A neighbourhood lens on food security

Maybe you’ve heard the term ‘food desert,’ but what about ‘food swamp’? Here’s what that means—and why you might be living in one without even knowing it.

Food insecurity doesn’t always look like you think. Many of us have heard the term food desert, which refers to communities that don’t have grocery stores, farmer’s markets or other healthy food providers. They’re usually located in low-income areas, and unsurprisingly, they often have high rates of food insecurity.  

That doesn’t sound anything like Peel Region, where there are ample grocery stores, restaurants and specialty food stores. But that doesn’t mean there’s no hunger here. Keisa Campbell, Manager, Neighbourhoods and Community Investment at United Way of Greater Toronto says food insecurity looks different depending on the neighbourhood, and in Peel, there’s plenty of food. But not everyone can access it.  

“Peel is actually a food ‘swamp’,” says Campbell, which according to Region of Peel experts means that sources of less healthy food greatly outnumber sources containing more healthy food by a factor of at least five to one. “There’s tons of food here, and it reflects all kinds of cultures. But it’s expensive. It’s cheaper to get chips than some nice fresh vegetables, or even some culturally appropriate food. So, what people end up doing is, they eat the chips.”  

There’s another problem in this region, Campbell says. In new subdivisions, there may be grocery stores or even food banks relatively close by—but you need a car to get there, so people living on a low-income may not be able to access them.  

When food security looks different depending on where you live, that requires a locally based solution that takes into account the unique needs of the people who live in the community. 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.  

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. 

One example? The Nourishing Communities project at United Way-supported MIAG Centre for Diverse Women & Families, one of six community food systems grants funded by the General Mills Foundation. It’s a nine-session program that combines seminars on food safety, reducing waste, reading food labels and working within a budget with food demonstrations, and gives participants a chance to connect with other members of the community through food. During the pandemic, the program has gone virtual—just as it became more necessary than ever

Many people are experiencing major changes to their financial stability, either because they’ve lost their jobs or because their hours have been reduced. “That means they have less money coming into the home, which automatically puts them in a situation where they’re going to have food insecurity because they just don’t to have the funds to buy food,” Campbell says. “What we’re also seeing is, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of people accessing food banks.” According to the federal government, one in seven people report they’re experiencing food insecurity, which puts people in the position of having to choose between paying for food or shelter and can lead to a whole host of physical and mental health concerns.  

That’s something Kerri-Anne Lambie, the coordinator of the Nourishing Communities project, has seen first-hand. “Now we have the anxieties that come with traveling in public,” she says. “If you don’t have a vehicle and you are a single mom, you aren’t necessarily going to feel comfortable bringing your children out into public. Living in an apartment building also means that you’re traveling throughout common areas. So, it’s not just the shortage of food itself, it’s also anxieties about getting sick, or getting the elders or children who live with you sick.” 

“We have moved to an online model, but it’s the same basic principle. We have a local nutritionist, so participants are still learning about the recipes and all of the nutrition,” Lambie says. “I find that being on Zoom also breaks that isolation for those who are fearful or unsure about moving out into the community itself. And people who have mobility issues and may not have been able to physically attend can now participate. So, we are hopefully encouraging interaction and community and avoiding social isolation.”

But Campbell, Lambie and Dale Storey, President and Managing Director, General Mills Canada Corporation, agree that while food banks and programs like the Nourishing Communities project are important, big-picture solutions are also necessary, especially right now. 

As Storey points out, the people who were already at risk for food insecurity—single-parent families led by women, as well as Indigenous populations, racialized populations and newcomers to Canada—are the ones who have been hardest hit by COVID-19, and who are at the highest risk of experiencing food insecurity. “The pandemic will have a devastating impact on so many in our community,” he says. “But the most vulnerable populations will likely be most impacted.” 

General Mills’ $1-million gift is a start, he says, but there’s still much more work to be done—including advocating for systemic changes that tackle the complicated tangle of factors that cause food insecurity, including system racism, income inequality, underemployment, insufficient childcare options and poverty.  

“We would love to see various levels of government address things childcare benefits, guaranteed income, income supplements for seniors, and affordable housing so people can have the adequate funds to be able to buy the food they need and do all the other things that they need the money to do,” Campbell says.

Access to food during COVID-19

The current crisis magnifies a reality: times like this push our most vulnerable to their limits, and beyond. It’s also impacting their ability to meet their basic needs, like accessing nutritious food. To help unpack the impact of COVID-19 on individuals and families across the GTA, and the underlying systemic issues that contribute to food inaccessibility, United Way Greater Toronto President and CEO Daniele Zanotti engaged experts in a virtual conversation. Panellists Paul Taylor, Executive Director of  FoodShare, Kate Greavette, Executive Director of York Region Food Network, and  Adaoma Patterson, Manager, Poverty Reduction Initiatives & Community Engagement at Region of Peel, discussed how access to food is impacted during the current crisis.

Working with frontline agencies to address food insecurity 

Lack of access to food is a pressing emerging need reported by United Way Greater Toronto’s frontline agencies, and by the groups the organization co-chairs with the City of Toronto and our co-ordinated partnerships in the 905, including Peel and York. It is also the reason behind the majority of calls to United Way-funded 211. “Between April 1 and April 8, 211 referred 2,700 callers to local food banks,” said Daniele Zanotti, President and CEO of United Way Greater Toronto. To address the need, United Way provided flexible funding to our agencies so that they can respond to emerging needs caused by COVID-19, including access to food.  

