Cape Breton Island is separated from mainland Nova Scotia by an easily passable causeway. Although this provides ease of access and geographical unity, the island remains unique in cultural identity, and perhaps separate in the challenges islanders face. One such problem lies in our spread out and highly rural population. Cape Breton has around 130,ooo inhabitants and 75% of them live in the urban centre of Cape Breton Regional Municipality. In addition, our population is spread over a vast land area: 10,oookm^2, accounting for 19% of Nova Scotia’s land area, but only 15% of the provincial population count. A growing interest in revitalizing local food supply has led to the start up of many small farms, many of which lack ready access to sufficient markets. The answer we have come up with: a food hub tailored to our unique needs and assets.
The idea for an island food hub took shape between 2012-14, beginning with the Inverness County Food Security Committee (ICFSC) meeting with producers. It was identified that producers were in need of coordination of marketing and delivery of their products. The following year, a broad range of stakeholders, including Public Health, fisheries, Farmers Markets of Nova Scotia, producers and government, filled the firehall in Baddeck to discuss the way forward for our island food system. There was resounding demand for increased coordination between buyers and sellers. This meeting resulted in a working group to further the idea.
In 2014, the ICFSC was successful in receiving funding from the Department of Agriculture for a 2-year pilot project to better link producers to their customers. Long-time local food champion, Alicia Lake, was hired to coordinate this large and dynamic undertaking, and who better for the job? Alicia brings her business expertise, her web of connections, her passion for community development, and farm background to the table.“I grew up on a farm and over my lifetime have watched farming disappear in our region. Along with the farms, our sense of community and our connection to each other has also been eroded. As an MBA specializing in CED, I was sure that we could work together to find local solutions,” shares Alicia.
Alicia is well known for her 50% Local September challenge, which spread across the island and later to the mainland. Through a blog and popular media coverage, Alicia successfully spread the word that in September, Nova Scotia is brimming with a variety of locally produced products. To emphasize this fact, Alicia would eat 100% local for the month, which proved to be totally doable, wit her main challenge being a lack of grain supply on the island. Alicia is also the founder of the Baddeck and Area Community Market, which she spearheaded in 2010. The market continues to thrive.
After months of careful planning under the direction of a Management Committee and an Advisory Committee, the Pan Cape Breton Food Hub Co-op was formed as a non-profit multi-stakeholder co-op. The first order cycle opened in the summer of 2015, serving restaurants, and 50 households in the Sydney and North Sydney areas. Membership filled quickly with a waitlist. The first season ran for 15 weeks generating a total of $43,000. With a small mark-up to support the food hub’s operations, most of this money went directly into the pockets of Cape Breton producers.
2016 has seen an expansion to 5 pick-up locations around the island, with an increase to 120 member households. The season has not yet closed, but projected sales for the year are $80,000.
Food hubs are a fairly common entity in the United States, but the idea is catching on in Canada (see further reading below for more information). A hub is not a firmly shaped model, allowing the idea to be adapted to fit the local context it will serve. The Pan Cape Breton Food Hub Co-op supplies seafood, meats, produce, and prepared foods. It operates through an online storefront through which member producers post available items each week and customers later place their orders. The Food Hub then coordinates pickup of food items at 7 drop-off locations around CB through Star Delivery, who delivers the items to the 5 packing locations for sorting by volunteers into boxes for each customer. By bringing together the range of available products from 30 producers around the island (up from 25 last year), the food hub is able to create the critical mass necessary to meet the needs of our customer base.
The food hub’s existence allows present producers to sell surplus items that they cannot sell through their current sales channels, and to expand production to meet the growing demand of the hub. It has also inspired new farmers to start selling, without the hassle of developing marketing channels in their start-up phase.
Beyond increased sales for our producers, a functional distribution system for local food can allow Cape Breton to rise to meet the challenges of food security. As a recently recognized Good Food Organization, this is an objective of the hub. Segments of our population suffer from food access issues. The Pan Cape Breton Food Hub recently partnered with the Glace Bay Food Bank (GBFB) and Ecology Action Centre Our Food Project on the Cost-Share Local Food Box Program. This pilot program facilitated the supply of subsidized local food boxes to GBFB clients. The program was offered in conjunction with a cooking workshop series to guide participants in healthy, affordable, seasonal meal preparation. The Food Hub offers similar workshops to other hub members throughout the year.
The Food Hub also provides the basis for an island wide connection between food actors. This groundwork has inspired the expansion of the CBRM Local Food Network. It has recently been rebranded as the Island Food Network and is currently working towards whole island representation and communication channels so that we can work together to strengthen Cape Breton’s food system.
The Pan Cape Breton Food Hub is making a tangible difference in the lives of Cape Breton farmers. “The most important thing the food hub has provided us with is the confidence to expand the farm knowing that if we do there is a mechanism in place to sell our products. Prior to the food hub I was skeptical that we could reach of our goal of the farm providing full time incomes. I am now confident that we can grow with the hub and achieve this within the next five years,” says Kari Easthouse of Katherine Farms. To learn more about Kari and other producers, visit the Pan Cape Breton Food Hub Co-op website.
Further reading about food hubs:
Jody Nelson is the Community Food Coordinator for Cape Breton with the Our Food Project of the Ecology Action Centre.
Adventures in Local Food is your source for food news in Nova Scotia, from pickles to policy. It is a project organized by the Ecology Action Centre
Learn more about our program at https://www.ecologyaction.ca/ourfood
Or follow us on Twitter: @OurFoodProject
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