My name is Gul-E-Aamna Shahid, and I am currently studying Psychology at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan. Through the university’s Community Service Learning Program (CSL), I got connected with the Okanagan Fruit Tree Project (OFTP). 

Being an international student from Pakistan, I came to Kelowna for the first time this year. In fact, this was the first time I even set foot in Canada! I was primarily looking for a job through which I could help people in some way, when I found the Co-Curricular Assistant position for OFTP on the student job board. I was hooked! Not only did I get to help people through the organization’s amazing work to impact hunger and food access, but the position also gave me an opportunity to engage with and learn more about the Kelowna (and the wider BC) community that I have newly become a part of.

From the day of my job interview, CSL’s Robyn Bunn, and OFTP’s Casey Hamilton and Lucie Bardos have been a pleasure to work with. This was my first job ever, so naturally I was extremely nervous, but after we got the conversation going, and Casey cracked a few jokes, I felt more comfortable around these caring, diligent women who are working towards having a real impact on the local food system. Furthermore, they were very accommodating and understanding of “life happening”. Struggling with being in a new country and the ever-increasing load of university work, I was able to bend my work hours from time to time when my mental or physical health called for it.

I learned so, so much during my time working with OFTP, especially because the position was designed to engage us in so many different ways.

The job began with learning about the organization and their work. We went out to Helen’s Acres Community Farm, where we were given a tour of the farm plot, and even got to pick (and take home!) some fruits and vegetables we helped harvest. Meeting other OFTP volunteers was definitely a bonus; people of different races, genders, and ages working together, sharing life stories and delicious recipes! We even got to be a part of OFTP’s Great Apple Harvest, their biggest harvest of the year with over 200 volunteers out on an orchard in Summerland! The sense of community during that time was absolutely incredible.

After this, the work gradually became more focused on learning about the community itself. At McMillan Farms, I got my first-ever experience in customer service as we set up a stall and helped with apple juice sales from the Great Apple Harvest, OFTP’s main annual fundraiser. Meeting so many different people, and watching families come together for the tractor rides and our amazing apple cider, was all so thrilling. At the time, I was struggling with Canadian winter, so the constant supply of cider helped warm me up! I also got to see several adorable dogs, which was an added bonus. 

Once juice sales were over, we began the main part of the job: developing a volunteer program around food justice. We were first asked to do some research into the topics of food insecurity, food sovereignty, and food justice, and in weekly meetings with Casey, Lucy, and Robyn, we reflected on the materials we’d gone through. 

One of my main takeaways from that process was to always stay curious, and to always be questioning. Even though I was working with an organization that identified as a charity, I learned of the limitations of the food charity model. Never before had I thought of food security as a matter of income instead of food, but once I learned about it, it suddenly seemed so obvious. In a first-world country like Canada, how can household food insecurity still be so high? It isn’t a shortage of food, but an unequal distribution of wealth, that maintains the inability of so many in our communities to afford healthy, culturally appropriate food. Structural inequalities like racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia uphold this gap in a dependable, living income for all.

These weekly discussions around the short-term relief offered by food charities, and the long-term solutions needed through government policies, sparked the development of the Food Justice Dialogue Series. This weekly event series involves both a discussion component around topics related to food justice, as well as a hands-on portion in which volunteers will engage in community farming, or picking rescued fruit together! In a way, the program we designed became a blend of the various tasks my job had entailed, in the form of an engaging, peer-facilitated open dialogue. 

I hope this program helps raise awareness about food justice, and empowers people to take real action to impact household food insecurity in Canada. Working on this project has been a truly amazing experience, from community harvesting, to juice sales, to research and discussion, to developing a new volunteer initiative. I learned so much about the realm of food justice and food justice work, and I also learned a lot about myself and my capabilities, supported by the wonderful people I got to work with.