Thursday, November 15, 2012

Heifer International Canada

Images of starving children are heartbreaking. Their immediate need is food, but that’s a very short-term solution as Dan West, an Indiana farmer, realized as he ladled out powdered milk for Spanish Civil War refugees. If he could give hungry people a cow, rather than just milk, they could feed themselves.

Heifer International was formed in 1944, and West and his neighbours began distributing cows throughout Europe following World War II. Heifer International’s scope has expanded enormously over the past 65 years. “Livestock is just a tool for community development,” Gord Enns, Executive Director for Heifer International Canada, explains. “You can’t just come in with solutions. The challenge is to build social, economic and environmental sustainability.”

Nowadays, the tools are changing. Instead of a cow, it may be a bike trailer for a young woman starting up an urban farm in Toronto or an internship program to help young people who want to take up farming. But Heifer’s goal remains the same: to end hunger and poverty and care for the earth.

Setting up Heifer Canada
Gord Enns grew up in Saskatoon and now lives on a farm near Osler, Saskatchewan. After working with the Mennonite Central Committee in Zimbabwe and teaching in India, Gord and his family spent some time volunteering at the Heifer Ranch in Arkansas. Heifer International offered Gord a job, but the family decided they needed to go home to Canada.

Gord started volunteering on Heifer projects in Saskatchewan and in 2002 he was hired as the Canadian Prairies Program Manager.

Under Gord’s leadership, Heifer continued to expand its Canadian operations. In 2012, Heifer International Canada became an official independent entity with charitable status, a head office in Saskatoon and projects in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.

One World
Hunger and poverty are not just third-world problems. Over three million Canadians don’t get enough to eat.

For each dollar of farm income earned, Canadian farmers carry $23 in debt – not much incentive for young people to become farmers. Food futures speculation in the developed world triggers high prices and food shortages in countries around the world.

“The issues are very interconnected,” Gord says. “By talking about problems internationally and locally, we can engage people and show the links between the two.”

Passing on the Gift
When a family received a cow, they were expected to pass on the gift by giving the first offspring to another person in need. The idea of sharing what you’ve gained is still at the heart of Heifer’s activities although the gift they share now takes many forms.

In Ontario, the Farmers Growing Farmers program pairs experienced farmers with young ones who are just getting started. The established farmers mentor the young farmers, helping them to develop their business plan and start up their operation. Through a Heifer project in Saskatchewan, new farmers share ideas with other members of their community. They hope to establish a cooperative to connect producers to consumer markets.

Food is Medicine
Nutrition-related disease is a disproportionate problem for First Nations people. Heifer Canada has partnered with two communities to establish community gardens where people on social assistance could learn how to grow healthy food and gain employment skills and training. “Food as medicine is a reality,” Gord says. “It was the foundation for the success of these community growing projects.” Training in connection with the gardens also helped some people to move off social assistance, into job training programs and eventually employment.

Full Participation
Rainbow Gardens is a large community garden in Winnipeg where over 65 immigrant and refugee families grow food for sale and personal consumption.

Many of them take advantage of the space to grow crops, such as amaranth, that were part of their diet in their home countries. This has a twofold advantage: the immigrants can enjoy familiar foods, but they are also increasing Canada’s biodiversity and local sustainability.

Heifer provides land and supplies, but, even more importantly, they provide a sense of belonging and community identity. The newcomers make friends and share ideas about adapting to life in Canada. Faur Agboyibar, a refugee from Togo, says: “We eat our supper at the garden and take the bus home around 10 pm. We are tired, we take showers, go to bed and sleep very well; unlike last year at this time of the year where we could not sleep because we felt very hot at home and thinking too much.”

Influencing Policies, Systems & Practices
Heifer tackles problems on a systemic as well as individual basis. Heifer Canada has provided funding and support for the People’s Food Policy Project, a pan-Canadian network of citizens and organizations that has developed Canada’s first food sovereignty project. Resetting the Table: A People’s Food Policy for Canada supports a healthy, fair and ecological food system and covers such topics as access to food in urban communities, sustainable fisheries, and environment and agriculture.

There are no simple solutions, but Heifer firmly believes that sustainable agriculture has the potential to lift low income and food insecure people out of poverty.

“30,000 kids die every day of hunger,” Gord says. “In a world where enough food is produced for all, children dying of hunger is unacceptable. There’s so much that we could do to eliminate hunger. I hope that in our lifetime we’ll be able to impact systems and impact local production so that people can feed themselves – both in Canada and around the world.”

Photo Credit: Heifer International Canada

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