Anita Khanna Director, Social Action & Community Building Family Service Toronto
Anita Khanna is the Director of Social Action and Community Building at Family Service Toronto, a United Way-supported agency that helps promote the health and wellbeing of children and families. She’s also the National Coordinator of Campaign 2000, a cross-Canada coalition that works to build awareness and support for ending child poverty. Imagine a City spoke with Anita for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn what happens when kids don’t get the best start in life.
1. What sort of supports do children require in order to get the best start in life?
Prenatal programs, access to nutritious food, a stable home environment and opportunities to develop language, cognitive and social skills are just some of the supports that help children start life on a high note. Community connections are also important. From a very young age, children pick up on whether their families are reflected and respected in their community. Whether a family is racialized, Indigenous, are newcomers, LGBTQ+ or led by single parents, they need to be appreciated and accepted.
2. How important are the early years (ages 0-6) when it comes to childhood development?
The early years are the most important time in our life for brain development, learning, behaviour and health. These years are crucial to a child’s future wellbeing, self-esteem and physical and mental health. Spending quality time with family, one-on-one interaction with caregivers and educators in childcare settings, stimulating learning opportunities and affirmation of one’s value are vital in laying a solid foundation.
3. Across Canada, 1 in 6 Children live in households that struggle to put food on the table. How does poverty create gaps, or inequities, when it comes to the early years?
Side effects of poverty related to inadequate or unsafe housing, stress within a household and a lack of proper nutrition have a major impact on a child’s health, as well as their performance in school. If a child moves from school to school because of an unstable housing situation or because their parents are precariously employed, it puts a lot of stress on the child.
4. What are some of the lasting effects across a child’s life-span when they don’t get the best start in life?
Limited access to stimulating learning opportunities can delay literacy and vocabulary development. Disruptions in school may occur because a child is unable to focus because of poor nutrition. Both of these scenarios can lead to lower levels of education and can be precursors to having difficulty securing work as an adult. Constant stress can also lead to long-term physical and mental health conditions. Not only can these issues persist into adulthood, but sometimes they can never be undone.
5. What role can the non-profit sector play in ensuring children (includingthose living in poverty) get the best start in life?
The non-profit sector plays a vital role in helping children get a strong start in life. Creative play and literacy programs, as well as after school supports are often the first things that come to mind, however, wide-ranging supports for families are also important. Employment programs, parent groups and newcomer settlement supports can help families find more solid footing, helping to address core issues they face as a result of living on a low income. Non-profits are nimble and close to the ground and we should ensure community members have a voice in shaping programming. We should also keep track of emerging trends and requests from the community to help shape our services and inform our advocacy for social justice. It is important that we raise our voices to talk about policy and program changes that can improve the lives of the families we work with every day.
6. How can investing in children make an important, lasting impact on the social, economic and physical wellbeing of our community?
Children are sponges that reflect the environment they’re in, and as the next generation of thinkers, workers and creators a lot is riding on their wellbeing. Activities that boost confidence and encourage problem solving help kids develop important skills and confidence. When we foster those skills, and adequately support their families through smart public policies, we help build children up for success. Ultimately, healthier children grow into healthier adults. Investing in children’s well-being and reducing poverty is a foundational investment in strengthening our communities and our country.
Ways you can help:
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You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know it exists. That’s why, in 2018, we launched a bold new national awareness campaign designed to bring attention to #UNIGNORABLE local issues like poverty, homelessness, food insecurity and domestic violence—issues that are often overlooked.
Thank you for helping us be part of the solution to tackling these issues in the places we live and love. As the year draws to a close, we’ve rounded up five of our top blog posts that shine a light on complex issues facing our community—and what we can do about them, together.
1. A myth-busting Q&A on homelessness We asked frontline workers and experts about what it’s really like for the estimated 35,000 Canadians who experience homelessness on any given night. Their responses will completely change the way you think about homelessness.R
2. Can we end the cycle of child hunger? In Toronto, about 1 in 4 children live beneath the poverty line—and since 2008, the city’s inner suburbs have seen a 48 per cent increase in food bank use, including kids. We asked the experts about the root causes of this unignorable issue—and how we can all help ensure no child goes hungry in our community.
3. Why loneliness in seniors is a health hazard We may not think of loneliness as a serious mental health issue, but social isolation can have devastating effects on seniors. We talked to industry experts about the innovative, community-based solutions that can help seniors, their caregivers and, ultimately, the healthcare system.
4. Breaking the cycle: A Q&A on the stigma of domestic violence Domestic violence is rampant across Canada. Lieran Docherty, program manager at WomanACT (Woman Abuse Council of Toronto), explains how social assistance programs, the justice system and public policy can more effectively support women experiencing violence.
5. Is poverty a human rights violation? We spoke to Maytree’s President Elizabeth McIsaac on why we need to reframe how we think about poverty. Like many other advocates, she thinks we should start treating poverty as a human rights violation—an approach that could help empower those experiencing it.
