Like many people, I cannot function in the morning without my daily jolt of caffeine. Apparently, a lot of people felt that way today as the line-up at the local Tim Horton’s was out the door. As usual, I was in a hurry so I went across the street to the gourmet coffee shop we affectionately refer to in our family as Fivebucks to order up a Tall Latte. The packaging has nice illustrations, the lighting is soft, an unnervingly peppy server wrote my name on the cup and as I waited for it, the strains of 1940’s music whisped around my head attempting to evoke a glamourous New York of a grander era when we still believed anything was possible.Then I plunked down my five dollar coffee (well, four and a half anyway) down on my desk and began to read the latest HungerCount Report, released by Food Banks Canada last month,
It is an understatement to say the situation is dire. Food bank use is still on the rise, increasing by 2.4% over last year but the unnerving bit as far as I could see was the broader context of people who are food insecure which indicates the problem is not a localized one we can zap with a few handouts. Food insecurity is a creeping symptom of larger social ills. Food insecurity, in layperson’s terms, means that you cannot access safe, nutritious and appropriate food at all times. In your lived experience, this might mean that you are just able to cover your rent (or even more surprisingly your mortgage) but you need the hamper from your local food bank to make it to the end of the month. It might mean that you do not have enough food in the cupboard to make a nutritious meal for your family so you pick up some fast food on the way home because it is cheap, readily available when the money is in your hand and of course, detrimental to your health. Food banks aim to fill some of these gaps but they face shortfalls and are built on a model of dependency. Thirty years ago, the first food bank opened in Canada as short term solution but, according to the HungerCount Report, 882,188 people turned to a food bank in March of 2012.
There are a vanguard of progressive solutions, many coming out of the work the food banks are doing, but they will be difficult to implement due to a lack of funding commitment on a large scale and also due to the critical analysis they require. The Stop Community Food Centre, for example, is a deep thinking organization offering a web of services including community gardens, education programs and drop-ins as well as hampers containing a three day supply of food. They are commonly seen as an innovator in fighting hunger and an incubator for progressive social change yet The Stop has actually dialed back its food bank role in favour of longer term, more sustainable solutions. It also encourages alliances with higher income groups, where traditional food bank models ask those that “have” give to those that “have not”. In contrast, as Nick Saul, former Executive Director of The Stop put it “we cannot overlook the importance of money”. He envisioned an entrepreneurial/social enterprise approach to fundraising which included offering fine dining and catering by The Stop’s chefs in order to fund the community kitchens and gardens. Not only does this pay the bills it also gets all kinds of people engaged in dialogue on issues of hunger and poverty.
Another important solution is the idea of hubs that cluster services, thereby sharing funding and resources while providing mutual supports. Community Food Centres that co-locate in Community Health Centres, which have more stable funding, are an example of this. I did my third year placement in the perinatal program at Queen West Community Health Centre. It is a community hub, where they offer more integrated services and care with a solid commitment to the Social Determinants of Health perspective which generally assumes if you are low on supports, your health will suffer. So if you were an expectant mother living on the street, this “hub” notion is really important. You can come in for a warm nutritious meal, connect with housing and social services, store your identification in a safe place, have your checkup, and stay warm afterward while you attend the perinatal program.
I remember one mother who came to a breastfeeding workshop, seeking a bowl of soup and TTC tokens and stayed on to keep warm. She told me afterward that although she had been unable to breastfeed her other children, she understood the importance of doing that for her baby and wanted to try again. This was significant because her chances of keeping her baby at all were slim. She had several other children in care and her health was so fragile, she had suffered multiple miscarriages. She began to attend the program almost every week and we were able to hook her up to several social services, including a social worker, community health nurse, a doula, and housing assistance. We facilitated meetings with her CAS PAC worker so that she could steer a course toward her hope of keeping her baby. She fiercely defended her right to keep her child and though it was terrible to watch, this person who quietly came in seeking a bowl of soup had rallied her strength at a point in her life when she was probably the most vulnerable, and came up fighting. The point I’m trying to make is that the effects of hunger and poverty compound over time, reaching into every corner of a person’s life and it requires a lot of support to rebuild a life.
Poverty and food insecurity cannot be attributed to one root cause but together they represent multiple intersecting factors. Solutions must critically examine and challenge the mechanisms in society in order to be sustainable. Our food chain itself is a central site of oppression with hundred dollar square watermelons on one end and 59 cent Ramen loaded with palm oil on the other. Anti-poverty strategies are built from the ground up but they must be funded adequately. Many agencies, including traditional food banks, operate on a unilateral approach that tries to fill gaps but doesn’t have the resources to empower users with a more bottom-up approach. Antipoverty strategies set their sights on developing deeper, more meaningful long-term strategies that address the availability, accessibility, acceptability, appropriateness and agency aspects of food systems (Ryerson Centre for Studies in Food Security, 2012). These approaches are difficult to implement because they require stable funding that will only be made available if we can raise the ire of the status quo on issues of hunger.
There is more than enough food in Canada for everyone to be able to eat yet food bank use has grown a staggering 27% in the past five years (HungerCount Report, 2012). Poverty and hunger are often couched in political terms yet there is a surprising lack of commitment to change. The War on Hunger is a noble one, one that most people are willing to chip in the cost of an overpriced latte to solve. Most of us, although few comprehend the epic scale of scale of child poverty in Toronto, understand the sickening fact that children are too often the victims of this “war”. As a society, we prefer to support cuts to Ontario budgets that in turn are handed down by the school board in cuts to school nutrition programs. We could commit to breakfast and lunch programs that would feed a child for a whole day for less than a price of a latte and teach them about health and nutrition at the same time or we could get a tax break that does not appreciably improve our quality of life at all. We repeatedly choose the later, citing government waste as our justification. Every progressive solution that seems to work to combat hunger requires us to commit to a fundamental change of viewpoint and that is indeed a very Tall order.
Food Banks Canada (2012). HungerCount 2012. Toronto: Food Banks Canada.
Ryerson Centre for Studies in Food Security downloaded July 19, 2012 http://www.ryerson.ca/foodsecurity/
Scharf, K., Levkoe, K. and Saul, N. In every community a place for food: building a local, sustainable and just food system. Metcalf Foundation, Toronto, 2010.
Tarasuk, V. 2001. A critical examination of community-based responses to household food insecurity in Canada. Health Education & Behaviour 28 (4): 487-499.
The Stop Community Food Centre www.thestop.org