Young people are rising to the challenge of addressing hunger and the climate crisis through community, connection and an interdisciplinary approach

Freya Wasteneys // Contributor
John Pachkowsky // Illustration

Every Wednesday at 7 pm, a small group of twenty-somethings gather in a church parking lot to go hunting for treasures. They assemble and disperse into the evening by car, foot or bike. Among them is Hannah Estabrook, 21, sporting a distinctive bob that falls mid-ear. She’s all earnest eyes and big smile. Brandishing headlamps and rubber gloves, Estabrook and the others make for the fertile grounds of the smaller, local grocery chains and their unlocked dumpsters. It won’t be long until someone strikes gold—a carrot, cabbage, or maybe broccoli. After an hour or so, bags brimming, they will reconvene and stash their bounty in someone’s car. Tomorrow they will wash and admire their new-found abundance, and turn it into an elaborate, shareable feast. 

The concept of  Community Cabbage is simple: each week, the group turns perceived food waste into meals, sharing their creations with fellow students on Fridays outside the University of Victoria’s Student Union building. Through their work, the group aims to raise awareness for food waste, security and sustainability, while promoting the perspective of food as a communal resource and source of connection. 

While the concept is simple, the issues they are trying to solve are not. With rising tuition costs and housing prices, Meal Exchange cites that 2 in 5 students experience food insecurity—and yet the issue of food security remains one that gains little attention. At the same time, the CBC reports that an estimated $31 billion in food is wasted in Canada each year. As soil fertility around the world is impacted by industrial farming practices and increased salination due to rising sea levels, questions of agricultural sustainability and food security are pressing and will only become more so if unaddressed.

The idea of the group, according to Estabrook, “is to reframe food as a source of community connection, show the potential of what’s deemed waste, and reduce as many barriers to food access as possible.” For her, Community Cabbage was a gateway group of sorts, and her first foray into enacting social changes to address issues she cares so deeply about. 

Hailing from Mi’kmaw territory in Nova Scotia, Estabrook grew up with a passion for food and her environment. She spent her early years developing a deep connection to place through the teachings of her grandpa, an environmentalist, recycling depot owner and hobby farmer with an extensive garden network. A self-described “stoked eight-year-old,” Estabrook fondly remembers nerding out over edible plants on morning walks. She was privileged to grow up in a family that fostered her love of the natural world and credits her parents for instilling an awareness of world issues from a very young age. Naturally, this combination of awareness and connection soon turned into a growing concern for environmental degradation and the climate crisis.

“By 13, I started to feel really passionate about these issues and was really perplexed why no one seemed to be talking about these things,” says Estabrook. “It made me feel really alienated from my peers. I felt stuck—I was still in public school—and my realm of agency felt very limited.” She began to develop obsessive tendencies towards foods, like controlling what she put in her body and where it came from—something she now recognizes that not everyone has the privilege to do. 

“While I think that this came from a largely well-intentioned place, it ended up positioning food as a big source of my isolation and furthering the disconnect from other people,” she says. “It also prevented me from trying to understand environmental issues at a deeper level or trying to connect with people over these issues. I embraced this idea of individualism and was quite judgemental towards others—believing in this idea that we could solve global problems by making the best individual consumer choices was a thread that ran through my high school years—which, in hindsight, wasn’t particularly helpful.” 

At 18, upon graduation, Estabrook fled to the West Coast to join the Environmental Studies program at UVic. Her roommates were equally passionate about food and the environment, and over the course of weekly shared dinners, her perspective began to shift. “Conversations flow so naturally over a shared meal,” reflects Estabrook.

She met people, her circles broadened and she began to see not only the importance of food, but the potential food had as a positive tool for social change. Community Cabbage was one of the first places she found connection and purpose but it has since inspired her to take on new projects and initiatives within the realm of food-related activism. Now in her fourth year of university, Estabrook’s interest in food has expanded to consider the industrial system it exists within, the growing practices within it, and the intricate and strong connection between the environment and food. 

Today, Estabrook is an intern and educator at the Compost Education Centre, a non-profit organization that provides education on composting and ecological gardening in Victoria, where she spent her summer reinvigorating learning modules for high school students. Estabrook hopes the new module can be a vehicle that encourages a greater understanding of social and environmental issues. She urges students to envision a future that shifts the climate narrative around environmental action from looking primarily at individual consumer choices, to looking at systemic changes we can make as a community. “I think that’s where a lot of us get really hung up,” says Estabrook. “Like we have a big sense of injustice, but we have a really hard time articulating an alternative.”