In Toronto, 26.8 per cent of children — about one in four — live beneath the poverty line. That’s the highest percentage of poverty among urban centres in Canada. Along with poverty comes food insecurity; since 2008, the city’s inner suburbs have seen a 48 per cent increase in food bank use, including children.
Having a job is no longer enough to ensure food security. Factors such as precarious work and lack of affordable housing can impact a household’s ability to put food on the table. Imagine a City spoke to frontline community workers and poverty experts on the long-lasting side effects of hunger, as well as innovative programs that are helping to tackle this issue right here at home.
What are some of the root causes of child hunger in the GTA?
“We’re looking at a city where there are so many people who are struggling, but food insecurity becomes a by-product of that — it’s one of the symptoms of people who are income-insecure,” says Shoba Adore, executive director of United Way-supported Braeburn Neighbourhood Place. “It’s about affordable housing, decent wages, employment that’s not precarious.” Income insecurity leads to food insecurity, and it’s much more pervasive than many realize; even those with a job (or multiple jobs) don’t always have enough to eat on a regular basis.
“By the time they pay for their rent and transit there isn’t money for food,” says Dr. Elizabeth Lee Ford-Jones, project investigator at The Hospital for Sick Children and a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Toronto. For many parents, she says not having enough money to feed their children is a terrible shame. They may “slink along to food banks” or deny the problem exists; in some cases, they keep their kids home from school if they don’t have lunch money.
What are the long-term effects of child hunger?
Research conducted by Ford-Jones and McMaster University’s Janice Ke found that food insecurity and hunger lead to a number of health-related issues. In children, it’s associated with delays in socioemotional, cognitive and motor development; higher levels of hyperactivity, inattention and poor memory; higher frequency of chronic illness; and increased risk of childhood obesity. For youth, there’s increased risk for depression and suicidal ideation, as well as mood, behaviour and substance abuse disorders.
“There are long-term impacts on children but also on the family — how parents basically sacrifice their own food and nutrition to provide food for their kids,” says Michael Polanyi, community worker for the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto. That takes both a physical and psychological toll on parents and the family as a unit; in some cases, parents are under so much stress and depravation themselves that they’re not able to provide for the family.
What about school programs?
There are 180,000 children in Toronto accessing either snack or lunch programs in schools, “but certainly it’s a fraction of all children going to school,” says Polanyi. “Many countries have universal hot lunch programs, like France, where they provide nutritious meals for all the kids at lunchtime.” In Canada, there is no national strategy to provide students with snacks or hot lunches; programs are typically provided by charitable organizations.
Braeburn, for example, provides enriched snack programs during afterschool activities. And while many families visit the agency to access its food programs, Braeburn is also able to offer other ‘wraparound supports’ such as lunch-and-learns for students as well as tutoring and homework assistance. It also allows students to maintain their dignity and avoid embarrassment or shame. “We try to offer programs in a universal way — it’s open and you choose to come,” says Adore. “All of our programs are free, there’s no means testing, you’re not reporting on what your income is … so you’re getting lunch but you’re also doing your homework.”
What about community-based approaches?
Food banks can help with immediate needs, but community-based initiatives like The Stop Community Food Centre can empower vulnerable populations with longer-term solutions. “The Stop is a whole food program … where the community grows the food, harvests the food, prepares the food and serves the food,” says Ford-Jones.
Community gardens allow vulnerable populations to grow some of their own food, “but also gain some income through selling food locally through farmers’ markets,” says Polanyi. Community kitchens or food hubs can also provide access to healthy, low-cost food; some also teach basic nutrition and cooking skills. United Way-supported FoodShare, for example, works with schools and communities to deliver healthy food along with food education; its FoodLink program connects community members with local low-cost food programs, such as food banks or community gardens.
What are the next steps in eradicating child hunger?
While there’s a need to expand school nutrition programs and provide better access to affordable food, fighting child hunger and fighting poverty go hand in hand. Though the federal government is developing a poverty reduction strategy, experts agree there’s a need for more funding and more action. “It’s such a wise investment for us to make that will change the long-term costs to the healthcare system,” says Adore. “We feel like we’re in the Ministry of Prevention.”
Child poverty is a widespread issue, with an alarming 17 per cent of Canadian children living on a low income, according to the 2016 census. In Toronto, the rate is even higher, and our region has the dubious distinction of being the child poverty capital of Canada. According to Unequal City: The Hidden Divide Among Toronto’s Children and Youth, a 2017 report from Social Planning Toronto, more than one in four children under the age of 18 live in poverty, making Toronto’s child and youth poverty rate the highest among major cities in Canada. Indigenous, newcomer and racialized children are more likely to be growing up in low-income households, creating an even wider gap in quality of life.
