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.”
Gram thinks that embedding food programs into other programs such as social housing is one possible solution. Karen Cooper, an instructor at UBC’s Corpus Christi College, pointed out that strong evidence already links improved nutrition to better decision-making and behaviour in places like schools and prisons. Her current research at homeless shelters shows that both statistical and anecdotal reports in Vancouver strongly suggest that emergency 911 calls drop when food is provided in a supportive-housing environment. It also shows that conduct problems and staff stress both go down as well.
“The behavioural issues that most people associate with the DTES with alcohol or drugs or mental illness, much of it is likely low blood sugar,” Gram said. “Multiply that with the situation those people are in and you can understand why people are reacting the way they do.”
Food security is a topic on many people’s minds these days. Since 2007, the City of Vancouver has launched several initiatives to secure its future food supply. These include a food charter that identifies the five principles of a just and sustainable food supply: community economic development; ecological health; social justice; collaboration and participation; and celebration. As well, there is its own food-policy council, whose primary goals are to examine the local food system, stimulate and lead dialogue on food, promote community projects, and provide policy ideas and recommendations for a sustainable food system.
But food insecurity—not having an assured, equitable, and dignified method of accessing basic nutrition—needs more attention, especially when it comes to this neighbourhood.
“Food is increasingly sexy in Vancouver,” said Joyce Rock, executive director of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House. “It’s very sexy to talk about community gardens, local produce, and connecting with farmers. But that, for the most part, remains at a race- and class-based level.”
Graham Riches, former director of the UBC school of social work and family studies and author of the book First World Hunger: Food Security and Welfare Politics, said that the Downtown Eastside is a microcosm of Canada’s failed food policy.
He referred to the area as a “food desert” and said that because it lacks a functioning food economy, where people have enough money in their pocket to make good food choices, most there are left relying on makeshift charitable food redistribution. He said that recent attempts to solve the problem of homelessness are futile without first making food and nutritional security a priority.
Riches thinks that the city has to be more assertive and even aggressive in how it deals with the hunger in its streets. He urged Mayor Gregor Robertson and city council to implement the right-to-food guidelines in their own back yard. “It should be something right up the mayor’s street—walking the green line and all,” he said.
“We have a moral, legal, and political imperative to feed hungry people,” he said. “But what we have now is an ad hoc, Victorian food-aid model that undermines the self-worth and human dignity of the Downtown Eastside residents.”
Rock sees similar problems with the current system. “The charity model is bereft of dignity,” she said. “There has to be an end to assiduously obligating human beings to feel grateful because they’re accessing some smidgen of food when food is a basic human right and a determinant of health.”
It’s obvious that the charitable model isn’t working. According to Food Banks Canada’s Hunger Count 2009, hunger increased across the country last year, and B.C. saw a 15-percent rise. Furthermore, in March 2009, B.C. food banks recorded their highest-ever number of people assisted: 89,886.
Cheryl Prepchuk, chief executive officer of the Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society, said that Vancouver experienced about an 11-percent increase in those accessing its food banks. “Will we ever be rid of food banks? That would be like saying would we ever be rid of taxes,” Prepchuk said.
An increasing need for food throughout the city explains the lineups the Downtown Eastside sees at every agency that provides free food.
Matthews appreciates all the food donations First United receives, and he understands that’s the only way people know how to help. “At our deepest psyche, whether we come from faith communities or not, there’s a sense that it’s food that pulls us together,” he said.
Yet at times Matthews finds himself drowning in the commotion that uncoordinated food donations cause for his organization. “We get by, which is not to say our needs are being met,” he said. “We end up sometimes with an absolute glut where it’s embarrassing and awkward because we have too much of one thing that we can’t use. It comes when people have it to give, and we don’t always have the facilities to do the storage. So you do end up wasting sometimes. And then the irony is that there are other days when you’re scrambling to find something.”
Matthews thinks the best solution would be partnerships with donors who are gracious enough to ask what he needs, how much he needs, and when he needs it. He would also like to see other service providers work together with his organization to coordinate—a sentiment shared by other free-food providers in the neighbourhood.
In October 2009, the Potluck Café Society and the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House received six months of funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada to pursue community-based solutions to food insecurity for Vancouver’s most vulnerable residents. The Downtown Eastside Kitchen Tables project will work toward a paradigm shift in the way the city deals with food insecurity. “It’s a model that allows and enables access to affordable, quality, nutritious food by every resident down here,” Heather O’Hara, executive director of Potluck Café and Catering, said.
