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Food for thought

Bonnie Soutar at NDG Market

October 16, declared to be World Food Day by the United Nations, is observed worldwide as a day of raising awareness and rallying support around the issues of hunger. In Montreal, that day, one out of six people, including children, will miss a meal. “It’s been the same for the last 10 years,” says Josee Belleau, coordinator of Nourrir Montreal, a committee composed of various organizations dedicated to building food security in the city. “About 15% of the population is food insecure; some a few times during the year, some all the time.”

According to the Canadian Association of Food Banks, food bank use in Canada has escalated by 91% since 1989, the first year such statistics were collected. Though the economy has improved and unemployment rates are down, 50% of lowest income households and 30% of lower middle-income households across the country experience food insecurity. The most vulnerable groups are single people, families or seniors, relying on disability or social assistance or the “working poor” — representing 16% of the workforce — trapped in low paying/temporary jobs.

Advocates say children are over-represented at food banks. At the NDG Food Depot over 3,200 people are helped each year, with 30% being below the age of 14. Exe­cutive director Michael Kay says that over the last 10 years he’s seen the same people being poorer for longer. “In very concrete terms, this deepening and broadening of poverty is: the new-born who is not given enough nutrition in the early years of life and suffers the consequences of that lack for the rest of his/her life; the normally bright child who is hungry three out of five school days and is often listless; the loving parents who develop depression because they blame themselves for not being able to provide the necessities and make ends meet; the busy senior who has to go without essential medication in order to buy food, thereby posing unnecessary dangers to his/her health.”

Food banks were set up in the eighties as a temporary emergency measure. As it becomes more evident that for the time being food banks are here to stay, the thinking about hunger and its consequences is changing as people try to understand its root causes. Statistics are kept with the reservation that they only represent the tip of the iceberg. “The research on household insecurity indicates that only a fraction of the people who are experiencing income-related food problems uses food banks,” writes Valerie Tarasuk, professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto. In her foreword to CAFB’s Hungercount 2007 (a yearly survey of food bank use) she says: “We now have a very good understanding of the circumstances that render individuals and families vulnerable to problems of food insecurity. We also understand that food insecurity is a serious public health problem, linked to nutritional vulnerability. What we haven’t figured out though is how to get our political leaders to take this problem seriously enough to do something about it.”

The concept of food security is a direct outcome of the recognition that hunger is a human-rights issue that is not simply caused by a lack of food. Long term solutions are needed to persistent problems such as a shortage of full-time jobs that meet a family’s basic needs adequately, an income security system that allows many to fall “between the cracks” and the lack of affordable housing and child care.

These new solutions involve the community in activities such as collective and community gardening, group purchasing of food, cooking and nutrition activities, skills-exchange workshops, and other programs.

On each Saturday in September, a pilot project brought citizens and farmers together in several boroughs in a pilot pro­ject organized by Nourrir Montreal. “We made public spaces such as schoolyards and city parks available to citizens and food producers to provide access to healthy food for the harvest season,” Belleau said. In five boroughs 1890 people visited the market the first Saturday it opened, attracted by the proximity, the prices and the country fair atmosphere.

The Good Food Box, a collective buying group that started out in NDG but now is city wide and spearheaded by Harvest Montreal, did much of the purchasing of the food. It operates year-round to provide fresh vegetables grown by local farmers at low cost to everyone.

“We have clients from all income levels,” says Bonnie Soutar, Good Food Box coordinator. “The larger the number of people who participate, the more you can buy for your money.” Access to fresh foods is not to be taken for granted, Soutar says. “In some areas there are only depanneurs or supermarkets with very high prices.”

Now operating in 10 boroughs, the Good Food Box is great for the value conscious shopper, the struggling local farmer and the discriminating cook alike. It comes in three sizes and may be ordered in advance at a pick up point in participating boroughs.

“We are in the midst of rebuilding a real sense of community,” Kay writes in the Depot’s annual report, “one without exclusions, one that does not let its members go without food or health care, one that values the abilities and contributions of all — and also one that demands that its governments and businesses undertake their full responsibilities in relation to the general population. Attitudes and projects addressing these issues need to be furthered or created.”

For information on The Good Food Box call Bonnie Soutar at 514-582-6908.

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