It’s a hard reality to face, but currently millions of people across North America are experiencing some form of food deprivation or food insecurity. In Toronto alone, the number of families dealing with some form of hunger is growing day-in and day-out and across Canada some 850,000 families are visiting food banks each month. While the numbers may seem unbearable, the sad reality is: those numbers aren't changing any time soon and we need to start talking about the look of hunger in Toronto.
While the current economy and the low Canadian dollar has been putting some additional stress on families and their access to food, Debbie Field, Executive Director of FoodShare Toronto shares with me that "accessing healthy food has long been a problem in Toronto because of inadequate minimum and welfare rates.” It’s a stress-filled existence for those who must wonder each and every day where their next meal will come from and still have the ability to focus on school, work or perhaps in some cases - look for a job. The problem of hunger is only getting worse with 12.3% of the population in Canada deemed food insecure. Debbie explains that, “increases to minimum wages and welfare rates,” would help help ensure hunger does not get worse. But what else can be done?
Roughly 800,000 people relied on a food bank in 2012, although more than half of those who go hungry can’t bring themselves to do so, out of shame. A particular common sentiment is that food bank clients are lazy, entitled, and chronically taking advantage of services available to them. Sarah Anderson Austin, Senior Communications Manager from the Daily Bread Food Bank tells me that “There are a wide range of stereotypes and stigma around not only people who come to a food bank, but those living in poverty. We’re here for someone for as long as they need us, but it’s usually only temporarily.” At a majority of food banks, a standard interview process may occur to see if the individual fits eligibility requirements. The fear of shame and humiliation in the process can lead potential clients to not apply. Anderson Austin explains, “At the core of it, hunger is about a lack of income, not a lack of food literacy. Assuming that people in poverty a) eat poorly or b) eat poorly because they lack the knowledge to cook is patronizing.”
Many of Toronto’s organizations like Daily Bread Food Bank, FoodShare Toronto, the Stop Community Food Centre and others host community kitchen programs, community gardens, cooking classes and several outreach programs that go far beyond the scope of how their agencies are seen.
But one organization has been doing something different for years and that has been Second Harvest: a charity that rescues fresh, surplus food and delivers it to our network of social service agencies across Toronto. Currently, Second Harvest receives food from more than 600 food donors including grocery stores, manufacturers, distributors, farmers, restaurants and hotels. This is food that would otherwise go to waste. 83% of the food that Second Harvest delivers is fresh - like fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, and frozen foods. The great thing about programs like this is that people need a balanced diet, not simply for physical health, but for mental and emotional health as well. Being provided these types of options via programs such as Second Harvest means that healthy food choices don't just make you feel good but it’s making you feel as if you have the option for nutritious, healthy food. The team from Second Harvest tell us, “These programs are essential. Our initiative aims to keep surplus food from going to waste in order to make a difference in the lives of approximately 265,000 Torontonians who need it.”
Granted, there are no simple, cheap solutions to the hunger in our midst. Food banks are a band-aid solution to the complex problem of hunger, and we need to learn how to support hunger all around. Ontario and most other provinces have poverty reduction strategies, but Toronto has yet to announce any approved plan to support hunger action. How can we help? Share the realities of hunger and food waste with friends, family and coworkers and continue to support local initiatives through donations and your time. You can help make a difference, it’s all a common interest - even if it doesn’t affect us all directly.