One of the goals is to develop innovative and efficient food-distribution methods. “We’re suggesting decentralized distribution and multiple distribution sites instead of just the single source or the single lineup,” O’Hara explained. “It’s more about a community economic-development solution to food.”
O’Hara said that as the city addresses the homelessness problem more than ever before, food has to be taken equally seriously.
In fact, the City of Vancouver, as part of its Greenest City Initiative, is working on food security and is in the initial stages of promoting the similar idea of “food hubs”. A food hub will act as a main distribution point for local food in each neighbourhood. This will lead to better food being better coordinated and distributed on the neighbourhood level.
Mary Clare Zak, director of social policy for the city, thinks that this will help lessen food insecurity in Vancouver. “Without the infrastructure in place, charities are left to doing whatever they can,” she said.
Zak also thinks that the public sector needs to step up. “There is an attitude around food, in terms of public-sector funding, that says it shouldn’t be funded,” she said. “The reason we have a charity model is because the public sector hasn’t played a big role around food.”
But she has noticed that things are changing. “There’s starting to be more of a recognition that we need to take food seriously. We know that it has a huge impact on vulnerable populations in terms of them being healthier and getting better.”
Projects such as food hubs and Downtown Eastside Kitchen Tables are steps in the right direction, according to Zak. “I’m seeing a trend towards that, and that’s heartening.”
But she doesn’t think it’s enough. For now, Zak said, there is a direct link between decreasing economic security in the city and food insecurity, and income polarization is becoming more and more pronounced.
Prepchuk agreed that hunger in this city is a result of something deeper than food availability. “We would need a significant amount of change on the political front, both nationally and provincially and municipally, to address the variables that propel people into food lines,” she said.
People lining up for free food in Vancouver aren’t only the homeless but also those on income assistance who can’t afford to eat properly. According to the December 2009 report Cost of Eating in B.C.—by Dieticians of Canada, B.C. Region, and the Community Nutritionists Council of B.C.—income assistance is too low in this province for recipients to pay rent and buy healthy food.
“Food isn’t just about providing it,” said Jean Swanson, coordinator of the Carnegie Community Action Project. “It’s about giving people enough money to buy it. If you’re on welfare, you can’t afford to rent and eat.”
“Welfare’s not keeping up with inflation, and it’s not keeping up with the cost of living,” Wendy Pedersen, also a coordinator at CCAP, noted. “You have to rely on charities, churches, food banks, and the gleanings that they can glean and it sets up a really dysfunctional system.”
Rich Coleman, the B.C. Liberal minister of housing and social development, refused to reply to repeated requests for interviews.
Pedersen said she thinks that people can do more than just donate food. “We want those people who give to give but know that the real contribution that they could give is their vote to change this totally unjust economic system,” she said.
First United’s Matthews would like to see a reevaluation of the whole notion of charitable giving. “I think we always have to ask ourselves, ”˜Whose need am I meeting?’ ” he said. “Our best intentions around food often end up serving to add to the sense of devaluing the individual we are giving it to and add to the sense of have and have not. I think that in the ideal world, it would go to the next step, where, more importantly, it’s about you and me looking in each other’s face, talking with each other as I share a sandwich with you, not give you a sandwich. But that takes time and that is scary.”
There are many places to line up for a free meal in this city. Yet it is obvious that the hunger in this city will never be satiated simply with more food. As the city has seen in the past year, more food cannot be thrown at the problem.
“There’s plenty of food,” Paul Bergeron, 41, told the Straight. Bergeron has been homeless for the past 10 years and currently stays at one of the HEAT shelters.
“You never have to be hungry, but sometimes it’s hard to get, and the food needs to be more balanced and solid, like more vegetables and fruits,” he said.
And it could be argued that the hunger isn’t even primarily for food.
“The problem is not the food. The food is everywhere. People are broken—that’s the problem,” said Girume Tena, a volunteer food server at LifeSkills Centre, a social-service agency in the DTES.
“We as individuals are fragmented, and we then create a whole that’s fragmented,” said Tara McAteer, founder of Truckstop Dining, a nonprofit organization that has served approximately 6,000 meals to Vancouver’s homeless. She perceives food in the DTES as an issue of collective community consciousness. “What happens in the person happens in the whole community. Food issues, housing issues, all that kind of stuff has a greater chance of being resolved when we’re all coming from a place of compassion,” she said.
Matthews agrees. “At one level it is a hunger for validation, a hunger for being respected, a hunger for being regarded as worthwhile as a human being,” he said. “It is a hunger for being connected to other human beings. The hunger is for connection.”