Across the board, kids who experience poverty are at a great disadvantage in life, with effects lasting well into adulthood. Here are 10 ways poverty holds kids back:
1. Food insecurity
When children don’t have enough to eat, they are more likely to have difficulty focusing at school. But it gets worse: hunger can actually impair cognitive functioning and brain development. Sugary and refined foods that are low in nutritional value can also have a negative effect on a kid’s ability to learn. That’s one reason children who have access to nutritious (and often, more expensive) food typically do better academically. “Food insecurity can play into certain mental health disorders and developmental disorders,” says Dr. Sloane Freeman, a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital and founder of the Model Schools Pediatric Health Initiative, an in-school healthcare program that works in low-income communities. “If you’re not nourished a certain way, you’re at risk for developmental problems in childhood.”
Food insecurity also puts kids at a higher risk for developing other health issues—like diabetes and cardiovascular disease—later in life. According to a 2017 report from the University of Toronto, people with lower incomes typically consume less produce than those in food-secure households. “It’s not a question of not knowing you should be eating fruits and vegetables; it’s not being able to afford the fruits and vegetables,” says Raphael. “With poverty, you live under conditions of material deprivation.”
2. Affordable housing
As housing costs increase, lower-income families are forced into enclaves where there are usually fewer recreational resources—or lower-quality resources—for kids. “Inadequate housing may be located in high-risk neighbourhoods which have less access to quality services, infrastructure and vibrant communities, compared to housing in more secure locations,” says a report by Best Start Resource Centre. “Welfare rates and Ontario Disability Support Program are not enough to meet basic needs, making it impossible for families to save for a house or to increase their standard of living.”
Plus, when families are underhoused, they are often subject to overcrowding, says professor Raphael. This means it’s not uncommon for two or three families to live in a single apartment. “From a health perspective, this can cause infections and stress.” And it’s not a short-term problem: “the waiting list is 18 years [for subsidized housing],” he says.
There’s a link between childcare and school success. Quality childcare helps early childhood development and boosts success later in life: it provides a safe, educational environment that fosters cognitive development and prepares kids for school. While affordable childcare is important to families from all economic backgrounds, access to this service is not equal across income brackets: a 2018 report from People for Education found that elementary schools with a higher percentage of university-educated parents are more likely to offer childcare, whereas at schools with fewer university-educated parents and higher rates of poverty, subsidized or affordable childcare services are lacking.
When low-income children don’t have access to this vital service, they’re put at risk, says Khanna. “Unfortunately, affordable, accessible, high-quality childcare is still a matter of chance, as children linger on the subsidy waitlist when they could be gaining foundational skills through play-based learning,” she says.
4. Extracurricular activities
According to the Unequal City report, access to recreational opportunities is key for children’s development and well-being, and prepares them for success in school. But when kids can’t join in for financial reasons, they lose out. Data from the Toronto District School Board shows that 48 per cent of children in families with incomes below $30,000 do not regularly take part in extracurricular activities. This is a huge contrast with children in households with incomes of $100,000 or more, where only 7 per cent do not attend out-of-school sports or lessons.
“Typically, children in low-income [households] have fewer opportunities for enrichment,” says Anita Khanna, the director of Social Action and Community Building at Family Service Toronto. “Experiences like going to an arts-based day camp or on trips to the zoo or science centre help bring in-class learning to life. This is why programs that promote access to summer programs for children in all income groups are so vital.”
Those findings are backed up by a 2013 report from the Canadian Paediatric Society, which found that dental disease disproportionately affects low-income families, Indigenous children, new immigrants and kids with special health needs. On top of having poorer oral health, the report states that these populations are also less likely to have dental insurance, and tend to have limited or no access to oral health care.
This is all despite Healthy Smiles Ontario, an initiative aimed to provide government-covered dental care to low-income kids. According to the Ontario Dental Association, there’s still a critical funding gap that leaves many behind. A June 2018 press release calling for “meaningful action” on funding public dental health programs from Ontario’s new premier noted that dentists in Ontario treat about 200,000 kids under Healthy Smiles Ontario—but there are 500,000 eligible children. This means that even with current government support, many low-income kids still aren’t receiving quality care.
6. Educational opportunities
Findings from a 2013 Globe and Mail investigation showed that schools in affluent Toronto neighbourhoods had higher student literacy test scores and better educational resources than schools in lower-income areas. Not only do low-income kids tend to do worse on literacy tests, but research shows they’re less likely to succeed in the long term, too. One study published in the journal Paediatrics & Child Health revealed that kids from low-income households were less likely to graduate from high school and to attend university or college.
“In Canada, only 31 per cent of youth from the bottom income quartile attended
post-secondary education compared with 50.2 per cent in the top income quartile,” the report found. “Once again, the evidence indicates that students from low-income families are disadvantaged right through the education system to postsecondary training.”
Another gap is in the simple—yet, for many, less achievable—act of reading aloud to and with kids. According to the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, kids who are regularly read to at home and have more positive parental interaction have higher levels of school readiness. But for a number of reasons, this tends to happen less often in lower-income households.
“Despite parents’ best efforts, the hunger, anxiety and social exclusion associated with poverty can have negative effects on children’s school readiness,” Khanna says. “Parents who have to juggle multiple low-wage or contract jobs may have less time to read to their children and build early literacy skills.” This barrier is even greater for new Canadian families if English is not their first language. Even if they’re able to spend time developing other skills with their children, English literacy is key to school success.