Researchers are increasingly beginning to understand the importance of weaving  together perspectives across multiple fields and taking an actionable, systems-oriented approach. The issues of hunger, poverty and climate change are all interconnected—and so are the solutions. 

Skylar Kylstra, a researcher based out of UBC with a Masters in Land and Water System Management, points out that it’s estimated our food production will need to increase by 50 per cent to accommodate upwards of 9 billion people in the next thirty years. While we may feel we’re sheltered from immediate food security issues in BC, Kylstra stresses that 80 percent of BC’s growing land is in the low-lying Fraser Valley, which is already seeing decreased crop yield due to soil salinity from sea level rise. Tackling these issues demands not only a shift from the status quo but envisioning a different future with different solutions. A future where young people like Kylstra and Estabrook appear to be leading the way—vying for a seat at the table, and not just the proverbial one.

Like Estabrook, Kylstra is a 23-year-old with an interest in the intersection of climate change and food security. It was a love of plants and science that drew her to pursue a degree in Biology at UBC, but after learning more about the climate crisis, she quickly switched to a Bachelor of Science in Global Resource Systems. As she speaks, a collection of little plants in the slit of a window in her basement apartment frame the silhouette of her head.

“I love gardening and growing food, so for me the soil science side of things really worked in my brain as far as being able to understand physics and chemistry and biology, because you can actually see it applied to something real and tangible,” says Kylstra. 

In her undergrad, this need for a hands-on approach manifested in growing “tens of thousands of potatoes” to measure greenhouse gas emissions resulting from agricultural management practices. Considering that agriculture contributes to about a quarter of global emissions, this was more than just a fun science project. 

According to the Netflix documentary Kiss The Ground, common agricultural practices such as tilling and chemical sprays lead to massive scale desertification, with 40 million people pushed off their land annually due to its effects. Without fertile land for plants, the world loses its ability to biosequester—or capture and retain carbon in the soil. Our health depends on plant health, and plant health relies on soil health.

“Fix the soil, fix the plants, and we regain our ability to begin the process of regeneration.”

To address these issues, many farmers are moving towards permaculture—using features of a natural ecosystem in order to build resiliency and restore biodiversity. 

Currently, Kylstra is co-instructing a graduate course at UBC called Land and Water Resource Evaluations. “Basically, I’m talking about how having transdisciplinary research and problem solving is more effective for coming up with socially robust knowledge to address issues of sustainability,” she says. “[We’re] trying to apply a systems-thinking lens to these problems, so instead of looking at things separately, we’re looking at how all those things work together.”  To amend the old adage: there ain’t no rest for the wicked, the problems that come with them, or Skylar Kylstra. 

The key is not only understanding how everything works together, but how we work together as well. Connection is a word that bubbles up repeatedly when both Kylstra and Estabrook speak. It’s just another thread tying everything together.

“In wading through this stuff, I remember it all being chaos in my head—but then there’s just this thing that started to happen once I’d heard enough of these stories, and common threads connecting them all started to come out,” says Estabrook. 

She points out that dealing with these issues is all about learning to cry and fall in love—with people, with food, with places and the planet. “It’s about not allowing yourself to become numbed to the realities of the world,” she says. “It’s about allowing yourself to feel the grief of the world, while simultaneously being really in love with the world, and reveling in your connections to people, the natural world, and the magic of natural systems—that’s where we gain motivation for change.” For Estabrook, food is that motivation and agent of change: a way to connect and a way to heal. In developing these connections, we are empowered to learn, explore and envision the changes we want to see. For some, that’s through science, while others find it through food, art, politics, or gardening. 

For Community Cabbage, it’s through cooking up delicious meals from unwanted dumpster vegetables and serving them to hungry students in front of the UVic Student Union building. Despite being transparent about where their food comes from, students are rarely deterred—they typically run out within the hour, serving up to 100 students weekly. “Free lunch is a hard offer for hungry students to turn down,” says Estabrook. While it may seem like a surface level fix to a much bigger problem, it’s certainly a conversation starter. Afterall, conversations flow naturally over a shared meal, especially when they are served with a smile.

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