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.


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.