Kids from low-income households are also more likely to experience summer reading loss, a decline in literacy skills that can happen when children take a break from reading over summer vacation—and one that can have cumulative effects. “We all know that it is much harder to play catch-up when you start off on an unequal footing,” she says.
8. Swimming lessons
Knowing how to swim can save your life. Unfortunately, many low-income children aren’t enrolled in swimming lessons due to cost, much like other extra-curricular activities. When kids don’t learn to swim, they are literally more likely to die than those who can.
There are also cultural barriers that may prevent many low-income kids from learning how to swim—the need for gender-segregated lessons, for example. New Canadians are four times less likely to know how to swim than those born in Canada, and are therefore at a higher risk for drowning.
Children from lower-income households typically receive worse, and less frequent, medical attention than more-affluent kids do, which means they’re at a greater risk for physical and mental health problems. Plus, kids experiencing poverty are more likely to be hospitalized for acute conditions and are less likely to receive preventive care. According to Social Determinants of Health, a report co-authored by York University’s Raphael, the bottom 33 per cent of Canadian income earners are less likely to see a specialist when needed compared to the country’s top 33 per cent of earners.
“Poverty affects a number of the social determinants of health,” says Freeman. “There’s transportation barriers, financial barriers, parents have to take time off work to go see the doctor and there’s significant language barriers. There’s difficulty navigating our healthcare system in general. It’s more difficult than we may realize for families to access the care they need.”
10. Financial literacy
“Financial services are generally designed to cater to the needs of middle- and high-income individuals,” says a report by Prosper Canada. “This can result in financial information and advice that is unintentionally ill-suited or even harmful to people with low incomes.”
If a child comes from a family where there are financial barriers, like low levels of education or low-wage employment, they’re less likely to develop financial literacy as they grow up. Certain segments of the population that are more prone to poverty, including Indigenous people and new Canadians, are also less likely to learn how to make more informed financial choices. Things like applying for student loans and government grants, for example, are more challenging for kids whose parents don’t have the knowledge base.
It’s clear that poverty impacts the trajectory of a child’s entire life and accentuates the income gap across generations—which is why it’s important for society to do everything it can to counteract its effects. Advocating for change, getting involved in local politics, and volunteering in your community can help.
“All children should have the opportunity to reach their full potential and contribute to our communities,” says Khanna. “We all benefit from lower poverty and inequality, so we need to be fully invested in making positive change to improve the lives of children and families.”
Peel. Toronto. York Region. No matter where you live within the region, you know that poverty remains a real and ongoing threat. But, if the past year was any indication, there’s lots of proof of how we, as a community, are fighting back.
Today, we are pleased to share United Way Greater Toronto’s 2017–18 annual report. It highlights all the change that your generous donations, on-the-ground volunteer efforts and tireless work on the front lines helped to create—in the places, populations and priorities most impacted by poverty.
Watch this video for President & CEO Daniele Zanotti’s summary of an eventful 2017:
Then, for all the ways that your support fuelled our region-wide uprising of care, read the full report here.
Joan Stonehocker’s life-long passion for growing and eating healthy food aligns perfectly with her role as the Executive Director of York Region Food Network. Under her leadership, the committed team at YRFN advocates for sustainable solutions to food insecurity, demonstrates waste-free practices throughout the organization and continuously develops and promotes healthy food projects that are a catalyst for building strong and vibrant communities.
Like other members of Ontario for All the broad alliance of community partners convened by United Way, York Region Food Network is committed to addressing the debilitating problems that face people living in poverty. Together, we’re focusing debate and discussion this election on the five community priorities we consider essential to a fair and inclusive Ontario, including how to create pathways out of poverty that ensure everyone has the supports they need to live with dignity.
Our organization was started by the food banks in York Region in the late 1980s to raise awareness of hunger and poverty in our seemingly prosperous area. Although awareness is increasing, the problem of food insecurity continues. Modern-day food banks were created as a temporary solution for people struggling to purchase enough to eat. Now, the PROOF research project (proof.utoronto.ca) has shown that only 20 – 25% of people who are food insecure access food banks.
After more than 35 years of operating, food banks are more prevalent than ever, and the need continues to grow. At our agency, we get calls regularly from people looking for help to get food. Regional food bank hours are limited, and the vast geography of York Region can make access a challenge for many. While we try to bridge the gap by having grocery cards available for people who come directly to us seeking food, that’s not always possible. We know the desperation and distress of people in our community — neighbours — who have come face to face with hunger: bare cupboards and no simple solutions.
We need to address these immediate needs effectively, but we cannot continue to do so without also taking on the systemic issues that keep people in poverty. The research around the social determinants of health is clear about the devastating effects of poverty and the by-products of poverty, like food insecurity and social isolation. And while community food programs bring people together to grow, share and cook healthy food, with great benefit, they alone are not enough.
