3 women who inspire us

It’s International Women’s Day! To celebrate, we put together a list of three women who inspire us. These remarkable individuals live right here in Toronto and York Region—changing lives and making our community a better place to live each and every day.

JOSHNA MAHARAJ: Joshna’s appetite for community change is insatiable. As a busy chef with big ideas, the South African native has demonstrated a tremendous passion for turning her culinary interests into community activism. After graduating from McMaster University, Joshna spent time living in India before returning to Toronto to pursue a career in the food industry. Joshna believes passionately that food “is a crucial piece of community building and rejuvenation.” She began her culinary career at The Stop Community Food Centre and also volunteered at FoodShare, a United Way-supported agency, where she helped develop a student nutrition program. At the Scarborough Hospital, for example, she worked tirelessly to overhaul the patient menu to include healthier, more culturally-appropriate options—the first project of its kind in Ontario. These days she’s busy working on her vision to bring large-scale change to the healthcare, rehabilitation and education sectors so that people can access fresh, local food when they visit places like hospitals and universities. “Food is such a perfect common denominator,” says Joshna. “It nourishes our bodies, but it also nourishes our spirit. There is a connection and a conviviality that comes from gathering in a kitchen, community garden or at a table. These are things that really give people a sense of belonging.” We love Joshna’s passion for her work and her tireless efforts to bring people together around food. We can’t wait to see what she cooks up next!

CHEYANNE RATNAM: At just 14, Cheyanne experienced hidden homelessness, couch-surfing with friends after she was forced to leave home because of family conflict and abuse. Cheyanne, who is Sri Lankan, was eventually placed into the care of the Children’s Aid Society where she remained during high school, yet managed to excel. Despite struggling with homelessness and a number of other barriers—including mental health issues like depression—Cheyanne was determined to build a better life for herself—and others just like her. Today, she’s thriving, after graduating from university and pursuing a busy career in the social services sector where she advocates on behalf of homeless newcomer youth and young people in and out of the child welfare and adoption system. One of her proudest accomplishments? In 2014, she co-founded What’s the Map—an advocacy and research group that has started a cross-sectoral conversation on how to remove barriers and better meet the needs of newcomer homeless youth. Cheyanne is also a public speaker for the Children’s Aid Foundation and a coordinator at Ryerson University for an education symposium for youth in care. And despite a busy schedule, she still finds time to mentor young people experiencing homelessness and other barriers. We’re inspired by Cheyanne’s remarkable resiliency and passion to help young people. And we’re not the only ones! Last year, her alma mater, York University, recognized her with a prestigious Bryden Award that celebrates remarkable contributions to the university community and beyond. “I hope to send a message to young people who are facing barriers that they are not alone and that it’s ‘OK to not be OK’. I want them to know that we’re here to help. The present circumstances should not define who you are or who you’ll become.”

SUSAN MCISAAC: We may be a little biased, but we think our recently-retired President and CEO, Susan McIsaac, is an extraordinarily inspiring individual who has dedicated her life’s work to championing social justice. During her 18 years at United Way (six years at the helm), Susan was a key architect of United Way’s transformation from trusted fundraiser to community mobilizer and catalyst for impact. She’s an inspiring example of a bold and compassionate leader who cares deeply about making a difference in the lives of people and families across our region. “We have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to make sure the kind of disenfranchisement that has cracked the foundation of other places doesn’t jeopardize our home,” explains Susan. “To make that happen, we need to re-commit ourselves to ensuring that anyone and everyone who works hard can get ahead.” It’s this very sense of commitment that continues to reverberate throughout the community services sector and beyond. So much so, in fact, that just last month, Susan was awarded the TRBOT’s Toronto Region Builder Award for her significant contribution to improving communities, and in 2014 was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by WXN.

Ask the Expert: Can we end poverty?

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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 City spoke 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?

adsc_5343Poverty 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

How much do you know about food security?

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.

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But for too many people living in Toronto and York Region, access to healthy, affordable, and culturally-appropriate food has become a major barrier to a good life. We also know that income is the root cause of food insecurity, and that in order to address this growing problem, we need to work together to close the gaps between those who are doing well financially and those who are not.

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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.


For detailed answers, click here.

Ask the Expert: How are health and poverty related?

