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.
- Seva Food Bank’s Fundamentals of Cooking Classes brings volunteers and chefs together with families in need to show them how to prepare healthy meals on a lean budget using all the nutritious items in their food bank.
- 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.
- Polycultural Immigrant and Community Services’ Food Brings People Together program is creating a toolkit to help newcomers and refugees in Sheridan access local food services and supports.
- The Mississauga Food Bank’s Matching Client Needs with Local Support program is building relationships with local grocery chains and discount outlets to donate surplus product for food bank network distribution to more than 40 agencies across Mississauga.
- MIAG Centre for Diverse Women & Families’ Nourishing Communities offers food education, cooking techniques, food safety and handling workshops, and food demonstration and tasting for newcomers and others in Peel Region.
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.