The changing face of food aid


Change is not an easy thing to face.

Sometimes changes are imposed from the outside, other times, you may feel that you are running in circles, achieving nothing and want to get out of the rut.  Maybe it’s time to go back to school, change your job, or just put a new coat of paint on things to brighten up your living room.  There are big changes, and not so big ones – but big or small, change is often hard for people and recognizing the need is rarely a straightforward job.

How do you know it’s time?

At our staff meetings at the Emergency Food Hamper Program, we sometimes find ourselves looking to the future of how we operate. We think about our impact as a program, and how our numbers have increased steadily since we first started giving out hampers. We think about the kind of community we’d like to be a part of. We talk about whether it would be better to have more warehouse space to give out more hampers, or more offices and a nice kitchen to help teach people food skills and increase the amount of anti-poverty advocacy we do.

At the House of Friendship, working with other organizations and people is a major part of our day.   We are always looking to volunteers, staff and community partners to help uncover a better community for all of us a little bit at a time. This is why places like the Stop, and its sister project, Community Food Centres Canada caught our eye—they offer a new way of seeing food aid, as more than simply emergency hampers. All across the province (and now the entire country) there are some fresh ideas developing and being nurtured by Community Food Centre’s Canada. They are trying to grow some change and set an example for how people can help communities build a better relationship to healthy food and advocate for a more just world.

What is a Community Food Centre? According to their website, it is:

“… a welcoming space where people come together to grow, cook, share and advocate for good food. CFCs provide people with emergency access to high-quality food in a dignified setting that doesn’t compromise their self-worth. People learn cooking and gardening skills there, and kids get their hands dirty in the garden and kitchen in ways that expand their tastebuds and help them make healthier food choices. Community members find their voices on the issues that matter to them, and people find friends and support. CFCs offer multifaceted, integrated and responsive programming in a shared space where food builds health, hope, skills and community.”

In the last 8 years, we have made two road trips out to see the first community Food Centre, The STOP, and we’ve blogged about some of the great things they do.  Recently, as a program, and then as a part of a bigger House of Friendship group, several representatives from different program areas (residential, community services and family services) visited a new Community Food Centre called The Local CFC in Stratford.

The Local provides services to support people on low income as they advocate for better policies to reduce poverty, provide community meals at no cost, and support emergency food distribution in Stratford. They also have cooking classes and adjacent community gardens and are building a peer advocacy program where people who have experienced living on low income can advocate for others who are in the same situations.

The innovative thing about the community food centre model is that it is meant to address underlying issues of hunger and food insecurity rather than only providing short-term, emergency help. While most food banks and hamper programs (ourselves included) speak about working towards a world where we don’t need to exist, the community food centre model approaches the problem from several different directions at once, working to lessen food insecurity and build greater community food security through community building and through healthy eating.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Allison, the coordinator of Eby Village, Tony Bender, the Community Services Director and Dennis Martin, a House of Friendship board member and one of our volunteers here at the program to talk about their visit to the Local and their perspective on the Community Food Centre model. How can we change as an organization?  What parts of their vision match ours, and how will this model impact our program in the future?

At Eby Village, the community food centre model has had a significant impact. In Allison’s own words:

 “At Eby our community meals used to be so unhealthy that staff wouldn’t even eat with residents! We were serving high sodium and high calorie meals to tenants with chronic conditions like hypertension and diabetes. After visiting the Local we serve meals more high in fruits and vegetables. The Stop has a great community feel, so we were inspired by that too. We now have tenants cooking for other tenants, we plate meals to make it feel more special, and we put tablecloths on the tables. If you raise the bar people will fulfill expectations, and we’ve been finding that tenants are excited about how we serve the meal now.”

Eby Village is also starting a community garden this year, which I wrote about here. They’re really changing their approach to food within the building; they recognize that since their residents live on low income, they face barriers to affording healthy food. They are doing what they can to support residents who want to eat healthier.

Exploring how The Local could inspire our own food program is a little more complicated. Due to funding cuts for us after the province cut discretionary benefits for social assistance, the Emergency Food Hamper Program is limited in taking on new things. The question about incorporating ideas from The Local is more about whether we stay in our niche of providing short term food assistance, or grow past this to offer other services like increased advocacy, a community kitchen, or a greenhouse.

