Food is a powerful community builder

Food is a powerful community-builder. It brings people together, bridging cultural and generational divides. It shapes our understanding of the world.

“Food is about dignity,” says Kevin Huang, co-founder of the Hua Foundation, a youth-driven non-profit organization based in Vancouver’s Chinatown. “Food keeps us alive. It connects us socially and culturally to our families and the places we call home.”

Local food assets

It’s why he’s working to address the disappearance of traditional Chinese stores and retailers in Vancouver’s Chinatown neighbourhood.

“Between 2009 and 2016, 50% of Chinatown’s fresh food stores closed their doors,” says Kevin. Additionally, 32% of Chinese dry goods stores, and 56% of its food service retailers also closed.

Photo credit: Christina Lee

As a member of the 2018 United Way Public Policy Institute (PPI), he is working on a project to help reverse this trend. It’s a project he’s passionate about, and one that will also see the City of Vancouver (COV) redefine and expand its definition of ‘food assets’ within the city’s Food and Healthy City strategies.

‘Food assets’ are other ways of talking about things like community gardens, urban farms, farmers’ markets and community composting facilities.

“Which are all great things,” says Kevin. “We just want to make sure there is also acknowledgment of culturally specific foods and spaces that are integral to the health and success of the many Vancouver residents – residents in neighbourhoods like Chinatown.”

These include places like Chinese dry goods stores, traditional Cantonese bakeries and restaurants, and other Chinatown mainstays like greengrocers, fishmongers, and barbecue meat stores and butcher shops. Places, says Kevin, that have been be visited by generations of Vancouver families, and are integral to the cultural preservation of this historic community.

“These ‘assets’ are essential building blocks of Vancouver’s Chinese-Canadian community,” says Kevin.

And it’s a goal that will benefit everybody, as the City of Vancouver also has a target of increasing its municipal ‘food assets’ by 50 per cent by 2020. Diversifying its definition will help them achieve that marker.

Historical imbalances

What many may not realize is that historic and systemic anti-Chinese racism forced many early Chinese immigrants across the Lower Mainland to turn towards agriculture.

“By the 1920s, Chinese immigrants produced and distributed 90 per cent of B.C.’s vegetables,” says Kevin. “This is mainly due to the fact that they were barred from entering into many other professional fields, including law, medicine, and finance.”

It’s integral then, to both acknowledge the important role Chinese farmers have historically played in producing the food we all purchase and eat, and the discrimination they faced as new immigrants to Canada.

“By learning and growing from the past are we better able to protect and recognize contributions from the Chinese community, moving forward,” says Kevin.

That’s a big part of what Kevin is trying to do as he works to raise awareness and drive change around this important issue.

Driving equity through policy

Kevin learned about the Public Policy Institute (PPI) through Catherine Ludgate, Manager of Community Investment at Vancity. The financial organization has been a long-time supporter of the Hua Foundation and its work on food security.

Vancity is also the premier sponsor of United Way’s Public Policy Institute.

“This is a partnership that makes sense to us, because together, we are equipping advocates and activists to make public policy changes that build stronger and healthier communities,” says Catherine. “We believe that we must all work for systemic change to address the critical social and environmental imperatives of our times.”

Kevin (far left) at the first PPI session of 2018.

To Kevin, that’s the most exciting part of his work with PPI: addressing historically-rooted inequalities and then ensuring equity – not just equality – for all going forward.

“It really is about building equity,” he says. “Real equity.”

Looking ahead

Already Kevin’s seen success with his policy project. He is working with the City of Vancouver on re-drafting its ‘food asset’ definition and how it can be applied across multiple municipal strategies.

This includes looking at new neighbourhood plans and new developments, and working to ensure that traditional Chinese foods, shops and restaurants are built into and protected within these projects.

Photo credit: Christina Lee

Kevin acknowledges that conversations around culture, race and development can be uncomfortable – whether personal, or policy-based – but he believes that they’re essential to building true inclusivity and equity in the spaces we all call home.

“People don’t want to talk about race or culture because they don’t want to sound wrong. So how do we learn together?”

His answer to that question? Open, honest and vulnerable dialogue about historical and systemic issues are the first steps to opening up and building equitable paths forward.

And often, the best place to start is over a good meal. A locally sourced, culturally connected one preferably.

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