By Shannon Courtney
Originally printed in Salty, Vol. 1, Issue 1, October 2016, saltyisland.com. Reprinted with permission.
What do knitting, glee clubs, board games and food preserving have in common?
If you guessed the 1950s, you wouldn’t be wrong, but these old-school skills and forms of entertainment are making a big comeback—some might even say they’re “sexy” again. Thanks in part to the Prince Edward Island Food Exchange (PEI FX) and its new Community Preservers Program (CPP), the Island is part of a food re-skilling revolution that’s bringing communities together and reviving our connection with the sustenance of life.
Putting away the harvest used to be second nature to most Islanders—a necessary skill to ensure sustenance for the cold, hard winter months. Preserving food, however, became a lost art amongst the general populace over the past few decades, with only the most fervent of gardeners carrying the torch. Very recently, though, in tandem with a resurgence in home gardening, the buy local movement and sky-high prices for produce shipped from far-off lands, many people are searching for ways to save the harvest and money. The CPP, a new 30-hour training program being offered by the PEI FX this past fall, is just one way Islanders are relearning lost food skills.
The CPP is a natural evolution for the grassroots PEI FX, which was founded in 2013 by a group of citizens concerned about food insecurity on the Island. Gleaning, or harvesting after the harvest, is the foundation of the PEI FX’s activities. The gleaning model the organization uses sees a third of the harvest go back to the farmer, a third to the volunteer gleaner, and a third to service agencies such as the Salvation Army. This model provides volunteer gleaners with a dignified way to access food, enables distribution through service agencies that are well positioned to reach families/individuals in need, and ensures that the farmer also benefits.
The challenge, as the PEI FX quickly discovered, is that the vast majority of gleaning takes place in the autumn months, meaning an abundance of fresh produce that needs to be consumed immediately or risk ending up as food waste. The organization devised a plan to offer an in-depth training program in Charlottetown on various preserving methods. Since individual empowerment and reducing food insecurity through practical actions are at the heart of the organization’s guiding principles, it decided it would only offer the program if it could be free of charge.
The PEI FX received funds through a micro-grant from the Inspired City, and spent the summer months working out all the details necessary to run the program in October and November of last year.
The 12 participants selected to receive the training learned numerous safe preserving techniques, including canning, salting, freezing, fermenting and drying, from experts in these areas. Additionally, participants benefitted from network building and knowledge exchange. The CPP employs a teach-the-teacher and pay-it-forward model. Rather than a course fee, participants must commit to taking a community food action, such as hosting a preserving party, following graduation from the program. By doing so, they pass on their knowledge and passion, and the ripple effects of the CPP spread throughout the community.
While issues like food insecurity and relearning lost skills can seem insurmountable and complex, the work of the PEI FX provides inspiration and hope by adopting models that encourage self-sufficiency and benevolence. Day by day, individuals and groups like the PEI FX are strengthening the fabric of Island communities and rebuilding food skills necessary for life.
Shannon Courtney is former editor-in-chief and co-founder of Salty, Prince Edward Island’s comprehensive food and farm digest. Shannon completed her Masters of Environmental Studies at Queen’s University, focusing her thesis research on how local food systems both depend on and create social capital. The holistic-nutritionist-in-training has milked Jersey cows in Australia, almost overdosed on maple syrup in Prince Edward County, and explored Vermont’s foodscape beyond Ben & Jerry’s.