Dennis Martin, our board member and a volunteer with the Emergency Food Hamper program, is impressed by the more holistic approach taken by the community food centre model. Though our primary mandate is short term food assistance, an approach which deals with broader problems is important as well. Tony Bender agrees with this—seeking long-term solutions to poverty and hunger is important, but we are limited in how many new things we take on. He said the following:

“It is important for programs to find their niche within the food system. Our niche is that we provide a lot of assistance to a lot of people, and in spite of our facility, we do that pretty well. We provide a core service of Emergency Food. At the same time, if we can decrease the number of times people need to use our service then we’re doing well. Our main advocacy tool is the blog—we can continue to use the blog to educate people about our program and the issues we face.”

Though we may need to focus on short term food assistance—that is an essential service in our community right now—Tony identified ways in which we can increase food security as we help people with hampers. One way is working with the Food Bank and other food assistance organizations to advocate for more healthy donations from individuals and corporations. As Tony said, “people can’t live on cookies and Kraft Dinner alone.” Though we are able to give out fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grain and low sodium options to put in hampers are always welcome.

In terms of longer-term solutions to food insecurity, this blog is certainly one method of advocating for poverty reduction. If you look at House of Friendship as a whole, there are many anti-poverty advocacy activities going on. Our community centres and residential programs have outreach workers, who deal with people every day facing problems of poverty, food insecurity, and other barriers to thriving in their community. We have many community gardens between the community centres and Eby Village. Dennis and Tony both think that this goes to show we have a lot of things going on that are similar to the services offered by a community food centre, just in a more decentralized model—instead of offering everything in one location, we offer many services across Waterloo Region.

But, House of Friendship can always do more. As Dennis said, “the primary reason we exist is due to poverty issues—people aren’t able to support themselves.” The most concrete way we can help our numbers to go down instead of up every year is to advocate for things like guaranteed annual income and affordable housing. As is reflected in the many stories that we have shared on this blog, poverty is not something you choose. Thousands of people do not wake up each morning and decide that they want to get laid off, work for a company that goes bankrupt, acquire a disability or become so ill that they cannot work. Guaranteed annual income basically means that everyone would receive a livable annual income of a set amount in order to bring everyone out of poverty. In conjunction with measures to ensure there is enough affordable housing, so people are paying a maximum of one third of their income on rent or a mortgage, the province and region could drastically reduce poverty. There is a lot of research showing that once you are able to bring people out of poverty, many other costs will be reduced—especially health care and justice-related costs.

Going forward, we have a lot to think about. It is difficult to go year after year breaking records. Unlike with businesses, if our numbers go up we do not celebrate—it simply means more people in our community are living in poverty. As the region grows and more people move here, there is great potential that we will see more people walking through our doors in need of food. We are at a point where we can either keep giving more hampers out or grow the amount of food we distribute, or try to take measures to reduce the number of people in our region who need food assistance.

The Local and the Stop Community Food Centres have given us a lot to think about by pioneering a new brand of food aid, where community is built around food and advocacy is core to the service. Though it may not make sense in the Kitchener Waterloo context to duplicate what they do exactly, borrowing innovative aspects of their programs may help increase food security in Waterloo Region. Change can be difficult, but if we keep our vision in sight of “a healthy community where all can belong and thrive,” we will make it out the other end alright.


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3 Responses to “The changing face of food aid”

  1. Steve Stacey Says:

    House of Friendship! Thanks for your kind words and close consideration re: The Local Community Food Centre in Stratford. When your group visited we were inspired by the stories you shared about people leaving your facility with bags full of fresh healthy groceries. When we hear organizations who could access food via our Storehouse assume “People don’t want fresh produce” we cite your experience and encourage them to think of emergency food services as an opportunity to promote health rather than just filing the void.Let’s keep working together we’re clearly on the same page!

  2. Matt Cooper Says:

    Steve, thank you for your comment. Many thoughtful conversations have been occurring here since our visit with you. I’m glad our experiences help challenge the easy assumptions of people in Stratford. Everyone loves to eat good food in our experience, Our local health department has done some research on food skills and they found that low income residents of this region actually spend more time preparing food and are more likely to rate their food skills better than higher income residents, who are more likely to eat out and buy convenience foods.

  3. Mo’ KD, Mo’ Problems | Hofemergencyfoodassistance's Blog Says:

    […] on average. How does the Food Hamper Program fit into this story–what’s our place? We have, and will continue to discuss this; will try to remain aware of our shortcomings; will engage with […]

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