To provide lasting change, we need to address the causes of food insecurity and to change the mindset that food programs or charity will solve the problem. We must acknowledge the true cost of poverty and invest in eliminating it. The provincial government’s Basic Income Pilot is one such encouraging attempt — an initiative that provides people with the essentials they need to build their own path out of poverty. Already, early reports from participants talk about the dramatic positive impacts on their health, well-being and self-esteem.
This provincial election is our chance to come together and let our elected representatives know what matters most to us: an Ontario that is fair, equitable and inclusive — for everyone.
Camara Chambers has been giving back since she was 16, when she volunteered in a local charity shop in the United Kingdom. “I realized then that volunteering isn’t just a chance to make a difference; it also gives you skills and learning opportunities you might not find anywhere else,” says Chambers, who is Executive Director of Volunteer Toronto, a United Way–supported agency. And it’s a fantastic thing for families to do together, she adds, especially once the holidays are over, since the need is greater at other times of the year. Here are 10 ways you and your family can change someone’s life for the better.
1. Supporting seniors: Sometimes families have a harder time finding volunteer opportunities that are a good fit for younger children. Chambers recommends looking into your local Meals on Wheels or Friendly Visiting services. “Elderly people, especially those living in long-term retirement homes, can feel especially isolated, and spending time with them is a lovely opportunity for everyone involved,” she says. “It’s a nice way for children to meet the people they’re helping.” You can connect directly with long-term care homes in your neighbourhood by checking out the volunteer pages on their websites, or by going to local community sites, such as York Region’s CIVICYork page. Search for “long-term care facility volunteer positions” to learn about opportunities.
2. Kids helping kids: A great way to get teens involved—and give high-school students their requisite hours of volunteer service—is to encourage them to give after-school tutoring a try.
3. Call a shelter: Tight on time but driven to do something? Contact your local shelter and ask them what they need. “In the colder months, shelters are often desperate for socks, warm coats and blankets,” says Chambers. Personal-hygiene kits with toothbrushes and shampoo are almost always in demand, too.
4. Share a meal: If you enjoy entertaining, why not invite a family that’s new to Canada over for a holiday feast? You can do it independently or through an organization like Share Thanksgiving, which pairs newcomers with Canadian hosts to share a festive evening with new friends and family.
5. Everyone loves books: Free libraries continue to crop up all over the city, and they’re great places to donate your used books. “It’s such a wonderful way to make books available to people who may not have access to them otherwise,” says Chambers.
6. Be their guest: Some of the city’s Syrian refugee women have started up a grassroots “newcomer kitchen” to share their passion for cooking Syrian cuisine with Canadians. “It’s an opportunity to meet some of the country’s newest citizens and to experience their food and culture,” says Chambers. Even Justin Trudeau has dropped by for a newcomer brunch.
7. Build a gingerbread house: Every winter, Habitat for Humanity GTA hosts a gingerbread house-building workshop for kids. Participants pay $50 for a kit, which comes complete with assembled or unassembled house (depending on how ambitious you feel!), icing and plenty of candy. Proceeds fund the organization’s building projects.
8. Pass on your points: Did you know you can donate your Airmiles points to charity? Most people don’t, Chambers says, but it’s a quick and easy way to give back.
9. Out of the Cold: Every winter, many of the city’s churches open their doors to the homeless, offering some respite from the bitter temperatures outside. And there are lots of ways you can help, from simply being on hand to greet people and answer questions to handing out hot drinks. Log on to the Out of the Cold website to find a program near you.
10. Hit the ice:Evergreen Brick Works is a volunteer mecca year-round, but in the winter the organization needs extra help once its skating rink is up and running. You can pitch in lots of ways, from helping out in the skate shop to being a rink ambassador.
If you’d like to find more ways to volunteer with your kids, check out Volunteer Toronto’s site; their Suitable for Families (with Kids under 14) page is routinely updated with non-profit organizations that could use your help. You can also find additional winter volunteer opportunities on the site’s Holiday volunteering page.
If you’re looking for a way to foster community among your neighbours, a communal meal—done well—is ideal.
That’s because food is a universal language that breaks down barriers and unites people of different backgrounds, says food and social justice activist Nick Saul. “There is something about food that has been bringing people together since we started to walk, forage and communicate with one another,” he says. “We could light a fire, and people would eat and tell stories and share—I think it’s something in our DNA.”
Saul has seen the value of a community supper countless times as co-founder, president and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada, a national organization that builds and supports food-focused community centres in low-income neighbourhoods. At these centres, community members can get involved in the production and preparation of healthy food that is served respectfully.
Have a small organizing team that is as diverse as possible and reflective of the community. This ensures that people of all backgrounds will hear about your event and feel included in the planning.
2. Take inspiration from the community
Your plans, from the food to the decorations, should reflect the many different people in the neighbourhood. Saul suggests having different cultural food options, plus vegetarian dishes and those without diary or gluten to ensure everyone can enjoy the meal.
3. Make sure everyone feels welcome
If you are planning on discussing community issues, making the event adults-only makes sense. But there is no need to be hasty when making that decision. There are several options, says Saul, such as organizing childcare or providing children’s activities at the same location as the meal.
