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Beth Hong examines community-based initiatives addressing food insecurity

It is 4:50 p.m. on a Monday, and there is already a long line up near the door of the Notre-Dame-De-Grace (NDG) Food Depot, a food bank located in one of Montreal’s most multicultural neighbourhoods. A quick survey of the line reflects the diversity of NDG. Families, young couples, students, and older people stand about, speaking Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, French, and English, amongst other languages. There is a certain anticipation in the air, and almost everyone has brought their required items – reusable bags, photo identification, and a client file number at the Depot. Some may have forgotten one or more of these items at home. The one thing that no one has forgotten, however, is why they are here. They don’t have enough food at home to last the day, the week, or the month. They live in a state of food insecurity.

Food security is a situation in which “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” This definition was part of a 1998 report on Canada’s Action Plan for Food Security – the federal government’s response to the Rome Declaration, a plan released by the landmark World Food Summit in 1996. The declaration brought food insecurity to the fore with its commitment to “reduce by half the number of chronically undernourished people on the Earth by the year 2015,” and its affirmation that “every man, woman, and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition in order to develop their physical and mental faculties.”

Building on the Rome Declaration, the Canadian Action Plan is divided into two main parts – initiatives on the domestic front and on the international front. However, despite the broad scope and depth of the report and its recommendations, Canada’s Action Plan and the handful of reports on food security by other organizations are rarely addressed as top priorities by policymakers at the provincial and federal levels.

Canadian policymakers often choose to address food insecurity as part of larger initiatives involving poverty reduction, education, and public health. However, Stefan Epp of the Manitoba Food Charter said this is starting to change as food security policy becomes increasingly of interest to provincial policymakers – although at the present, many provincial initiatives are too preliminary to evaluate.

One angle these provincial initiatives have taken in recent years is “community food security,” which Michael Hamm and Anne Bellows define in their article “U.S.-based Community Food Security” as “a situation in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritiously adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice.”

A s a summer intern at the NDG Food Depot, I saw elements of this model at work in the Good Food Box, a collective food purchasing group that buys fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables and makes them available to the community at reduced prices. Starting as a pilot project in September 2007 at the NDG Food Depot, the project has grown from 300 boxes of fruit and vegetables delivered every month in two boroughs to more than 1,200 boxes in 15 boroughs. In the summertime, boxes are delivered every two weeks, with multiple pick-up locations around NDG.

McGill Farmers’ Market (every Tuesday from September to October) is based on a similar model of collective food bought directly from local producers.

Another community food security initiative is the annual Festi-Faim, a food drive and day camp organized by the city borough office of NDG and Côte-des-Neiges (CDN). Festi-faim is a day-long festival for day-camp participants, who collect non-perishable goods for food banks in the NDG and CDN area. As Project Outreach Coordinator, my task was to create a presentation about the Depot and to interact with the day campers on the issue of food security in the community. Preparing a presentation for a horde of six-year-olds turned out to be surprisingly informative.

While at an individual level, the vast majority of Canadians are food secure, Canada is far from being food secure at the community level. Food may be accessible, but it is not necessarily nutritionally or culturally appropriate for those living close to or below the poverty line.

Food banks provide one of the clearest views of the food security situation in urban Canada today. Food banks were set up in 1981 by Canadian charities as temporary measures to help people in emergency situations, but since then they have become permanent fixtures of Canada’s urban centres. According to the Canadian Association of Food Banks, the use of food banks from 1989 to 1997 has roughly doubled.

In addition to low-income families and seniors, students are also vulnerable to food insecurity. “Students who are living on their own might not have cooking implements or kitchens. They might have a microwave and a little refrigerator, which really limits what kind of food preparation they can do and how healthy their diet is,” observes Harriet V. Kuhnlein, a former professor in the Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition.

Kuhnlein’s observations highlight the importance of services for students experiencing food insecurity, such as the Midnight Kitchen, a student-run food collective that provides vegan lunches during the school year on a free/by-donation basis, or the Yellow Door’s Rabbit Hole Café, a vegan collective that serves lunch every Friday. Bon Accueil (Welcome Hall Mission), a non-profit community organization based in Montreal, is currently running a “Students Helping Students Food Drive” in conjunction with over 25 groups from McGill and Concordia to collect food for students who are struggling to make ends meet during the current economic recession.

