Food-policy failures fan hunger and poverty
On Christmas Day 2008, Rev. Ric Matthews stood at the front door of the First United Church Mission to welcome the residents of the Downtown Eastside to a free Christmas lunch. It became apparent that something was wrong with the situation. “I heard individual after individual saying, ”˜I’m stuffed. This is my third meal of the day,’ ” Matthews said.
When the City of Vancouver’s Homeless Emergency Action Team (HEAT) opened First United’s 24-hour homeless shelter last winter, along with four others, hundreds of homeless people came off the streets and the free-food floodgates were opened.
As the fight to end homelessness became a priority on the city’s agenda, average Vancouverites started taking notice. Leftover or unused food from bakeries, restaurants, convenience stores, catered events, and private citizens began flowing into the DTES. What ensued was a surge of donated food that washed into the area, leaving social-service providers wading in its aftermath.
The resulting lack of quality, ineffective distribution, and inadequate access have taken their toll on an area already struggling with food insecurity. Now, more than ever, poor people in this city are at the mercy of a completely dysfunctional food system.
Is there hunger in the DTES? According to Matthews, there’s enough food in the area, it is just not being managed properly. “There clearly is a need for food, but”¦my sense is that it’s not because people will otherwise go hungry. I think, in the main, there’s always enough food in the DTES. In fact, there’s probably more than enough.”
In spite of the current push to help the homeless and the wave of food donations into the area, Judy Graves, housing advocate for the City of Vancouver, insisted that there is still definitely hunger in the Downtown Eastside. She talks to homeless people every day, she said, and many of them have told her personally that they have difficulty getting enough to eat.
“Accessing the meals that are provided in the DTES is exhausting,” she said. “Some of the meals are not substantial and not nutritious and there simply is not enough food for everyone.” Graves said she thinks more needs to be done to solve this problem on many different levels. “Delivery of food in the DTES needs to be done systematically rather than provided by providers. It needs to be funded properly. We can’t be completely dependent on charity and donations.”
Graves said that donors need to think before dropping off food in the DTES. “When we’re handing out food, we need to pay real attention to the nutritional quality of the food that we’re handing out. It’s really important that it actually be food that will keep them going and healthy.”
Vancouver Coastal Health has been working with Lower Mainland communities for the past four years on the issue of food security. In July 2008, it released a report titled Food Security: A Framework for Action, which includes an emphasis food insecurity and vulnerable populations.
Claire Gram, regional coordinator for Vancouver Coastal Health’s community food security, sees a need to address this issue. “Along with the universal issues around promoting healthy eating and nutrition and a sustainable food system for all, we need to make sure that we’re targeting the higher-need populations.”
Gram confirmed that food insecurity is getting worse for many in this city and isn’t just a problem for the homeless. “Income inequities are growing, which, of course, affects the health inequities that grow at the same pace,” she said.
The current use of the charity model is troublesome to Gram. “Our big goal is to shrink the charitable food sector,” she said. “The charitable food sector keeps growing and, really, it’s our least sustainable.”