4. Decide what your goals are
Saul says the event could be planned around a theme or a type of food. People could discuss a certain issue, such as gentrification, affordable housing or community gardens. Or it could just be about bringing people together.
5. Splurge on real dishes
Through his work with food centres, Saul has seen the difference small things like cutlery, plates and glasses can make for many people. “They should not be plastic and disposable. I think that sends a message to people that they are disposable,” he says. “In our context of working with a lot of low-income people, we have learned that they often feel isolated, alone and not cared about. So I am really convinced that if you make that meal with love, people feel that—and, as a result, they feel that they matter, too, because someone took a lot of care.”
Another great way to be involved in your community is to volunteer with a food centre. Community Food Centres Canada has eight centres that offer volunteer opportunities in many areas, including fundraising, helping prep communal meals, community garden support or kitchen help.
Daniyal Zuberi RBC Chair & Associate Professor of Social Policy, University of Toronto
Daniyal Zuberi is the RBC Chair and Associate Professor of Social Policy at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Toronto. In 2015, he was elected to the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada. He was previously the William Lyon Mackenzie King Research Fellow at Harvard University. His innovative social policy research has made important contributions to the study of urban poverty, inequality, health, education, employment and social welfare. He has authored three books and other publications that examine the impact of public policy on vulnerable and disadvantaged populations in Canada and the United States. Imagine a Cityspoke with Daniyal for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to provide a big-picture lens on poverty across North America.
1. What are some of the common drivers that contribute to poverty across North America, whether in Winnipeg or Washington?
Poverty in North America is multi-faceted, affecting many individuals, families, and communities. The real cause of poverty is the lack of income. Many people are working longer and harder simply to tread water, living only one or two missed paycheques away from major financial hardship. With the explosion of precarious employment, too many households struggle to balance work and family life requirements as individuals take on multiple jobs to make ends meet and deal with the stress and anxiety of supporting their families. A job is no longer enough and they struggle as the “working poor” trying to find affordable housing and childcare for their families. For those unable to find work, they receive very limited support. Most of these individuals can’t access employment insurance benefits due to program restrictions. They join tens of thousands of others on wait lists for housing assistance and subsidized childcare as well as heavily-subscribed charitable programs such as food banks. Instead of helping and enabling these individuals and families, we trap them in poverty, failing to provide the training, support and education they need to upgrade their skills and find secure living-wage employment.
2. Discuss the recent U.S. election and how it has put a spotlight on the growing issue of rising income inequality.
The failure to adequately address the growing insecurity experienced by all too many North American households is one cause of the unexpected election outcome in the United States. Most of the economic gains over the past several decades have flowed exclusively to those at the top, especially in the U.S. Growing economic insecurity threatens social cohesion and people react to fears that their fortunes have stagnated, or that they’re falling behind. Countries that are more equal, or those with narrower income gaps, have much higher social development outcomes. Life expectancy is longer, infant mortality is lower, there is greater social trust, lower crime and incarceration rates, less mental illness and better health and educational outcomes. Importantly, there is also more equality of opportunity. One of the best ways to address growing inequalities is to support those struggling at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy.
3. How have changing labour market conditions, including precarious employment, impacted poverty?
The changing labour market is a major contributor to growing poverty in North America. With a shift away from manufacturing to the service sector in a globalized economy, we’ve seen a rapid expansion of precarious employment including poverty wage, part-time, and insecure jobs that fail to lift individuals and families above the poverty line. Our employment protections and social welfare policies have failed to evolve to protect people from poverty in this new economy. When hours are cut or workers are laid off, many can’t receive support from employment insurance because they haven’t worked enough hours to qualify. It’s important to note that these changes do not affect all workers equally. Women and racialized minorities, especially new immigrants, are the most likely to work in these precarious jobs. They’re forced to make impossible tradeoffs between working extra hours, but spending more on childcare, paying for rent or food. This is true in both Canada and the United States.
4. Discuss the changing nature of poverty in North America and how it differs in urban, suburban and rural contexts.
Poverty exists in cities, rural areas, and suburban areas. Many of the causes and consequences of poverty in these three contexts are similar, but important differences also exist. For example, poor individuals and families in the suburbs are less visible. In Vaughan, a wealthy area in York Region, we see “hidden homelessness” where people are doubled or even tripled up living in other people’s basements. In suburban and rural areas, there are also problems with social isolation that also include greater challenges in terms of accessing transportation for services and employment opportunities. But the urban poor face some unique challenges too. Especially if high housing costs force them to live in stigmatized areas with high concentrations of poverty, where transit is less accessible, less frequent, and of poor quality. While it may be easier to access services for individuals living in urban neighbourhoods, living in a high poverty urban neighbourhood can also it make more difficult for a person to successfully obtain employment as a result of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and postal code. It can also require coping with more challenges including violence and schools that lack resources to address the major challenges facing their student populations. Fundamentally, in urban, suburban and rural contexts, poverty comes down to a lack of resources.
