Who Represents Hunger, Part 2

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Demand for help is all over the Map and the House of Friendship Food Hamper Program

Heat map of household demand for food from the House of Friendship Emergency Food Hamper Program.

 

Hunger is all over the map.

In every city in Canada, people talk about some neighbourhoods as ‘better off’ than others. Though it can be tricky to specify what exactly ‘better off’ means (higher incomes? more walkable? lower property taxes?), we do seem to share some unconscious understandings about ‘better’ and ‘worse’ off neighbourhoods. However, these unconscious understandings do not often reflect reality. For example, when we mapped the addresses of all the families using our service in 2014 a striking point became clear: hunger is everywhere.

In every urban area in Canada some areas are ‘better off’ than others.  When we look closer at our records, certain neighbourhoods stand out very clearly, but as you can see, every part of Kitchener and Waterloo had someone who received service from us, at least once.  The darker, and redder the colour on the map, the more people that lived in that area needed to turn to us.  In my previous post, I discussed what people have shared about themselves with us, here at the Food Hamper Program.

As you can probably see from the map above, usage of our program is centred largely in Kitchener.  There are a few reasons for this.  I think the most significant one is geography: students crowd out a lot of people in Waterloo, and we are many kilometres way from North Waterloo.  Taking three buses can be hard for some people, especially in the winter, and especially with young children in tow.

So, knowing where hunger is in our community is one thing.  But why is it there? Why hunger exists is complicated and political.  We have talked about it a lot on this blog, and we have talked about the number of people and households that we serve as well.

Big blobs of colour are one thing.  But how many people are we talking about?  In 2014 we shared over 29,000 emergency food hampers with approximately 9000 households made up of over 20,000 people.

 

Food Banks are a reality of life for many

Food banks exist because many people do not have enough income. People on government assistance make up the largest portion of the people we serve.  This is now an old story.

Our Provincial government provides many of the supports for people living on a low income, like “welfare” or “disability” (aka Ontario Works and ODSP). Our 1867 constitution divided power and responsibility between federal, provincial and municipal governments in this way, the Federal government was given all of the big ticket responsibilities, and other things were delegated to the provinces.  Did the idea of welfare exist in 1867?  It did not.  Fast forward to today, and the provinces are on the front line of supporting people and delivering a whole host of things the Fathers of Confederation would never have imagined.

And though today is not the perfect day for a civics lesson, our Federal Government also plays an important role and has important responsibilities to support people. For example, they administer Employment Insurance, recently, payments issued to parents with young children and, less directly, through the transfers of tax money to the provinces who in turn will invest or cost share in the delivery of services at the municipal level.

Poverty and Prosperity

Hunger and poverty are a concern for all levels of Canadian government, but each has different tools at their disposal, and different levels of direct involvement.  The province has set up a Poverty Reduction plan, talked about it, and seems to want to address it, but often poverty reduction is not a major political issue that gets votes and yields decisive mandates after an election.

All representatives are concerned about making this country and its provinces prosperous, so it is an issue that hides in a variety of spots. But, depending on their understanding of the world, how they think that prosperity will be achieved, and the realities of our electoral system, the paths our representatives choose will be radically different.  That’s OK.  That’s how politics works and it gets worked out in the political process that we have.  The world is a complicated place and no one person, party or outlook has all the answers. What’s important is that we recognize that everyone has a part to play in addressing hunger and poverty.

Hunger in my neighbourhood

We have a region of people who struggle to get food on their table. Those people are represented by other people that most of us voted for.

All of the other office holders in the region have no doubt read, or had quoted to them, the number of food insecure households that live around them. The Hunger Count published by Food Banks Canada and the Ontario Association of Food Banks is a common resource in the tool kit of people trying to discuss the issue of poverty and hunger in our communities.

In their different ways, our elected officials represent them, but the exact number that they represent is less clear.  There is a weak link of accountability because aggregate or old numbers are often quoted. I believe our representatives understand that yes, there is hunger, but they’re not sure how many hungry people live in their ward. They might talk to some people who discuss their food insecurity, but the problem remains abstract.

How can we make that more concrete?  In my next post, I will outline the exact share of the total number of households and people we served in 2014, and how many of them lived in each electoral district.

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