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Kwame McKenzie
CEO, Wellesley Institute
Psychiatrist, CAMH

Kwame McKenzie is the CEO of the Wellesley Institute, a Toronto-based non-profit research and policy institute that focuses on advancing population health. Also a CAMH psychiatrist, he’s a leading expert on the social causes of mental illness and making our health system more equitable. Imagine a City spoke with Kwame for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn how health and poverty are related.

1. Is there a connection between income and our health?

There’s a strong link between income and health. But, it’s not just about the amount of money you make and what you can buy, it’s what your whole life is like as a result, including where you live, work and the food that you eat. These factors—the social determinants of health—influence the health of individuals and even entire populations, putting vulnerable people at a higher risk of having poor physical and mental health and decreasing their life expectancy.

2. What are some examples of the social determinants of health?

On top of income, other factors that greatly affect our quality of life include gender, disability and race. Health is also determined by our ability to access quality education, nutritious food, adequate housing and social and health services. Another big factor is job security and working conditions.

3. How does poverty influence a person’s physical and mental health?

Living in poverty greatly impacts a person’s physical and mental health. For example, living on a low income means you’re going to be living in less adequate housing where air pollutants or mould could cause asthma. What we eat is a major indicator of our health status as well, and for many people living in poverty, accessing good, nutritious food is financially and physically not feasible. This could lead to very serious conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Precarious work is another major factor that brings with it a host of health concerns. Workers without job security often lack holidays, benefits or sick days and spend long hours commuting to work. This causes high levels of stress and anxiety as a result.

Unfortunately, all of these factors produce a vicious cycle, which both psychologically and physically makes a person more vulnerable to illness, even down to something like the flu. Once you’ve got one illness, you’re more likely to get another.

4. What are some of the best ways to address these issues to improve the well-being of Canadians?

Studies show that the healthiest people are in economies where they’ve decreased poverty, the gap between rich and poor and started really investing in people. That means ensuring access to good jobs, increasing food security and giving kids the best start in life. This last piece is especially important. Studies show a child’s resilience to both physical and mental problems is linked to the amount of face-to-face time with their parents. You can imagine how poverty has a generational impact. It produces a trajectory, which means increased risk of illness through childhood into adult life. That’s why the early years are so important. We have to make sure that children get proper nutrition and have access to child development programs and high-quality daycare to ensure kids get a good start in life.

United Way has a big hand in addressing these issues. They glue society together and make sure that people living in poverty or who are marginalized don’t fall between the cracks. It’s not glamorous, but it’s the biggest improvement we’re going to get in-house. Without United Way, all of the problems that we have with the social determinants of health and poverty would be magnified significantly.

5. Why is this an issue that affects all of us?

Healthy people can mean healthy communities, but healthy communities also breed healthy people. It’s a two-way street. Income inequality is important, because without a healthy economy and a healthy society, then people will not thrive. Ultimately, we need to focus on creating a society that’s inclusive and supportive of everyone in our community.

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ICYMI: 3 must-read blog posts

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!

What is hidden homelessness?

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.

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5 Women who inspire us

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!

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What if you had to choose? 

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.

5 community events you can’t miss

Toronto Islands, C.N. Tower, Ripley’s Aquarium, Canada’s Wonderland. With the season halfway over, chances are you’ve already visited one of these summer hot spots. So we put together our own list of community events happening right across our region. Get outside, have some fun and get to know a new neighbourhood.

1. HOPE Community Garden BBQ – August 11, 2016

Community Garden BBQLooking for an event that brings together residents, young and old? The 5th Annual HOPE Community Garden BBQ takes place August 11 in Vaughan. It’s organized to celebrate the seniors who help grow and nurture the community garden, many of whom participate in this project through wellness programs funded by United Way. It’s a great opportunity for elderly residents, who are more likely to experience isolation, to participate in a community-building event. Come for the BBQ…and stay for an action-packed day full of intergenerational fun!

2. Dragon Boat Race for United Way – August 13, 2016

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Taking place in beautiful King City, the Dragon Boat Race for United Way is more than just a fundraiser; it’s a community-building opportunity with something for everyone. Watch the paddlers race to support their region while enjoying music, yummy BBQ, and plenty of activities for kids. With 100% of the fundraising from this event going directly to changing lives across our region, it’s sure to be an incredible day!