Providing meals to food insecure individuals and families in York Region 

To address increased food demand in York, York Region Food Network (YRFN) has shifted all of its resources towards food access. The organization takes a systemic approach to addressing food insecurity by raising public awareness around issues that impact people’s access to food, like affordable housing, adequate employment and accessible childcare. YRFN has a variety of interventions, from supporting access to food right now to offering a weekly breakfast every Tuesday. “The requests are coming from people from all backgrounds, from Vaughan to Markham to Georgina,” says Kate  Greavette, Executive Director of YRFN. YRFN is also working on providing food to seniors who are experiencing various illnesses and aren’t able to leave their homes.  

Improving economic opportunities to increase access to food 

Adaoma Patterson—Manager of Poverty Initiatives with United Way co-chaired Peel Poverty Reduction Committee (PPRC)—reported witnessing a sense of urgency as a result of COVID-19. “Our priorities were always around economic opportunities and the types of jobs people have access to,” she said. According to Patterson, what the current crisis has magnified for the Committee is that people in entry-level and precarious jobs are particularly vulnerable. “We’re seeing the safety net in our system being tested significantly. We’re seeing who is falling through the cracks.” Patterson stressed the need to think about what else food insecure individuals might need. “When people need food, it’s often that they need a meal plus other things.”

Addressing barriers to food security 

Paul Taylor, Executive Director of  FoodShare, a United Way-supported agency, also stressed the need to address systemic issues that lead to food insecurity. “The biggest challenge is that we’ve got a recipe for hunger and poverty. We have low minimum wages that lead to poverty and we have high housing costs. All of those factors contribute to 4 million people being food insecure,” he said. To address food insecurity, FoodShare recognizes the need for interventions like affordable child care, affordable housing and income that supports the right to food. “We’ve got people who are food insecure and we really want to help them,” he added. 

You can watch the full webinar below. Look out for invitations to future webinars that will help unpack the impact of your support on the most vulnerable in our community.


SUPPORT UNITED WAY’S LOCAL LOVE FUND

Your gift to United Way Greater Toronto’s Local Love Fund will help friends and neighbours access life’s essentials during this challenging time. Donate now.


6 ways you can help your community during COVID-19

Looking for a way to support your community during this challenging time? We’ve rounded up six great ways you can show your local love, while keeping yourself and others safe.  

1. Volunteer  

Many organizations are in need of in-person and remote volunteers to deliver vital services and resources to community members—but they also need people to be patient.  

“At the local agencies, we are in crisis mode right now,” explains Maureen Fair, Executive Director of United Way-supported West Neighbourhood House. “We are inspired by the drive of people to volunteer, but we need to assess this crisis first, and assess our supply and need for personal protective equipment for our staff and volunteers.” 

Two great ways to find out where and how you can be useful right now is through Spark’s list of volunteer opportunities or Volunteer Toronto’s COVID-19 Volunteer Response Team email blasts. Both will help you find a way to get involved ASAP.  

2. Learn  

You may feel overwhelmed by the constant updates about COVID-19, but it’s important to stay informed about the situation in your community—and what is being asked of citizens. Check out United Way’s list of reliable resources to keep on top of local health and regional developments or check out your municipality’s website or social media channels for updates.  

If you want to keep up to date on how community agencies, local governments and United Way are working together to support our vulnerable friends and neighbours, you can check out this informative webinar that outlines United Way’s community response to COVID-19.

3. Connect  

When asked what people could do right now to help, United Way’s President and CEO Daniele Zanotti has a simple answer: “Call your friends and loved ones. Check in with them. Help them where it’s safe and if you can.” 

It’s critical that we keep reaching out to one another as we self-isolate. While you’re staying at home, give an elderly neighbour or family member a call to see how they’re doing. Offer to drop off groceries to people who don’t feel comfortable, or can’t, go to the store. Write a letter to a friend to let them know you’re thinking about them. Or join a caremongering Facebook group where you can offer moral support and assistance to people in your community.  

4. Share 

We could all use some cheering up these days, which is why we recommend sharing moments of laughter, joy and local love on your social media, in a group chat or with your family. It’s a great way to show people that they’re not alone—and that we can still come together while we’re #stayingathome.  

Need some inspiration? Check out the #caremongering hashtag on Twitter and Instagram!  

5. Give to your local food bank  

Food bank use was already on the rise in Toronto—and now, more than ever, people and families experiencing poverty or food insecurity need easy access to groceries. If you picked up one too many items on your last trip to the store, consider dropping your extras off at your local food bank. TorontoPeel and York Region are all calling for donations right now. 

6. Donate to United Way’s Local Love fund 

You can support United Way’s network of community agencies, which is providing on-the-ground support to people and families across the GTA, by donating to the Local Love Fund. Your gift will: 

  • ensure access to basic needs 
  • provide help for seniors 
  • ensure access to mental health supports  
  • keep our community services running 

Show your local love by giving generously today.  

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.