Rapid Action Resources for Local Governments: Working with NGOs, Faith-based and Cultural Groups, and the Charitable Food Sector

Photo credit: Bobbi Barbarich

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, social and economic impacts continue to emerge for communities here in British Columbia. In response, PlanH has developed a series of Rapid Action Resources to support local non-Indigenous governments and Indigenous governments with an understanding of the equity considerations around various aspects of food security, as well as examples of good practices in food security from other local governments in the province and across the country. Food security is complex and addressing the various aspects of food security — including food systems and food insecurity — will require action at various levels to positively affect outcomes for individuals, families and communities. This resource explores some considerations around the role non-governmental organizations (NGOs), faith and cultural groups, and charities play in food security and identifies opportunities for Indigenous and non-Indigenous local governments to enhance collaboration with these vital cross-sectoral partners in order to build a stronger food system and respond to individual and household food insecurity.


In this series:


Food Security and COVID-19: Working with NGOs, Faith-based and Cultural Groups, and the Charitable Food Sector

The social and economic impacts of COVID-19 have heightened the urgency of addressing food security throughout the province. Organizations across sectors are exploring innovative ways to increase food security and strengthen local food systems and local governments in B.C. are being asked to invest in programming and implement policies and plans to support food security. One of the key partner sector groups in this work are NGOs, faith-based/cultural communities and food banks. Working on the ground in communities, these organizations are uniquely positioned as ideal partners not only to support emergency food provision during the pandemic but also as essential collaborators in developing more upstream programs, policies and initiatives that go beyond an emergency response. Upstream interventions — designed to improve the root causes of food insecurity — can lessen the dependency on emergency food aid, increase access to food and better address the systemic challenges that continue to create food insecurity, once the pandemic has passed.

Sidebar: Food systems models

The community food system model integrates local economic, environmental and human health considerations in order to generate positive impacts on community members through increased access to food, greater economic inclusion and stronger community connectedness.

Below we explore the benefits of working with each of these sectors and provide examples of leading practices, including partnerships with local governments. Finally, we provide a list of ways that local governments can use their planning, policy and partnership levers to support the work of these organizations, particularly in an upstream context.



In partnership with local and Indigenous governments, food-focused NGOs can contribute to the development of robust, upstream policies and plans that support food security and resilient food systems, while also playing a role in an emergency response to individual/household food insecurity.

Some NGOs involve themselves in local advocacy work, benefitting from close community ties in order to elevate lived experience to the forefront of local food policy decision making. Other NGOs bring important local context and information to food security conversations occurring at other levels—federal and provincial— to ensure local food policies are being supported and funded by senior levels of government.

How can local governments best work with NGOs?

Engage in multi-sectoral partnerships

NGOs listen to communities, acting as advocates on their behalf through their participation in working groups at the local/regional, provincial and federal levels. These information sharing networks and multi-sectoral working groups are valuable for informing policy and actions that can build a more just and equitable food system. Local non-Indigenous and Indigenous governments can consider ways to facilitate participation in these working groups and create conduits for multi-sectoral collaboration.

Example: The City of Victoria created a food systems coordinator role for the Victoria Urban Food Table to support non-profits, community groups, and members of the public in navigating the regulations related to community food production. The city is able to leverage the existing work being done by many non-profits and community groups through supporting an individual in this role and creating space for innovation across issues and at different scales. During the pandemic, members of the urban food table were able to collaborate on a variety of regional emergency response initiatives including repurposing ornamental gardens to food production spaces and distributing seedlings and food growing kits to low-income residents.

Support progressive policy and facilitate program development

NGOs strengthen local food systems through the promotion of local food sourcing and distribution, building social connections as well as connection to land through programing, and through providing nourishing and culturally appropriate food to their local community members. Non-Indigenous and Indigenous governments can support these organizations by expediting approvals for programming, as well as eliminating any potential procedural and process barriers to implementing programming.

Example: Examining how it can better ensure all community members are able to use its services, the Grandview Woodland Food Connection is developing a decolonization framework through which all its future programs will be planned and implemented. Decolonizing food spaces, programs and policies is an important step in reducing the systemic barriers Indigenous peoples face in accessing nutritious food and obtaining food sovereignty. The organization’s efforts are funded in part by the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Coastal Health.


Indigenous food sovereignty is a policy approach to addressing the underlying issues impacting Indigenous peoples’ ability to respond to their own needs for healthy, culturally adapted foods and includes self-determination (the ability to make decisions over the amount and quality of food) Indigenous Food Systems Network definition. Retrieved from https://www.indigenousfoodsystems.org/food-sovereignty

Example: Stemming from conversations about the high rates of food insecurity within their Mi’kmaq First Nation community, Eel Ground First Nation and Community Food Centres Canada created a partnership to provide funding and support programming that further increases community members’ access to food, resources and supports. This has led to a community centre that operates around good food, running a variety of programs designed to promote access to a healthy, culturally relevant diet that is designed to meet the community’s needs.

