Thousands benefit from nutrition programs
Food insecure – it’s not a phrase that most of us would use in everyday conversation. But the truth is, in this region, there are thousands of people for whom being “food insecure” is indeed an everyday challenge.
These are families and individuals who don’t have the financial resources to guarantee adequate and healthy diets for themselves and those they care for.
They are kids and parents, young and old, employed and unemployed. All they have in common is that nutrition – one of the fundamental necessities of life that most of us take for granted – is a constant issue in their lives.
In fact, Waterloo Region ranks as the sixth most food-insecure region in Ontario at three per cent of households and about 61,000 people, according to Region of Waterloo Public Health. That means about eight percent of households with children are food insecure.
Waterloo Region ranks as the sixth most food-insecure region in Ontario at three per cent of households and about 61,000 people.
The good news is, a lot of people have recognized the need created by this sobering reality. There are well over 100 programs in Waterloo Region created to provide help to those who are “food insecure.” And those programs are probably as diverse and unique as the people they are seeking to serve.
There are the well-established organizations like the Food Bank of Waterloo Region and the Cambridge Self-Help Food Bank, which serve a wide section of the food insecure community, and help to coordinate or facilitate dozens of other programs, through the Community Food Assistance Network.
There are new, innovative outreaches like Food4Kids, created by Kelly-Sue Oberle, former executive director of Nutrition of Learning. Food4Kids was launched two years ago to provide nutritious food for food insecure kids, on weekends and in holiday times.
There are other programs focused on children – like Nutrition for Learning; and on seniors – like Meals on Wheels, now a program of Community Support Connections.
These nutrition programs are very diverse, but they have a few things in common, across the board. They are offering solutions to a problem that is a daily challenge for a significant number of local people; they are reliant on donations from corporate sponsors and the general public; and they use thousands of volunteers to carry out their work.
“A community that cares”
Kelly-Sue Oberle created Food4Kids after she left Nutrition for Learning. Her experience with that organization – which provides food for kids on school days – showed her that if a family is food insecure, it is a daily – in fact, three-times-a-day – problem that doesn’t go away when children head home from school on Friday afternoon.
“On weekends,” she says, “very seriously food insecure children really feel the crunch.” Kids go hungry, or eat non-nutritious food, and by the time Monday rolls around, they have no energy to go to school.
“On weekends, very seriously food insecure children really feel the crunch.” – Kelly-Sue Oberle
So she created the local Food4Kids, which is now providing food for over 500 children every weekend, and for about 150 every day of school holidays, including summer. Each week of school term, 14 to 16 items go home with children under the age of 14. If there are multiple kids in the family, each child gets their own package.
Because her program is quite new, Oberle says it receives no government funding, and is not affiliated with the local Food Banks. She relies on donations, and the commitment of 45 regular volunteers, as well as occasional groups of corporate employees who help prepare the food parcels, which are given to kids by their teachers.
The goal is simple, says Oberle. “We want these kids to be healthy and to survive, and to fell they’re part of a great community that cares about them.”
“There is a need”
Myles Power is a good representative of that “community that cares.” He owns the FreshCo at University and Bridge in Waterloo, and he’s the source of a lot of the food that is distributed by Food4Kids and through at least one church-based food hamper program. He also once supplied Nutrition for Learning.
“Nutrition is something we should all be thinking about, every single day.” – Wendi Campbell
He sells the food to the programs at cost or below, simply because “I know there is a need, and I know they only have so much money.” He says that he has saved the organizations as much as $200,000 some year.
Thousands of hungry kids
The estimate of 61,000 food insecure people in Waterloo Region includes a disproportionate number of children. That becomes immediately clear when you see the figures provided by Nutrition for Learning, a local initiative launched in 1997 that now provides a meal every school day to over 25,000 children in 136 school programs (more than three-quarters of Waterloo Region schools). That adds up to something approach three million meals annually.
The children benefitting from the program may not be stereotypical, low-income kids. There are a lot of reasons why kids go to school hungry – from sleeping in too late to have breakfast to starting the day at a pre-school child care site that doesn’t provide breakfast – so every child who wants food through the Nutrition for Learning program can have food.
Like most of the nutrition programs, Nutrition for Learning has a relatively small staff (today it is headed by Brian Banks), and heavily on volunteers, in the case of NFL, about 2,500 of them.
At the other end of the demographic, a significant number of Waterloo Region residents who are food insecure are seniors and adults with disabilities who live in their own homes. There may be economic challenges, or it may simply be too difficult to get out to buy groceries. That’s where a problem like Community Support Connections – Meals on Wheels and More – is making a difference.
