Josh Smee, CEO of Food First
Josh Smee, CEO of Food First (Photo by Jeremy Harnum)

Topics: Ethical Living, July/August 2023 | Society

How one community leader is fighting for food security in Newfoundland and Labrador

Josh Smee and the non-profit, Food First Newfoundland, work with other organizations to improve food access in the province


Josh Smee is on a mission to advance the right to food in Newfoundland and Labrador. Since 2020, he has been the CEO of Food First NL, a non-profit organization that collaborates with more than 300 groups and individuals dedicated to improving food access in the province. Given that poverty is one of the main causes of food insecurity, Smee has also championed making universal basic income a reality for his fellow islanders.


I grew up in southern Ontario and while at university, I got involved in community activism. After moving to St. John’s, I worked with the local Community Sector Council for many years and then Choices for Youth, an organization that helps young people secure housing and employment. When the opportunity at Food First NL opened, I thought it connected many things that I care about in my life. Food is such a powerful lever for people who are committed to social justice.

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Almost one in five people in Newfoundland and Labrador are food insecure — that’s 90,000 people. And although we don’t have much data on food charity usage, statistics from HungerCount show that there were around 17,000 food bank visits per month in 2022. At Food First NL, we divide our work into four pathways: advocating, organizing, action and valuing people. Shifting the big structural things that affect access to food — especially income — is not something that any community organization can do individually, but we can push decision-makers on the policy changes that need to happen.


We need to connect political action to acts of kindness. For instance, food banks are an important service, but the next time you go to one, reach out to your elected representative and ask them what they’re doing to eliminate the need for that food bank in the first place.

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How can we have an effective health care system in Canada when people are living in poverty or are food insecure? Through in-depth research and consultation, one of the top recommendations was implementing a basic income. The biggest impact of a basic income would be that it could largely eliminate poverty in this country. Giving folks a predictable safety net would allow them to dream, take risks, take on new projects and do so much more to strengthen our food systems.


When the pandemic started, there was no one place in Newfoundland and Labrador to look up food programs. Initially, we created a Google spreadsheet. By the time we finished, it had evolved into a full-fledged program with an annual budget of close to $1 million. But our personnel were bending backwards to solve crisis after crisis while their personal lives were endlessly disrupted by the last few years. The resulting collective trauma is one of my biggest worries as a leader. We all kind of assume that people can work in the same way they did before the pandemic, but that’s just not going to happen.


In our province, we’re having some tough conversations. We’re not going to achieve big systemic changes without the willingness to consider radical shifts or to listen to the fears of people on the other side of the conversation.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. It first appeared in Broadview’s July/August 2023 issue with the title “Josh Smee.”

Akhila Menon is a Vancouver-based journalist who is passionate about social justice, health and the environment.

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