Invest in action at all levels

Partnership and collaboration between NGOs and Indigenous and non-Indigenous governments can also support the implementation of wide-ranging and long-term sustainable programming that supports community food security and community-building initiatives, including food security initiatives in support of Urban Indigenous populations:

Example: Just Food is a non-profit organization funded in part by the City of Ottawa that engages in food policy conversations at local, provincial and federal levels. At the local level, Just Food provides strategic and logistical support to the City of Ottawa’s Food Policy Council. During the pandemic this formalized management network facilitated rapid adaptation to respond to increased demand for space to grow food.

Example: Recognizing that as a small municipality they did not have the resources or knowledge to provide wrap-around social services, the District of Squamish went into collaboration mode and reduced procedural barriers for the Squamish Helping Hands Society to develop Under One Roof, an integrated affordable housing project. The District was able to cover processing and permitting fees, along with a 60 year land lease for $1, allowing Squamish Helping Hands Society, in partnership with BC Housing, to deliver on an “out of the box” vision which will provide shelter, food, purpose and community building opportunities to those who need them most.



A part of most communities, faith-based and cultural communities often provide individuals and families with a shared sense of belonging and common cultural ties, including food. These groups have a deep connection with those who choose to be a part of their community, often communicating and listening to community members in ways that are challenging for governments. Faith-based and cultural communities may also benefit from sustainable funding and resources; a highly committed staff and volunteer network; and a steadfast commitment from community members to donate.

Places of worship/cultural practice and the people who spend time together in those places frequently extend values of reciprocity and kindness to wider communities, offering secular support to anyone who needs assistance accessing food and devoting resources toward food security initiatives that benefit everyone.

How can local governments best work with faith and cultural communities?

Leverage their networks and understanding of on-the-ground need

Churches, temples, mosques and other faith communities can be steeped in the needs and realities of their members. They often also have deep roots in — and a grassroots understanding of — the greater community or
Khalsa Aid Canada has mobilized volunteers during COVID-19
neighbourhood in which they are located. Faith and cultural communities frequently offer programming to the greater secular community around them, including food distribution. Because of this, they can be a powerful resource for Indigenous and non-Indigenous local governments needing rapid, ground-up, trust- and relationship-based action.

Leverage cultural experience and understanding for culturally appropriate service delivery

Because many faiths value caring for others and mutual respect, faith-based efforts to temporarily relieve individual/household food insecurity often includes measures to maintain recipients’ respect and dignity. Faith communities may also be able to offer deep insight into cultural protocols and preferences that should be considered when creating accessible food security programming.

Emulate and support their holistic approach to the issue of food insecurity

As identified in our first Rapid Action Resource, the issue of food insecurity should be understood as a systems-level challenge which is created by structural issues including poverty, lack of affordable and appropriate housing and discrimination. To tackle this, many faith and cultural communities offer holistic models of service, acting as an entry point into other programs through referrals from within and outside of the community and potentially having implications for other determinants of health such as social connectedness and even employment.



Improving food security across the province is a process that will require collaboration and time. Food banks play a role in emergency food access for community members while upstream approaches—namely, integrated approaches to poverty reduction—work toward reducing the root causes of food insecurity.

While not a long term solution to individual or household food insecurity, food banks across B.C. have been an important component of the provincial government’s emergency response to food needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many food banks are working to serve community members in more culturally appropriate, dignified and equitable ways. Below are some examples of innovative practices food banks are taking to provide immediate, short-term food assistance as well as initiatives that are shifting food banks toward contributing to holistic, upstream food security strategies.

How can local governments best work with food banks and community food centres?

Support them in reducing barriers to accessing food

COVID-19 has increased the demand at food banks across the province. Because individual and household food insecurity is primarily caused by not enough income, the longer-term economic implications of the pandemic may result in more community members needing food aid, including many who have never accessed food banks before. To ensure community members who need food can more easily access it, food banks are providing emergency food aid in more equitable and less stigmatizing ways, including eliminating requirements to produce identification and designing food access to increase choice and dignity.

Example: In 2019, thanks to funding from Food Banks BC, the Penticton Salvation Army food bank launched a new model that allows community members accessing their food bank to select the foods they want. Measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 have temporarily paused this practice until the model can be operated safely again in the future. Rather than having food hampers prepackaged and brought out to community members, individuals had an experience akin to shopping in a grocery store. With systemic barriers preventing people from being able to afford enough food to be food secure, this model allows community members to have greater control over what they eat and in a less stigmatized manner. The model has even proven beneficial to the Penticton Salvation Army as it reduced time spent preparing hampers for people with dietary restrictions, because community members could choose what they actually needed.

