Posts Tagged ‘food security’

Getting out of the business of food banks

May 21, 2013

Though sometimes when I’m working at the front desk it feels like a customer service job, we often remind ourselves here that we are not a business. When our numbers go up, it is not cause for celebration, but a time to reflect on the root causes of poverty in our community and why the amount of people who need food assistance increases every year. We are constantly looking at new ideas that could eliminate poverty, and one of those is to simply give people the money they need to live a healthy and fulfilling life. As a solution it might seem overly simple, but it really could work. As we’ve discussed here many times, when people have an adequate income money is saved elsewhere in social systems.

Today’s post is a guest blog, written by Sean Geobey, on the topic of eliminating poverty—and eliminating food banks–by giving people adequate income. Sean is a PhD Candidate in Environment and Resource Studies at the University of Waterloo and a graduate fellow with the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience. His research focuses on social finance and its role in creating social innovation.

A food hamper from a few years ago for a family of three.

A food hamper from a few years ago for a family of three.

I am fortunate enough that I don’t rely on a food bank for my meals. I go to a grocery store near my home to pick up a few bags of fresh veggies, milk and meat when I’m running low. The hours are always convenient, and I can choose the right mix of food for my needs over the next few days.

Although I rarely think about it, having this freedom means a lot to me. It means that I can schedule my food around my work, social and family life. It means that I’m entrusted with the choice of setting my own priorities about what I put in my body. It means dignity.

Having a basic income that provides everyone in our community with enough money to meet their basic needs would extend this dignity to everyone. A basic income is a guaranteed minimum level of income support that everyone would receive. It would not be means-tested, eliminating the need for intrusive, demeaning and punitive interventions by social workers. The idea of a basic income has historically received support from across the political spectrum, including those on the right like Milton Friedman, Robert Stanfield and Hugh Segal to those on the political left like Martin Luther King Jr. and Ed Broadbent.

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National Volunteer Week: how our volunteers build community

April 22, 2013

“Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” –Marjorie Moore

Marge and Mark take a quick break from packing hampers in the warehouse.

Marge and Mark take a quick break from packing hampers in the warehouse.

This week is National Volunteer Week, and for a program like ours that relies on volunteers to run at all, it’s a pretty special one. A few weeks ago when I was looking for inspiration for volunteer week, I came across the quote above, by Marjorie Moore. As a self-admitted political junkie, I love the quote, and I love the idea that people can work together to create a place where they feel at home. Our volunteers come in every week (or in some cases, every day!) for their shifts—so what keeps them coming back? I think what draws volunteers in is that they feel a connection to and a passion for the vision of the House of Friendship: creating healthy communities where all can belong and thrive. So, what does that kind of community look like, and what values are volunteers voting for with their hours here? I have a few ideas.

A community that believes in the right to food

The first thing I see volunteers ‘voting’ for is a community where everyone has a right to food. Everyone here is passionate about feeding people, and about creating healthy hampers. When we don’t have fresh veggies to put into hampers for people I hear volunteers lamenting the fact that the hampers aren’t as healthy as usual. White bread is always left to the end, and whole wheat goes into hampers first.

Ursula bags up some mushrooms for hampers.

Ursula bags up some mushrooms for hampers.

Volunteers like Val are excited about ‘selling’ produce people may not know how to cook, like cabbage, turnip, or papaya. They recognize that if you live on low income it can be hard to afford healthy items, and they want to give people nourishing food their family will enjoy. Every day I see excited volunteers going through recipes with people getting food, even writing down tips to send along with them. Volunteers like volunteering here because they are drawn to food issues in some capacity. Like our volunteer Sherry said, “I volunteer here because I like helping people with their food.”

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Good things growing at Eby Village

April 19, 2013

House of Friendship is very enthusiastic about community gardens—we’ve got a big one at each community centre, a small garden here at the Emergency Food Hamper Program, and one is starting up this year at Eby Village!

Eby Village is a supportive housing building run by the House of Friendship. There are 64 tenants and the staff really try to foster a good sense of community. When I visit Eby Village I can tell everyone knows each other and they all get along really well.

To continue fostering a tight knit environment and friendly atmosphere, Eby Village is taking on an urban greening project this spring and summer. They have hired a part time staff person to coordinate, and there are already fifteen tenants who are meeting weekly to plan the garden. The plan is to make raised beds at the front of Eby for vegetables, and these will be high enough to be accessible for people who have trouble bending over. In the shady back area, they are planning a woodland garden, with pathways and lots of native plants. While the front area will be fairly active as residents grow vegetable plants, the woodland garden is meant to be a calm getaway that can reduce stress for residents.

An example of an accessible garden--high enough so people in wheelchairs and with other mobility issues can easily plant and weed.

