Amidst the golden crops, grazing cows and lush green patchwork of rural Alberta lurks an unexpected threat. Food insecurity, the state of being without reliable access to sufficient and nutritious food sources, affects 5.6 million Canadians and continues to rise throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in both urban and rural areas.
In rural communities, the predominant food insecurity solution – food banks – are non-existent or ineffective and serve only as band-aid solutions to a growing problem whereby rural Albertans lack sufficient quantity or quality of food to sustain themselves.
In response, the Rural Development Network, a non-profit organization that provides tools, information, expertise and funding opportunities to help jumpstart rural community programs, created an Agri-food Initiative branch to explore the barriers and sustainable solutions to food insecurity in rural Alberta with the assistance of five students from the University of Alberta School of Public Health.
As part of their degree requirement, School of Public Health students partnered with RDN to address a rural food insecurity as a public health concern. During the September- December 2021 semester, five University of Alberta students joined forces with RDN’s Agri-food Initiatives to analyze the barriers that create food insecurity in rural areas and suggest sustainable solutions in the form of a comprehensive “Framework.” This document outlines solution-based approaches that RDN can use to inform future agri-food initiatives.
“Nobody had a sniff about food security when we started [the project],” said Meg Wisnowski, one of the Public Health students, whose background is in pharmacy. “[Our group] had a diverse background […], so we didn’t have any expectations going in, but that was one of the things that was really good about RDN. We met with them frequently and we could test our ideas.”
RDN identified the need for a framework to inform future decisions regarding how RDN and its partners can most effectively, efficiently, and sustainably affect rural food security. Partnering with RDN gave the students the opportunity to assist in creating this framework and gave the students a four-month of valuable experience on a public health issue.
Working directly with mentors Shelby Rowein, then-project manager for RDN’s Agri-food Initiatives, and Cassandra Rasko, Program Manager of Rural Health and Wellness, the students embarked on a three-step project to:
- Conduct an extensive national and international literature review to determine the best rural food security practices.
- Participate in developing an environmental scan to highlight gaps and opportunities for RDN to participate in the food security space.
- Condense their research into an organizational framework to guide RDN’s future projects along with five innovative ideas of how RDN could create a positive impact in rural communities facing food insecurity.
The students choose to create “suggestions” rather than “recommendations” because, as Wisnowski, noted, the literature review unveiled that there were “suggested practices, but nothing tried and true from a research perspective.” Most of the literature regarding food security based its recommendations on a trial-and-error basis in a specific organization. Therefore, there were no standardized random control trials on which to base their recommendations.
The students developed a vision for the future of sustainable food security practices for RDN in the following visual framework:
Rosko and Rowien are thrilled that RDN and its partners will be able to use this visual framework to inform future “ways that we could address food insecurity and work within the agri-food space in the non-profit sector”. This 42-page comprehensive framework will serve as a foundational document to inform and guide RDN’s Agri-food Initiatives as the organization develops into the agri-food security space.
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.