Example: Recognizing that COVID-19 would adversely impact its community, in March 2020 the Victoria Native Friendship Centre started to deliver food hampers to community members across the greater Victoria area. What started as a program that targeted a select number of elders has expanded substantially, delivering over 200 food hampers each week to over 500 community members in need of assistance.    

Ladder emergency food supply into community food security programming

Beyond short-term food aid, food banks are providing programming for community members, increasing their access to nutritious food and contributing to greater community food security. By supporting programs that encourage physical activity, bring community members together or improve food skills and knowledge, local governments can leverage food banks to not only temporarily alleviate hunger, but to also strengthen community food security.

Example: To mitigate physical distancing measures during COVID-19, the Nelson Community Food Centre (CFC) has shifted some of its capacity to produce a series of online videos that further support food bank recipients, as well as other community members who tune in. These videos teach community members how to prepare and cook some of the foods commonly distributed by the Food Bank that may not be customary or culturally familiar to those receiving them. With this approach, the Nelson CFC is responding to individual and household food insecurity through its Good Food Bank and promoting greater community food security through knowledge sharing and capacity building facilitated through its Food Skills program.    

Target the underlying issues that cause household food insecurity

Through advocacy and programming, food banks have the ability to support improving the underlying systemic inequities that drive food insecurity. A multi-faceted approach to poverty reduction can reduce household food insecurity by giving community members enough financial resources to safely and securely purchase their own nutritious food. Learning from community members who access a food bank as to why and how they need support means advocacy is better informed and will be more effective in contributing to policy changes that meet the needs of everyone. Creating space, resources and tools for community members to learn and unravel the injustices they face increases community members’ capacity to participate in changing the systems that drive economic inequity and food insecurity.  

Example: The Link, based in Burns Lake, B.C., is currently building their Community Connections program. The goal is to foster a holistic approach to building community capacity, with a focus on food security and family supports. This is done through improving community food systems capacity, advocating for poverty reduction, individual family supports, and increasing social connections. To achieve this goal, wrap-around services are provided, including a mobile food centre (which gets food to those who need it most, but live in remote areas), a food waste reduction strategy (through perishable food recovery partnerships), community gardening, one-on-one outreach support and poverty reduction advocacy. The founders of The Link believe that holistic approaches, aimed at meeting people where they’re at, are the most effective ways to support the objectives of food security. The Link partners with Food Banks BC, Food Banks Canada, Carrier Sekani Family Services, Elizabeth Fry Society, and Community Food Centres Canada, to support food access for residents that live in the Lakes District.     

Example: One of the first food banks in Canada, The Stop has grown significantly since its inception. Much of this growth has been through their innovative programs that aim to reduce community member reliance on food banks. The Economic Justice Project is a new initiative that provides community members with educational courses that explore the connections between economic issues and food insecurity, providing a deeper understanding of the systemic challenges and the tools necessary to advocate for systemic economic changes in their communities. The Stop aims to hire community members who have finished the course as paid, part-time economic justice advocates who can apply their new capacity to advocacy campaigns in the community that improve the underlying economic conditions of food insecurity.

Working across sectors for food security during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond

As seen in the examples above, groups outside of government play a significant role in improving food security. In some of the examples listed, particularly in reference to faith-based and cultural communities, local governments do not yet play a partnership role beyond traditional supports like statutory or permissive tax exemptions. 

There are many ways that local governments can either support, leverage, or build upon the capacity of these groups. In addition to the suggestions above, here are some approaches that local governments can use to work together with NGOs, faith-based/cultural communities and food banks:

  • Partner with non-profit organizations to run programs or facilitate implementation of food security plans and policies. Invest in longer term partnerships and use the experience and connections of organizations who have “on-the-ground” community and cultural knowledge.
  • Fund with upstream, equity and self-determination lenses. Responding to immediate and urgent need is important, but funding organizational research, strategic planning and policy development can create better approaches to improving food security, helping to prevent or mitigate issues at an earlier stage. Plan your granting and adjudication programs with an equity lens, remembering that smaller organizations without paid grant-writing staff may be closer to the communities you serve.
  • Explore a variety of systems models that work in your community context. Community Food Centre and Food Policy Council models have the potential to generate positive impacts on participants through increased access to food, self-efficacy, dignity and social cohesion.