An example of an accessible garden–high enough so people in wheelchairs and with other mobility issues can easily plant and weed.

I had the opportunity to talk with Allison, the supervisor at Eby, about why they want to start the garden. She says, “the urban greening project will provide tenants with the tools and opportunity to grow their own nutritious food, rejuvenate the urban space surrounding their building and develop together as a community.”

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The Gift of Food

December 11, 2012

Worth repeating:  In keeping with Day 2 of 12DaysForGood, here is our presentation to Regional Council regarding the issue of Discretionary Benefits. (more…)

Include, organize, celebrate, and take action: The United Nations International Day for Persons with Disabilities

December 3, 2012

Sometimes at the food hamper program people trust us enough to tell us the story about why they need a food hamper. The other day, a woman called in needing a hamper delivered because of a disability. She experiences light sensitive epilepsy, meaning when she is outdoors too long she could have a seizure. This makes things very difficult for her; what are simple tasks for some people, like running errands or bringing her kids to school, are always potentially dangerous. It also makes it nearly impossible for her to hold a job. Since her disability is invisible–meaning that just by looking at her one would not know she has a disability–she must deal with people who may not believe she actually has a disability at all. Many people experience different kinds of disabilities which may or may not be evident, and living in a society which tends to be structured for people without disabilities means they face many barriers to living a healthy and fulfilling life.

Today is the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities, and this year’s theme is “Removing barriers to create an inclusive and accessible society for all.” While the provincial government has made some headway by passing the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), which is working towards eliminating physical and social barriers for people with disabilities, there’s still a long way to go.

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World Food Day 2012: agricultural cooperatives

October 17, 2012

October 16th was World Food Day! World Food Day was started to mark the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, dedicated to ensuring people all over the world have access to safe and healthy food. The theme of this year’s World Food Day is Agricultural Cooperatives: key to feeding the world.

So, what is an agricultural cooperative? It is like any other cooperative, but the membership is typically made up of agricultural producers, or farmers. The Food and Agriculture Organization defines it as “any member-owned enterprise run on democratic principles.” Indeed, voluntary open membership, democratic member control, and economic participation in the cooperative are three of seven commonly held cooperative principles, outlined here.

To learn more about agricultural cooperatives, watch this video:

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The question box: why do we only give six hampers per year?

October 12, 2012

In previous blogs about our question box we have answered the questions “why do you give out expired food?” and “how do you get the food you give out?” This week, I’ll talk about why we only give 6 hampers per year.

Last week, we found the following note in our question box:

I use the food bank a lot, and I don’t think 6 hampers a year is enough. I appreciate it every time as I don’t come unless I need it. But sometimes the people who pack my hamper don’t do it correctly and you get nothing. But thank you.

Thanks to whoever wrote us this note—it’s important to us to hear honest remarks about whether or not we are meeting people’s needs when they come to us for help. There are a few significant parts to this note: first, why we only give six hampers per year, and second, why sometimes our hampers are smaller than other times. Today I’m going to tackle the issue of why we only give out six hampers per year.

Our hamper packing area

As people who come to our program know, we have a limit of six hampers per year, or 12 for people over 65 (Nadir talks more about the intake process and our limits here). This theoretical limit (more on this wording later) exists because of our capacity—we already give out 140 hampers per day on average, and in the winter we regularly give out over 200 hampers per day. The limit of six is a compromise between giving enough to cover family emergencies and being able to distribute food fairly between all the families who come in. We are an emergency service, and six hampers per year could feasibly cover two or three financial emergencies—for example, if someone has lost their job and is waiting for Employment Insurance or Ontario Works, a few hampers will get them through the weeks where they’re not receiving any income.

All that being said, we call our limit a theoretical limit. Although we encourage people to try other resources such as the Salvation Army or St. Vincent de Paul churches, once someone has used their fifth and sixth hampers we won’t turn them away empty-handed. We do give some people seven or eight hampers per year, and in some cases where someone may have a serious illness or disability which makes it difficult for them to access other food distribution centres, we have given over that amount. In August we made 156 exceptions, meaning of all the hampers we packed last month, 156 were for families who had already had six hampers. Not every family gets their full amount of hampers—the average amount of hampers we give out to a family is three. This may give you an idea of the diversity of situations in which people find themselves; while some people need our program persistently, others we see only once every few years when they’ve hit a rough patch. We need to be flexible to accommodate the different needs of people we see; while some people can get by using us only a few times, others may have things going on that mean they need us more than our limits allow.