The economic recession and its impact on food insecurity was a key theme at the Global Food Security Conference last week at McGill, which brought together leading experts on food security. “Hunger is not a new phenomenon,” said Hafez Ghanem of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) at the conference’s public lecture.

Since the Rome Declaration was drafted over a decade ago, little progress has been made on the goal of halving the number of hungry people by 2015. According to Ghanem, “While the global financial crisis has made the food security situation worse, it has attracted attention to a problem that has existed for a long time.” His sentiments were echoed by fellow panellists David Malone of the International Development Research Centre, and Member of Parliament Michael Chong.

One of the biggest obstacles identified by the conference speakers was a lack of investment in agriculture, in both developing and developed states. “The first thing to do in the development process is to invest in agriculture,” says Professor Anwar Naseem from the Department of Agricultural Economics. “This raises productivity, and in turn raises incomes,” Naseem added, emphasizing the link between increased incomes and human welfare.

While Naseem’s convictions seemed to share general consensus amongst the conference speakers, the issue of political will was pointed out as the elephant in the room. Malone, by turns witty and caustic in his appraisal of the current economic crisis and its impact on global food security, pointed out that among many obstacles to achieving food security, there was the “huge challenge” of expecting people’s trust in government and acceptance of new ideas and practices.

This can apply to developed countries seeking to achieve community food security. While taking root in small pockets in urban centres, projects such as the Good Food Box, community kitchens, and gardens are still considered “fringe” activities by many Canadians. Even at McGill, many students are completely unaware of the existence of Midnight Kitchen or the Farmers’ Market – never mind why they exist.

If the prospect for a food secure world seems to be a distant illusion, it isn’t such a distant goal here at McGill, thanks to fellow students who volunteer their time, effort, and skills to help others who are not food secure. The least we can do, if not help, is to be aware of their contributions.

Food security-related initiatives on/near campus

Students Helping Students Food Drive: Right now until Friday October 23 at 5 p.m. Over 25 groups from McGill and Concordia are joining together to collect food to distribute to students who are struggling because of the economic recession. The food drive is conducted through the organization Bon Accueil.

Drop off of food items at:
– SSMU office: 3600 McTavish, Suite 1200
– CSU: 1455 de Maisonneuve room H-711
– Jack Reitman Hillel House: 3460 Stanley
– Centre Hillel: 5325 Gatineau
– Concordia Tables: October 14 and October 21 at the Hall Building Mezz
– McGill Tables: October 13-14 at the Crossroads, October 15, 20, and 22 at Shatner, October 19 at Leacock, October 21 at Law Faculty

To volunteer or for more information, contact claire.tobias@mail.mcgill.ca.

Farmers’ Market: Every Tuesday in October from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Three Bares Park (past the Y intersection). Buy locally grown, organic produce as well as home-baked goods.

For more information: ssmu.mcgill.ca/environment/?q=groups-8.

Midnight Kitchen: The Midnight Kitchen is a non-profit, volunteer- and worker-run food collective dedicated to providing affordable, healthy food to as many people as possible. They provide free/by donation vegan lunches Monday through Friday at 12:30 p.m. in the Shatner building on McGill campus.

For more information: themidnightkitchen.blogspot.com.

Yellow Door: This community organization runs two initiatives. Food for Thought gives free, non-perishable food items and vouchers in its community cupboard every Friday from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. Also, there is a small resource library with recipes, guides on where to get cheap food in Montreal, nutrition info, and to links to anti-poverty initiatives and legal information.

The Rabbit Hole Café is a vegan collective, cooking up lunches every Friday at 1 p.m. for $2 – proceeds go toward maintaining this program. Throughout the school year, Food For Thought supports anti-poverty initiatives in the McGill community. To get involved, call (514) 845-2600 or email the coordinators at rabbitholecafe@gmail.com.

For more information: yellowdoor.org.

Santropol Roulant: Santropol Roulant has a diverse range of projects, including a rooftop garden, EcoChallenge, kitchen workshops, bicycle workshops, and worm composting in addition to its main operations as a low-cost food delivery service for those that lack autonomy in the Montreal community.

For more information: santropolroulant.org.