Spring Gillard: Food insecurity on West Side has seniors going hungry

We were speechless. As the Westside Food Security Collaborative, a group of service providers, groups, and citizens concerned about food issues in our community, we’d been meeting monthly in Kitsilano for about three years and always had plenty to say around the table. But, even with all that talking, we couldn’t answer a question from one of our members.

“I just had a call from a 63-year-old woman,” said Clemencia Gomez, the executive director of the South Granville Seniors Centre. “She has no money and no food in her fridge. She asked if I could help her. I told her she could come here for lunch every day. What else can I tell her? Where can she get food?”

I was stunned by our silence and gave Gomez a call after our meeting. This woman is not an isolated case. There are three other women in her building in the same boat.

In 2007, we commissioned a study with Vancouver Coastal Health called Exploring Food Security in Vancouver’s Westside. Two University of Victoria nursing students conducted the research and found a surprising result: there’s a malnutrition problem on the affluent West Side. They identified several “in need” categories: single moms, people who had difficulty preparing meals due to a disability or poor kitchen facilities, seniors, and low-income earners.

“Low incomes, health, the cost of food, and high rents are all factors that collide,” said Heather Pottery, who coauthored the study with Adrienne Jinkerson. According to B.C. Stats’ figures, nearly 40 percent of West Side residents pay more than a third of their income on rent.

Focus-group participants were also very reluctant to talk about their situations. “There’s a real social stigma to admitting you have needs on the West Side,” Pottery said.

The report states: “Food insecurity does not necessarily mean that people are going hungry, instead it means that they are not accessing the best, or most nutritious foods possible.”

It looks like the situation has worsened in the last year, as all of our member agencies report increased participation in their various meal and food programs. To make matters worse, the Buy-Low Foods store at West 4th Avenue and Alma Street just closed down, the only store for many low-income seniors living nearby.

The woman who called Gomez spurred us into action. We never want to be without an answer again.

We invited her to garden with us at the new Kitsilano Neighbourhood House community garden. Gave her the list of free meals and cheap food compiled by Vancouver Coastal Health. Connected her with the woman who runs a monthly fruit and veggie box. Told her our group was going to be running a couple of pilot pocket markets this summer, so she could buy fresh fruit and vegetables right at the nearby seniors’ centre. Got a meeting with the food bank to see about setting one up over here.

I’m thinking the empty Buy-Low store would make a great location.

Spring Gillard is author of Diary of a Compost Hotline Operator and a member of the Westside Food Security Collaborative.