Having flexible limits is especially important for us given that we know how limited income is for people on Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program (OW and ODSP). According to a 2011 report released by the 25 in 5 network, called “Common Ground: a strategy for moving forward on poverty reduction,” current rates of OW are lower in real dollars than when Mike Harris’ government cut them to just $520 per month for a single person. $520 in 1995, when adjusted for inflation, would be $716 in 2011 Canadian dollars, yet in 2011 a single person on OW received just $599 per month. People living on social assistance are increasingly constrained financially because the amount they receive isn’t tied to inflation. Essentially this means that as the cost of living gradually increases, the amount they earn per month stagnates. Unfortunately, it is very hard to live a healthy life and buy nutritious food when living on this income, as we’ve talked about here.

So, given that we only have a limited capacity for storing and distributing food, yet we know that people on social assistance have an extremely limited income, we need to strike a compromise. We use our limits and our food quotas (which determine how much of each item people get on a given day, based on how much we have and how many hampers we predict we’ll do) to ensure we distribute food as equitably as we can between people who need it. In an ideal world we would have an unlimited nutritious food supply (or, alternatively, in an ideal world no one would need emergency food assistance,) but given our constraints we have determined that having the guideline of 6 hampers per year will allow us to distribute what we do have in the most fair manner. Right now, it’s the best we can do.

I hope this post is informative, especially about some of the shortcomings of our program. We try to do our best distributing the food we have fairly, so the most people can benefit. We see the limits and rules we have as grey areas, so we can always make exceptions based on a person’s unique situation. One of our guiding philosophies is that we operate based on trust, and another is that we don’t want to turn people away empty-handed with no other options. We also engage in advocacy efforts when we can, and at House of Friendship as a whole, we’re using advocacy to try to reduce poverty in Waterloo Region (like we wrote about here). Remember, food banks were started in the 1980s as a temporary measure during the recession. Since then, they’ve become permanent institutions. We believe that if we can work to reduce the root causes of poverty and housing insecurity, we can reduce (or eliminate) demand for our program.

Advocacy with purpose: ‘speaking up’ at the House of Friendship

September 4, 2012

As I talked about in a previous post, at House of Friendship we recently developed a new strategic plan, including a new mission, vision, and values. Of course, any strategic plan is useless if it gathers dust on someone’s shelf, never being read and updated. With that in mind, the next few posts I write will be looking at how our programs are living out and acting upon the new plan, or, in other words, how the plan is shaping House of Friendship programs.

Today I want to focus on a part of our new mission statement, which reads, “House of Friendship strengthens people and communities by being there when needed, speaking up and working together.” In particular, I want to look at how House of Friendship programs are ‘speaking up’ for, or with, program participants. To me, speaking up to affect social change is the definition of advocacy. Of course, this is broad; advocacy can be cultural (changing people’s minds or perceptions of a certain group or issue), or legislative (changing actual governmental policy).

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Living on low income with diabetes

June 28, 2012

Imagine you’re a single mother working a minimum wage job, and you are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Minimum wage is certainly not a living wage, and the kinds of food that one can afford working $10.25 per hour are limited, especially if you’re supporting yourself and your children. The more nutritious food you can afford to purchase will typically go to feeding your kids first, and you will have whatever is left. You rely on food hampers to ease the financial burden of buying food, but you can’t rely on them being filled with the options you need to manage your diabetes. What’s more, the current situation and stress of living on low-income while raising a family takes precedence over getting support to manage living with diabetes. It’s nearly impossible to make specialist appointments because of your work schedule and your kids’ school schedule, and bus fare can add up quickly.

Something we are constantly thinking about at the Emergency Food Hamper program is how we can better accommodate people’s dietary needs, whether they are for medical, religious, or other reasons. One common disease that affects many of our patrons is type 2 diabetes. As you can see from the example at the beginning of this post, people’s income level very heavily determines their level of health (for more on the social determinants of health, read Matt’s blog post here). This is particularly true of diabetes; in 2010, Statistics Canada found that women living on low income were more likely than their more privileged counterparts to develop the disease (read a news article on this here, and the actual report from Statistics Canada here). On top of this, the complications of living with diabetes are much harder to manage if you are living on low income. Because we try to provide the best nutrition options for people who come in for hampers, we have to pay attention to how diabetes affects people living on low income and try to accommodate that as best we can.

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What do we do other than provide food hampers?

June 20, 2012

As part of my ongoing training I’ve been tasked with finding out the services we offer other than food hampers. Although the bulk of our resources go towards providing people with emergency food hampers, we do offer other services. These fall into two main categories: non-food supports we offer to people who visit us, and food related services we offer to other organizations.

Let’s start with the non-food services we offer to patrons. First of all, we have our lovely lobby, which is kept in order by Wouda and Carola (see their profiles here and here). Everything in the lobby is free for anyone who wants it, including the clothing, shoes, and extra food we put out. We also offer people household goods, like pots, pans, cutlery, and even bedding, if they are in need. They can ask us for these things in our lobby and we try to accommodate their needs.

The lobby

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