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.

5 tips for hosting a community supper

If you’re looking for a way to foster community among your neighbours, a communal meal—done well—is ideal.

That’s because food is a universal language that breaks down barriers and unites people of different backgrounds, says food and social justice activist Nick Saul. “There is something about food that has been bringing people together since we started to walk, forage and communicate with one another,” he says. “We could light a fire, and people would eat and tell stories and share—I think it’s something in our DNA.”

Saul has seen the value of a community supper countless times as co-founder, president and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada, a national organization that builds and supports food-focused community centres in low-income neighbourhoods. At these centres, community members can get involved in the production and preparation of healthy food that is served respectfully.

According to Saul, food can either stigmatize and embarrass people, or empower and connect them. But any community can benefit from having people come together over a meal, he says. Here are his best tips for hosting your own community supper.

1. Get the word out well in advance

Have a small organizing team that is as diverse as possible and reflective of the community. This ensures that people of all backgrounds will hear about your event and feel included in the planning.

2. Take inspiration from the community

Your plans, from the food to the decorations, should reflect the many different people in the neighbourhood. Saul suggests having different cultural food options, plus vegetarian dishes and those without diary or gluten to ensure everyone can enjoy the meal.

3. Make sure everyone feels welcome

If you are planning on discussing community issues, making the event adults-only makes sense. But there is no need to be hasty when making that decision. There are several options, says Saul, such as organizing childcare or providing children’s activities at the same location as the meal.

4. Decide what your goals are

Saul says the event could be planned around a theme or a type of food. People could discuss a certain issue, such as gentrification, affordable housing or community gardens. Or it could just be about bringing people together.

5. Splurge on real dishes

Through his work with food centres, Saul has seen the difference small things like cutlery, plates and glasses can make for many people. “They should not be plastic and disposable. I think that sends a message to people that they are disposable,” he says. “In our context of working with a lot of low-income people, we have learned that they often feel isolated, alone and not cared about. So I am really convinced that if you make that meal with love, people feel that—and, as a result, they feel that they matter, too, because someone took a lot of care.”

Another great way to be involved in your community is to volunteer with a food centre. Community Food Centres Canada has eight centres that offer volunteer opportunities in many areas, including fundraising, helping prep communal meals, community garden support or kitchen help.