Executive Director Will Pace says the program delivers a nutritious meal, a smile and a safety check. “Our population is aging and for our neighbours struggling with access to food, Meals on Wheels is a proven collaboration of local community organizations, businesses, levels of government, and hundreds of dedicated volunteers.”
It’s not a question of convenience – in many cases, having meals brought to their home means these people can continue to live at home, and not have to move into a care facility. “Meals on Wheels relieves some of the pressure on an already burdened healthcare system,” says Pace. “Keeping people in their own homes benefits the entire community and saves in healthcare costs.”
Kitchener-Waterloo’s The Working Centre has also launched a home delivery services, bringing healthy food right to people’s homes. And they are doing it in an environmentally friendly way. The program is rooted in the Hacienda Sarria Market Garden, which for six years has offered Community Supported Agriculture shares to the community. A weekly spread of vegetables has been made available for pickup at the Queen Street Commons Café, the Tannery, and at the Hacienda Sarria Market Garden where the produce is grown. Now, by offering an environmentally friendly delivery service, Eco Courier and The Working Centre are providing low-emission alternatives for Kitchener-Waterloo residents to get fresh local food through a convenient weekly delivery.
Nutrition for Learning now provides a meal every school day to over 25,000 children in 136 school programs.
The Working Centre’s Hacienda Sarria Market Garden is a volunteer-driven community enterprise that practices and promotes sustainable farming in Kitchener-Waterloo. The garden is a fully functional one-acre urban farm where all are welcome to join in the work. Each season, more than 150 volunteer gardeners take part in growing abundant and high-quality vegetables, fruits, and flowers.
Last year, The Working Centre provided 75 families with weekly fresh, organic vegetable shares from its urban agriculture projects. They produced over 15,000 packages and bundles of produce from the Grow Greenhouse and Hacienda Market Garden.
Over 100 programs
There are well over 100 nutrition-based programs in Waterloo Region, and many of them are connected in some capacity to the Food Bank of Waterloo Region and the Cambridge Self-Help Food Bank. Wendi Campbell (below photo) is CEO of the Waterloo Region bank. She thinks that, “Nutrition is something we should all be thinking about, every single day.”
And focus on nutrition – not simply everything known as “food” – has altered the viewpoint of most of the organizations helping food insecure families and individuals. Says Campbell, “So when we are putting together our supplies for our hampers and our meal programs, we do focus a lot on fresh fruits and vegetables, which is a very big proportion of what we distribute in the community… the healthiest possible food.”
“Meals on Wheels relieves some of the pressure on an already burdened healthcare system.” – Will Pace
However, the leaders of these programs are also aware of the social importance of food. Campbell adds, “Cookies are okay. We want to make sure kids feel like kids, and treats are important.” Kelly-Sue Oberle, of Food4Kids, had made the same point. Their weekend food supplies include cookies or chips, “something to make them feel that they’re just like everybody else.”
Campbell underscores the variety of programs meeting nutrition needs in the community – and the need for continual consideration of programs to fill gaps. She told Exchange, “We partner with Cambridge Self-help Food Bank, and together, we are working with 100 community programs, everything from emergency food hampers to community meals to shelter residential programs to outreach and snack programs – a wide range of programs in all parts of the community. We work to make sure they have the supplies they need for whatever the program is they are delivering to the people in the community. We work together as a network to look at where the needs are in the community, where there are potential gaps, where things might be changing, where people might be challenged accessing the programs, so we either help existing programs build their capacity or we examine new opportunities.”
Although the two major food banks do connect with many of the food programs in the region, many of the programs are also doing their own things to meet the staggering need.
Nutrition for Learning is one example of an organization that sources its own food supplies.
In Wilmot and Woolwich townships, there are local organizations that include food supply programs, and which tend to use the Waterloo food bank as a warehouse for supplies raised locally.
Trisha Robinson is executive director of Wilmot Family Resource Centre in New Hamburg. She says their food bank supplies about 60 food insecure families, providing food hampers that follow Canada’s Food Guide.
The organization also has a program called “Lunch Crunch” – parents of school children come to the centre, where “we provide fruits and vegetables to meet the daily requirements of a child.” The Wilmot centre also operates a food cupboard in Wellesley.
Robinson echoes the comments of everyone in these organizations, that there is no obvious common denominator among people who are food insecure – they are families, children, seniors, people with disabilities, low income people, people on E.I., “and some with no income at all.” All that have in common is, they do not have reliable access to, or resources to obtain, nutritious food. Or they wouldn’t, were it not for the visionaries, volunteers and donors who are demonstrating, in the words of Kelly-Sue Oberle, that “they are part of a community that cares about them.”
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