Take action to reduce Household Food Insecurity

Khalsa Aid Canada volunteer distributing food during COVID-19

In addition to working with NGOs, faith and cultural groups and the charitable food sector to increase food security, when making public investment decisions local governments can take on interventions that address both immediate needs as well as the systemic causes of problems they have defined. For example, if addressing inadequate or uncertain access to food—often referred to as household food insecurity—is a primary objective, local governments should invest in actions to tackle the systemic causes of household food insecurity, including poverty and structural racism. Indigenous and non-Indigenous local governments can take actions to increase financial opportunities for community members and reduce poverty. 

Use local government levers to tackle poverty

Studies have shown financial circumstances are the single largest determining factor for a household’s ability to access food. Ideally, all community members should earn and maintain enough money to purchase a steady, nutritious supply of food. Poverty reduction requires a multi-pronged approach and actions across various sectors and levels of government. Local Indigenous and non-Indigenous governments can take action to lower costs of housing, transportation and education for those who need it most through poverty reduction initiatives. This can increase the percentage of money a household has to spend on food.

Example: Working to address the root causes of food insecurity means policies can support community members to have greater financial stability and be more food secure during emergencies. In 2019, the City of Revelstoke was endorsed by UBCM on a resolution requesting UBCM frame household food insecurity as an income-based problem. This action, prior to COVID-19, was intended to be used by UBCM to advocate to provincial and federal governments for policy to improve household income as a solution to food insecurity. The economic effects of the pandemic have reaffirmed how intertwined household food insecurity is with income, with food banks seeing increased demand at a time when financial instability and joblessness are increasing.

Example: When the City of New Westminster became a living wage employer in 2011, it took action to reduce household food insecurity in its community. By committing to pay all staff and contracted service providers a living wage—the hourly amount a family needs to earn in order to cover basic living expenses—community members who are employed by the city are now at a much lower risk of food insecurity. 

Example: In October 2019, Prince George City Council approved the formation of a Select Committee on Poverty Reduction. The committee uses a topic-based approach to develop recommendations regarding the city’s role in implementing TogetherBC, B.C.’s first poverty reduction strategy. Priorities include affordability of housing, childcare, transportation, food security planning and reducing household food insecurity. A comprehensive public engagement process (funded by a UBCM Poverty Reduction Planning & Action Grant) will follow the council’s receipt of the proposed recommendations. The engagement process is intended to gather feedback—particularly from those with living or lived experience—about the preliminary recommendations that will guide city actions to address poverty. Following the consultation period, the committee will reconvene to consider feedback and amend recommendations as necessary. A final set of recommendations will be presented to council later in 2021.

Ensure local government supports and services are designed to be integrative and facilitative 

When designing service offerings, local governments can use a whole-systems lens to consider how these services integrate into a person’s daily life and into their use of other services, including those administered at the local federal and provincial levels. For example, siting an affordable housing project away from key services like grocery stores, childcare and cultural centres will make it challenging for tenants to access these services. Though land further from services is generally less expensive, these ‘cost savings’ are externalized to the service user. A whole-systems lens (sometimes referred to as holistic or complete community planning) ensures that barriers, financial or time-based, are not unintentionally created. 

Example: Recognizing that transportation costs can represent a significant portion of household spending, the Resort Municipality of Whistler and the City of Victoria have implemented free transit passes for youth. Encouraging public transportation by offering free transit fares doubles to support climate action goals and reduce food insecurity by freeing up money for individuals and families to use toward purchasing nutritious food. 

Example: Nanaimo’s Nuutsumuut Lelum development offers centrally-located housing designed to support young families and elders, including a common room, play area for children and a community garden. The complex is within walking distance of multiple stores and amenities, and its passive-house design—funded in part by the Regional District of Nanaimo—also means significantly reduced energy bills for tenants. The City of Nanaimo transferred the city-owned land to the Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre, and waived over $200,000 in development fees and cost charges to facilitate development. Smithers’ Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre is also in the process of developing a housing project that similarly reflects the community’s identified needs in partnership with BC Housing and the Town of Smithers.

Example: Through a partnership between the Vancouver Public Library, the City of Vancouver, and the YWCA Metro Vancouver, a new library construction in the Downtown Eastside was designed to include 21 units of affordable two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments. It also included roughly 4,500 square feet of community and family program space. The units are designated for low-income single mothers and their children. Aside from having one of the largest branches of the library downstairs, the complex is directly on a transit line and only blocks away from a community centre, elementary school, grocery store, and other family-friendly amenities. The city’s contribution included the land value of the site as well as construction costs for the library.

When making decisions around these interventions and investments, local governments may consider taking a health equity impact assessment approach. This should involve Indigenous partners including local First Nations, Métis Chartered Communities and Aboriginal Friendship Centres. Inclusive perspectives, traditional and ancestral knowledge and the expertise of Indigenous and under-represented community members can provide benefits for all. 


In the next part of this series, we will build off the discussion of community food production in part 1 of the series, exploring ideas and examples of best practices from B.C. communities.

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