in April, partnering with local caterers, and pivoting their original project plans. In addition to delivering essentials, the Castlegar CRN continues to prepare and deliver fresh lunches weekly to seniors through the Kootenay Increasing Recreation in Seniors (IRIS) program.

In the province’s larger urban centres, CRNs hosted by community agencies have pre-existing food programs managed by full-time staff and dedicated volunteer teams. The Vancouver West End-Coal Harbour-Yaletown CRN, which is hosted by the West End Seniors’ Network, included BC CRN educational and support information with some of their weekly grocery runs.

Why Community Food Delivery Works

Grassroots community responses to food insecurity have been quicker compared to their Food Bank counterparts, many of which, unfortunately, were closed during the early days of the pandemic.

“While the food bank model is also about getting emergency food to people, they are large and unable to adjust distribution as easily to respond quickly” explains Ian. “Smaller grassroots community organizations, like CRNs, are able to quickly adapt their COVID food responses that are similar to how community development models work, which is about building relationships and capacity to address people’s needs during emergencies.”

Connections and relationships help communities become resilient. Partnerships are critical.

For example, the Vancouver Grandview Woodland CRN, co-hosted by the Grandview Woodland Food Connection program, partners with community health, community centres, and housing organizations to tap into one another’s networks and resources to ensure vulnerable communities are cared for.

“We also have culture-specific programmers,” he continues. “The community centre we work out of has Vietnamese, Latin American, and Indigenous programmers who understand their home language, cultures, and traditions who help seniors in those communities connect to support, like food and groceries. Understanding culture can help form new relationships much more quickly. (Grandview Woodland Food Connect and programmers work from Britannia Community Centre.)

“When pandemic safety measures were implemented, we were able to respond in days because we tapped into each other’s networks, understood exactly what our partners do, and how we needed to work together.”

Making Social Connections through Food

A positive side effect of food support: the opportunity for important social connections that can easily take place between the people delivering food and supplies and the people receiving it.

The Sparwood CRN delivers treats and prepared meals to seniors in need. (Photo: S. Strom via Sparwood CRN Facebook.)

Several CRNs either set up phone trees or tapped into existing phone and communication lists to connect with community members, and inform them of the supports available to them.

“At Grandview Woodland, all of our seniors’ programmers were deployed to phone all members who participated in programming,” says Ian. “We must have talked to between 2,000 to 3,000 individuals, sometimes for up to 30 minutes at a time. Social connection is also important.”

In Golden, CRN volunteers do weekly contactless soup delivery. Volunteers often find seniors enjoying their lunches on their front porches in each other’s company. For many of the seniors, ordering their soup over the phone and then receiving their lunch are the only social opportunities they have for the week.

Other CRNs are helping their communities’ food security and isolation issues with community gardens, which takes residents outside where physical distancing is easier. Last Spring, the Gabriola Island CRN with the help of volunteers and community partners distributed more than 250 seedlings to families and seniors to strengthen local food security and build community connections. The South Nanaimo CRN coordinators learned through phone tree conversations of a local business donating high-quality gardening soil, which became a project to build garden boxes and mentoring community members on organic gardening basics.

“Food is a core part of our being, and an opportunity to build skills, and build communities,” says Ian. “This is what food networks do.”

Whether these networks are simple or complex, based in a small town or a large urban centre, food has the ability to bring people together, even in a pandemic. These grassroots measures – meal programs, food delivery, emergency services – are a demonstration of what a larger system could accomplish with the right partners in the community to meaningfully support seniors, elders, and other groups of people who continue to struggle.

To get involved in your local food program, please contact your CRN or Regional Mentor for more information. If you have a story about how your local food program works that you’d like for us to consider, email us at info@bccrns.ca or direct message us on Facebook or Twitter with your story idea.

Written by: Debbie Chow, Links Communication Solutions. Follow Debbie on LinkedIn: @debbiechowabc.