Stepping Up to the Plate

Planting the seeds for better food security on PEI

The PEI Food Exchange is graduating its fourth cohort of Community Food Mentors this fall. This iteration of the program focused on providing participants with knowledge and skills in gardening. It marks just one of the many activities this grassroots organization has undertaken to address food insecurity on the Island.

A community food mentor is a member of the community who has gained the skills and communal food education necessary to offer new programs, guidance, and support to others in the community. At its core, the Community Food Mentors Program is a free “train the trainer” capacity-building initiative that empowers participants who are passionate about food related issues in their communities to take action.

Garden mentors help overhaul the PEI Food Exchange’s plot at the Legacy Garden in Charlottetown//Submitted Photo

Past mentor programs have focused on preserving and food skills-based training. It’s not enough to harvest extra produce and manage food waste and it’s not enough to teach people how to preserve the spared food, every stage of growing and preparing needs to be considered. A sustainable food cycle is a continuum that requires skills and resources in order to remain secure and healthy for generations to come. The PEI Food Exchange works to shape such a continuum through its mentors programs, as well as gleaning on organic Island farms, hosting hands-on food skills workshops, and sharing food knowledge through its social media channels.

The most recent group of food mentors, expected to graduate the program in October, were taught the basics of gardening from a targeted group of experts that ranged from hobby farmers to crop specialists. As a graduate of this particular program, one is required to mentor another person in gardening techniques for 25 hours. And according to Pauline Howard of the PEI Food Exchange, this is the type of activity that is needed in a food insecure community. “In order to educate and to close the loop, it seemed natural that we focused on gardening. So you’re growing your food, you know how to prepare your food from the general food skills program, and you know how to preserve your food,” she explained.

Those unable to commit to participating in a mentors program can still get involved and support the initiatives of the PEI Food Exchange in a variety of ways.

The PEI Food Exchange also works with vendors at the Charlottetown Farmers Market to collect unsold produce that would otherwise not be used. The produce is collected by PEI FX volunteers and delivered to service agencies in the Charlottetown area//Submitted photo

“Join our Food Exchange PEI Facebook group to find out when gleans are taking place,” said Pauline, referring to excess crops that farmers invite the Food Exchange to harvest. “One third is kept by the gleaners, one-third is kept by the farmer if they wish, and one-third is donated to a service provider such as the Salvation Army,” she explained, of the model used in their gleaning activities.

You can also attend one-off food skills workshops organized by the PEI Food Exchange. This fall the organization has partnered with Heartbeet Organics to host weekly fermentation parties, where you can learn how to make sauerkraut, pickles, and kombucha. Salty itself was also born out of the very first pilot Community Food Mentors Program, so simply by keeping yourself informed, you’re strengthening the fabric of the Island’s food system!

The PEI Food Exchange partnered with Heart Beet Organics this fall to offer one-off workshops in fermentation at the organic farm//Submitted Photo

The challenges the PEI Food Exchange faces in program development and delivery are similar to those of other grassroots organizations—funding and human resources are limited and moving to a registered not-for-profit model can eat your entire operating budget. It’s because of this and the desire to stay grassroots that the PEI Food Exchange hosts an annual fundraising meal, Step Up to the Plate, which will take place on October 24th of this year. Funds raised from this year’s delicious event will serve as a pool that Community Food Mentor graduates can access in order to get their new initiatives up and running.

Attending the fundraiser is an opportunity for you to support those who have dedicated the time to tackling food insecurity on PEI. Featuring a vegetarian feast that is almost entirely gleaned by volunteers and prepared by Chef Emily Wells, you’ll be able to experience firsthand what it means (and tastes like) to eat locally and sustainably while helping to close the loop of food security on PEI.