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.


Changemakers to watch: Michael Braithwaite

Meet Michael Braithwaite. He’s a passionate champion who’s made it his life’s work to ensure young people facing barriers have every opportunity for a promising future. As the Executive Director of 360°kids, he’s not only providing a safe haven for at-risk youth, he’s pursuing innovative, out-of-the-box ideas to tackle homelessness in York Region.

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Michael Braithwaite
Executive Director, 360°kids

WHO: Michael has a long history is the social services sector. Before taking the lead at 360°kids, a United Way–supported agency, he spent over two decades with the YMCA—spearheading everything from day camps in Niagara Region to a men’s shelter in downtown Hamilton and employment programming in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood. But as a father of three, Michael is especially drawn to the youth demographic. “My kids look no different than the young people that I work with everyday,” he says. “I like working with youth because they have so much to offer. If they matter to just one person, that can be the hope they need to turn their life around.”

WHY: In March, 360°kids was named “Best Non-Profit” at the Richmond Hill Chamber of Commerce 2016 Business Awards. And with good reason. Thanks to a partnership with the Regional

Michael and his daughter, Irene, following the 360° Experience.

Michael and his daughter, Irene, following the 360° Experience.

Municipality of York, 360°kids is operating out of a new 20,000-square-foot facility in Richmond Hill, increasing its youth drop-in capacity. Prior to the expansion, there were only 27 shelter beds dedicated to youth throughout the rapidly-growing region. “Housing is a major issue in York Region, especially for young people who are experiencing issues at home,” explains Michael. “These crucial spaces allow youth to live semi-independently while accessing the supports they need to get back on their feet.”

Michael celebrates 360°kids' award for "Best Non-Profit" at the Richmond Hill Chamber of Commerce 2016 Business Awards.

Michael celebrates 360°kids’ award for “Best Non-Profit” at the Richmond Hill Chamber of Commerce 2016 Business Awards.

It’s an issue Michael knows well—because it hits close to home. For years, his sister struggled with addiction and mental health issues, and, at just 16, found herself in and out of precarious housing. “It can happen to anyone and any family,” says Michael. “This cause drives me because if my sister had access to an organization like 360°kids growing up, she might have broken that pattern a long time ago.”

But Michael’s impact is more than just bricks-and-mortar improvements. His team has also been the brains behind 360° Experience, which invites business and community leaders to experience a day in the life of homeless youth—braving the cold, hunger and isolation. “I wanted to do something that really has an impact,” he says. “You might only endure these struggles for one day, but it’s an experience that will last a lifetime.”

Michael and Phil Dawson, Fire & EMS Chief, East Gwillimbury, struggle to keep warm during the 360° Experience.

Michael and Phil Dawson, Fire & EMS Chief, East Gwillimbury, struggle to keep warm during the 360° Experience.

WHAT’S NEXT: Drawing on innovative ideas from across the globe, Michael is now piloting a preventative program—in partnership with Raising the Roof—that will see outreach workers visiting schools to identify early signs of struggle that could lead to homelessness. He’s also working to create the first LGBTQ youth shelter in York Region, and plans to have 360°kids become the first Night Stop-accredited agency in Canada—a UK-based program that matches individuals and families who have space in their home to young people in need. “It would only cost $4,000 a year to place a child in an actual home—whether it’s a couple whose grown children have moved out or a senior who feels isolated and could use some extra help around the house,” he explains. “It would be beneficial to both parties, and the best part: a child would have a real place to call home.”

GOOD ADVICE:

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