A recipe for local change in Peel

What if we could re-imagine the way we address hunger in local communities?

A unique pilot project between United Way and the General Mills Foundation in Peel Region is hoping to do exactly that by moving beyond the typical model of food distribution to a more collaborative, community-led approach.

It’s an initiative that comes as the number of people visiting food banks is increasing, rather than decreasing in Peel Region. For example, The Mississauga Food Bank reported an 18 per cent increase in the number of residents accessing their network of food banks and meal programs in 2018.

Access to food is a human right

Where you live shouldn’t determine your access to healthy, nourishing and culturally-appropriate food. But in Peel Region (and across the GTA) financial constraints can prevent our friend and neighbours from accessing the food they need. This has potential immediate and long-term impacts to their physical and mental health and well-being, as well as having a host of other interrelated effects.

Without nourishing food, kids can’t concentrate in school. Adults go to work hungry. And families have to make agonizing choices about keeping the lights on or putting food on the table.

“Access to appropriate, healthy, life-giving food is a universal right,” says Ruth Crammond, United Way Greater Toronto’s Vice President, Community Investment and Development. “But in Peel Region, thousands of people still go without food. It’s a shocking reality in a region as prosperous as the GTA.”

Taking a local approach to food insecurity

While food banks and meal programs have an important role to play when it comes to addressing food insecurity, there’s a lot more to “feeding the hungry” than meeting immediate need.

“Food security is both an immediate and a systemic issue,” explains Crammond. “It’s inextricably linked to poverty and, like poverty, it looks very different from one community to the next.” 

Effectively tackling hunger at a local level means understanding what it looks like and where it exists. In Peel Region, for example, hunger can be hard to see.

“You might see a family of four at the grocery store and they’re buying groceries, ” says Dale Storey, President and Managing Director, General Mills Canada Corporation, “but when they get back to their apartment they can’t take their winter jackets off because they needed to make a trade off between heat and food.”

When you can’t afford a car, or the neighbourhood you live in isn’t well connected to public transit, it can be difficult to even get to a grocery store. For newcomers with limited income or language barriers, it can be hard to ask for help. Newcomers often find themselves in a very different food environment than they are accustomed to and may struggle to make healthy choices because they are unfamiliar with staples supplied by food banks or don’t know how to cook with them.

Following on the footsteps of a similar, and promising, initiative in Greater Twin Cities, United Way Greater Toronto is partnering with the General Mills Foundation to re-imagine local solutions to hunger.

“At General Mills, we believe in the power of food as a force for good in our communities. We are proud to work together with our long-time partners at United Way Greater Toronto to ensure everyone in our hometown community of Mississauga has affordable and reliable access to the food they need and prefer in order to thrive,” says Mary Jane Melendez, President of the General Mills Foundation and Chief Sustainability & Social Impact Officer.

A generous $1-million gift from General Mills is being invested in a number of community food systems grants that will connect residents living in poverty in Mississauga, Ont., with nutritious, culturally appropriate and affordable food. The programs will focus on community education as well as increasing access to food for community agencies, residents and partners across the food system.

Reflecting local demographics and needs

By working together at a “community systems” level, and taking into account local demographics and needs, the following United Way-supported projects are hoping to transform the way we treat hunger.

  • Ecosource’s Deep Roots program connects residents who experience barriers to food access with a network of ten community gardens across Mississauga, which are tailored to local needs.
  • WellFort Community Health Services, on behalf of the Peel Food Action Council, is co-ordinating action to identify local food issues, learn about the local food environment and map out actions to improve and address food access and security.

Not just a pipe dream

Taking a community-led approach is essential to both immediate and long-term, sustainable solutions to hunger.

“We believe achieving food security in Mississauga is possible through enhanced co-operation and innovation across all players in the food system,” says Britt McKee, Executive Director at Ecosource, one of the United Way Greater Toronto agencies that is funded by the General Mills investment.

“It is our collective responsibility to work together to address the complex barriers to food access residents face” explains McKee. “Our goal is to implement creative and culturally-appropriate solutions that are specific to Mississauga.”

While solutions won’t happen overnight, it’s this kind of micro, local change that will help meet immediate need and will provide the blueprint for tackling hunger across a wider geographical footprint. 

How to get involved:

  • Subscribe to Imagine A City where we’ll bring you updates on this project, including successes, challenges and learnings along the way.

Why Community Hubs matter

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Laura Harper Manager, Dorset Park Community Hub

Laura Harper
Manager, Dorset Park Community Hub

What are community hubs? And why are they so important for people and families living in poverty across our region? If you’ve been following the news recently, you may remember that Hubs garnered an important mention in the Ontario government’s latest Throne Speech. That’s because these “one-stop-shops” for social and health services—all under one roof—play an important role in ensuring that everyone across our province has access to the opportunities they need to thrive.

To learn more about these important resources—a crucial part of United Way’s community-building work—Imagine a City spoke with Laura Harper, Senior Manager, Programs and Services, Agincourt Community Services Association, and Hub Manager at United Way’s Dorset Park Community Hub.

1. What is a Community Hub?

Working together with donors and community partners, United Way has opened seven Community Hubs throughout our region with an eighth currently in development. These Hubs serve more than one purpose. Although they act as a one-stop shop where people can access vital programs and services all under one roof, they are also places where residents come to build community. In 2005, Toronto identified 13 priority neighbourhoods that are home to some of our most vulnerable residents—many of whom are isolated from crucial social services, supports and infrastructure. Community Hubs bridge these gaps. Although neighbourhoods throughout our communities differ greatly, that’s the common thread between them. Whether a neighbourhood is made up of a high concentration of newcomers, residents living on a low income, single mothers or youth who aren’t graduating, Community Hubs bring together resources to provide a place that supports the diverse growing needs of a community.

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2. What services do they offer? 

Community Hubs offer a wide breadth of services based on a community’s needs—that’s why the Hub model is so effective. We’re able to work with community leaders and residents to identify needs and discuss what their vision is for the space. For example, at the Dorset Park Community Hub, we were able to match community partners to the needs of the community to offer food bank access, newcomer settlement supports, early childhood programs and employment resources. We also offer recreational space including a computer lab and community kitchen.

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3. Why are Community Hubs so important?

Community Hubs are an important part of building stronger neighbourhoods because they involve people who live in the community—and know the issues first-hand—in every stage of the development and ongoing operation. Residents are engrained in the decision-making process because they want to make their community better. When Dorset Park residents saw that a Community Hub was opening, they felt truly invested. They felt that a funder like United Way believed in them so they took ownership of the space. The Hub represents opportunity for the community—opportunity to have their needs met, cultivate new relationships, discover a sense of empowerment and to become active participants in creating a stronger neighbourhood. 

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4. What role do local residents play in supporting the activities and ongoing operation of the Hubs?

Community Hubs could not thrive without the support of residents. Before the Hubs opened, residents wanted to get engaged in their community, but lacked the infrastructure, mentorship and organization to get community-led initiatives off the ground. They wanted a space where they could come together and start projects of their own.

An example I always highlight is the Women`s English Circle that started when a group of women identified that many newcomers in the community wanted to learn English. Though the program was initially successful, when it moved over to the Dorset Park Community Hub, membership grew exponentially. Now, 80 women actively participate in the program, most of whom were formerly isolated. This resident-led program not only gives women the opportunity to learn English, but perhaps more importantly, it’s connecting them with other women in the community. Now, the participants are actively engaging in other resources, have become volunteers and are even running initiatives of their own.