5. Is there a single, best way to tackle poverty? If not, what are some common solutions we should be working towards?
No, I don’t think there’s a single solution. We need to continue to promote proactive policies and programs to prevent poverty and support struggling individuals and families. For example, we can raise social assistance rates to bring those households up above the poverty line. Expanding access to high-quality early childhood education will increase maternal employment and incomes by sending more mothers into the workplace, generating greater tax revenue and also reducing poverty. The research is clear that “housing first” and harm reduction approaches are far more effective than punitive measures to address problems such as homelessness and addiction. The latter results in an extremely expensive, reactive system where we end up spending more than required for policing, incarceration, hospitalization, and shelter services. We also need to focus on issues like raising the minimum wage, addressing a growing mental health crisis and providing individuals, including youth, with the training and support they need to find good jobs. Solutions at the local level are also important and include investments in high quality transit and community infrastructure. These include things like community hubs and health centres, parks, and community gardens that can really improve the quality of life for people in low-income neighbourhoods. These programs, along with significant policy reforms, could work together to reduce poverty quite dramatically.
6. What is the role of the non-profits like United Way in mitigating the effects of poverty?
We have a healthy and vibrant social services sector. We need to continue to build on that and expand it. United Way and other organizations do great work in providing services and supports for vulnerable and at-risk populations. United Way does a particularly great job of raising awareness of important issues like precarious employment through its research. It also brings together coalitions to mobilize, to advocate for policy reforms and new programs and to fundamentally address some of the root causes of poverty with the goal of eradicating it.
7. Can we end poverty?
Absolutely, yes. Fundamentally we have to understand that we can end poverty if we have the political will. There are many places in the world—including Scandinavian countries—that have largely eliminated poverty. But it’s still extremely rare. Canada has done a lot more in terms of supporting those living on a low income and reducing poverty compared to the United States where we’ve seen a lot of cutbacks and a really rapid increase in deep poverty. Although there is a long way to go, I don’t think we should ever lose hope. I think, in fact, this is an important reminder why this work is so tremendously important. We can’t stop fighting to improve the quality of life for people living in poverty. One of my friends is a congressman in the United States and he recently sent out an email with Dr. Martin Luther King’s message: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Healthy food is an essential building block to our overall health and wellbeing. It helps children do well in school, ensures we can put our best foot forward at work and allows us to contribute as active members in our community.
That’s why United Way invests in a network of agencies across our region that help people get the food they need through meal programs, community gardens and kitchens and a mobile food truck. By bringing people together around food, we’re also connecting kids, adults and seniors to their communities, which we know is another essential step in helping them move from a life of poverty to possibility.
To help you learn more about food security, we put together a quiz to test your knowledge.
We wanted to send a special shout-out to you, all of our loyal blog readers, for continuing to visit Imagine a City to learn more about the social issues that matter most. We know you’re busy…so we’ve put together a list of some of our most popular blog posts over the last year. Happy reading!
When most of us think of homelessness, we picture people living on urban streets or spending their days and nights in temporary shelters. In Toronto, for example, some 5,000 people find themselves without a place to live on any given night. But homelessness isn’t just a “big city” issue. In York Region, poverty is often hidden. This means some individuals “couch surf” with friends or neighbours, while others—many who are newcomers—are forced to double or even triple up with relatives just to make ends meet. Check out this post to learn more about this important issue from homelessness expert Dr. Steven Gaetz.
For International Women’s Day 2016, we put together a list of inspirational women who are changing lives and making our communities better places to live. From a Canadian senator who’s championing the rights of newcomers to a 13-year-old philanthropist and Richmond Hill resident who is creating big change in the world of charitable giving and social justice, we dare you not to be inspired!
Imagine having to choose between eating or keeping a roof over your head? Or what would you do if staying home to care for your sick child could cost you your job? In this eye-opening blog post, we introduced readers to some of the daily, harsh realities faced by 1 in 4 adults in Toronto and 1 in 8 people in York Region who live in poverty. Missed the post? Test out our digital poverty simulator, Make the Month, here.
Running out of food before there is money to buy more
Not being able to afford a healthy, balanced diet
Not eating for the whole day
According to the World Food Summit, the answer is: all of the above. Here are three more things you might now know about food insecurity.
Food insecurity affects 1 in 8 Toronto households: The latest Household Food Insecurity in Canada reportsays 12.6%, or one in eight, households in the Toronto census metropolitan area experienced food insecurity in 2014. Food insecurity isn’t just about hunger either. It’s a serious public health issue that affects individuals’ health and well-being, impacts their ability to do well in school, contribute successfully to their workplace and be active members of their communitie
1 in 6 Canadian children experience food insecurity: The report also finds that a shocking one million children in Canada under the age of 18 live in food insecure households. Research tells us that missing breakfast is associated with decreased academic, cognitive, health and mental-health performance among children. In a survey, nearly 68% of teachers believe there are students in their classrooms who come to school hungry. That’s why United Way helps children and their families access healthy food through meal and school snack programs. We also support programs that encourage healthy eating—including nutrition classes that teach low-income families how to make healthy baby food.