 

 

 

3. Good Food Market at CICS – August 12 and 26, 2016

Good Food market option 1Show your support for a local community garden in Agincourt by visiting the Good Food Market at the Centre for Immigrant and Community Services, a United Way-supported agency. It’s a great way to get affordable, seasonal, and organic veggies and to see firsthand the vital role innovative urban gardening programs play in helping get healthy, nutritious food to the nearly one in 10 households in Toronto that experience some level of food insecurity.

4. Moonlight movies in the park – August 12-13, 2016

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Want to enjoy a fun flick with your family in some of Toronto’s many beautiful parks? Park People, a non-profit organization, has teamed up with parks and recreation centres across Toronto—including United Way agencies—to bring movies to the masses this summer. Malvern Family Resource Centre is co-hosting The Lego Movie at Little Road Park on August 12 and Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office is co-hosting Madagascar at RV Burgess Park on August 13. Bring your own snacks, camping chairs and blankets and grab a spot for some blockbusters that also bring communities together.

5. Scarborough Community Multicultural Festival – August 5-7, 2016

Multicultural eventCome out to this 3-day festival to celebrate the cuisine, music, and art of the many diverse cultural communities that make up Scarborough. This year, the festival will also host a Canadian citizenship ceremony to welcome some of the nearly 75,000 newcomers who arrive in Toronto and York Region each year. So get out to Scarborough Civic Centre this summer to celebrate your own cultural background or learn something new about your neighbour.

Now it’s your turn. Tell us how you’re getting to know your community this summer!

Food for thought on food security

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What does it mean to be food “insecure”?

  1. Running out of food before there is money to buy more
  2. Not being able to afford a healthy, balanced diet
  3. Missing meals
  4. 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.

  1. Food insecurity affects 1 in 8 Toronto households: The latest Household Food Insecurity in Canada report says 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 communitieDSC_9131
  1. 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.

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  1. 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.

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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.

How to show you’re a company that cares

The holiday season is here. Around this time of year, we hear from many of you who are looking for opportunities to give back to the nearly 1 in 5 adults in Toronto and 1 in 8 people in York Region who live in poverty.

This also includes many small- and medium-sized businesses that are looking for thoughtful and impactful ways to change lives locally—but might not know where to start.

So we put together a few suggestions. One place to start? Seasonal volunteer opportunities—such as delivering holiday meals to individuals and families in need or packing holiday hampers.

“It can be a lot of fun to come together with your colleagues outside of a work environment in the spirit of giving back,” says Camara Chambers, Director of Community Engagement at Volunteer Toronto, which currently has several holiday-specific volunteering opportunities listed on its website.

Since volunteering opportunities in the non-profit sector tend to go quickly around the holidays, Chambers has a few other ideas for employees and businesses to give back. These include organizing a clothing drive at your office, creating care kits for homeless shelters, contributing to local toy drives or even donating items such as food and blankets to animal shelters.

Another way to demonstrate that your company cares? Make a gift through an online giving catalogue such as United Way’s Warmest Wishes.

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It’s a quick and easy way to spread some warmth—including much-needed winter necessities such as clothing, food and care—to people right here in our communities.

And the need is great. On any given night, some 5,000 people in Toronto alone find themselves homeless and facing winter’s harsh realities. A meal, a pair of winter boots or a warm winter jacket can help change a life.

“It makes us feel good to be able to give back locally,” says Andrew Buck, CEO of Toronto-based Juice Worldwide. “Gift giving opportunities like this are a win-win for us. Our staff can demonstrate in a very tangible way that they really care about making a difference in the lives of people right here in our communities.”

Chambers agrees. “In recent years, we’ve increasingly seen consumers looking to buy local and to really support their local communities,” says Chambers. “Whether it’s buying a winter jacket for someone in need or wrapping presents for a charity toy drive, giving back in these ways really puts a heart behind what companies are doing.”

Now we want to hear from you. What is your workplace doing to give back this holiday season?  Why not join others in giving the gift of warmth? Warmestwishes.ca

 

Why dignified access to food matters

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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.

Food security is about more than just access to food,” says Kerry Bowser, executive director of Eastview Neighbourhood Community Centre , a United Way Toronto-supported agency. “It’s about choice and dignity. Being able to make decisions for yourself and your family when it comes to something that’s a basic necessity of life.”

“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.”