Cost isn’t the only barrier to healthy, nutritious food: The average food bank client has only $5.83/person/day left over after spending the majority of their income on fixed expenses such as rent and utilities. Cost is a major barrier to accessing food, but it isn’t the only one. What many people don’t know is that there is a lack of healthy food outlets—places that sell nutritious, fresh and culturally-appropriate food—in Toronto’s inner suburbs and low-income neighbourhoods. That’s why innovative solutions such as urban agriculture and healthy food corner stores play an important role in improving nutritious food access and bringing community members together through the growing of food and the cooking and sharing of meals.
Want to help bring nutritious, culturally-appropriate food to people who need it most? Donate to, and volunteer with, our Malvern Urban Farm project—and see how your gift can grow a community, too.
The Boultbee Share program serves up food, and friendship, to residents in need
Thanksgiving is just around the corner. Which means many of us will be gathering with family and friends to share a meal and to express gratitude for the many good things in our lives.
But for the more than half a million people living in poverty in our city, Thanksgiving is a stark reminder of the many barriers they face in getting the food they need.
The rising cost of living in our city means many people can’t afford healthy food after they pay their monthly bills and rent. Residents who live in the city’s “tower” neighbourhoods—high-rise communities in Toronto’s inner suburbs—face even greater challenges when it comes to accessing much-needed food, including a scarcity of healthy grocery stores and limited mobility.
Despite nearly one million visits to food banks in Toronto last year, 40% of adults and 20% of children still went hungry at least one-day-a-week. For many individuals living on a low-income—including single parents and seniors—even getting to a food bank can be difficult. Once they’re there, many feel embarrassed asking for help.
“When I go to the grocery store, the produce manager doesn’t tell me what to buy because he thinks it’s what I need. I get to make those choices myself. I think food security, wherever possible, should invite individuals to share in basic decision-making,” adds Bowser.
An innovative food-sharing program facilitated by Eastview aims to serve up healthy staples—and dignity—at the same time. Every two weeks, residents from a community housing building in Toronto’s east end distribute donated food to other residents in the familiar setting of their apartment’s shared common room. “People feel more comfortable accepting help when it’s from someone they know,” says Pam MacKeigan, a longtime recipient and volunteer with the “Boultbee Share” program.
“Our job is to be the conduit. To get food to the community so they can take ownership of delivering food amongst themselves,” says Bowser. “They know better than anyone else what the particular needs of the residents are. They truly take ownership of the food for those who need it the most. And they know what that need is because it’s in their own living room.”
Summer is in full bloom across the city. But for many Torontonians, access to the fresh fruits and vegetables of the season’s harvest isn’t as easy as a trip to the local grocery store or market.
Many of Toronto’s inner suburbs are also considered “food deserts”
Food security—or access to healthy, safe and culturally-appropriate food —has become a growing health and social issue in this city. This is particularly true in many of Toronto’s inner suburbs—some of which have been called “food deserts”— where there is a concentration of poverty and limited access to grocery stores.
“Often there are physical or geographic barriers too. There are a lack of food outlets that sell healthy, culturally-appropriate food. It’s worrisome that newcomer health declines over the first five years that they’re in Toronto. This is partially because people don’t have access to the food and ingredients they’re used to,” she adds.
Urban agriculture—an umbrella term for food-growing activities in cities—plays a small, but important, role in enhancing food security. It can include everything from growing food on your own balcony (like the residents of this development in Regent Park) to recreational endeavours such as community gardens, kitchens and urban orchards.
A fruit tree from Lotherton-Caledonia’s urban orchard
These neighbourhood spaces, integrated into many of United Way Toronto’s Community Hubs, are about much more than just access to locally-grown, nutritious and culturally-appropriate food. One example? Lotherton-Caledonia’s urban orchard—billed as one of North America’s largest—which brought more than 50 local families together in this “food desert” to adopt individual fruit trees.
“The tree adoption project came from thinking that residents, many of them newcomers, could learn not only to grow their own food, but to take ownership of doing it in their own community,” says Tara Bootan,coordinator of Lotherton’s Action for Neighbourhood Change (ANC), a United Way resident engagement initiative.
It’s innovative urban agriculture projects like these that enhance food security and help sow the seeds of neighbourhood engagement, too. Other examples include commercial food-growing initiatives and social enterprises like CAMH’s market garden, where hospital volunteers grow “food-for-sale” and learn valuable gardening, teamwork and entrepreneurship skills at the same time.
Healthy corner stores provide access to fresh, nutritious food
All of these initiatives are part of a larger health-focused food system,” adds Baker. “This includes healthy corner stores and sustainable food procurement policies to employment opportunities centered around food as well as food waste reduction strategies,” she says.
Toronto’s urban agriculture movement won’t grow and flourish on its own. By working together we can achieve our shared vision of accessible, fresh, local, nutritious, affordable, and culturally-diverse, food for everyone, regardless of where they live.