Recently, I was catching up with a past professor from my undergrad and telling her about my time in the UK. As we began to discuss issues of poverty she reminded me of the unique experience Canada has when it comes to food banks. Responding to poverty and unemployment resulting from an economic recession in the 1980s, community groups in Canada began to establish food banks where food was collected and redistributed in the form of donations to those ‘in need’.
(photo source here)
In the beginning, the assumption was that these sites would be temporary, emergency responses. However, the problems facing those who were accessing the food banks continued over time, even as the economy started to improve. Therefore, food banks remained in operation, providing donations to those experiencing ongoing food insecurity (defined here as: when people lack access to the food that would provide the energy and nutrients they need to live an active and healthy life1).
Since then, community groups and organizations in Canada have developed new ways of addressing food insecurity that go beyond solely providing emergency food. For example, one of Canada’s first food banks, The Stop, evolved into a new model known as a Community Food Centre (CFC). The CFC model includes various programmes that each simultaneously address different food challenges – in addition to emergency needs – making it a dynamic approach to achieving food security.
What do CFCs do?
According to Community Food Centres Canada, CFCs are spaces where people can come together to grow and cook sustainably produced food that is both healthy and delicious. Keeping this in mind, CFCs have four main goals within their programming:
- First, there is a focus on increasing access to healthy food among low-income community members;
- Second, they run programmes built around increasing skills, sharing knowledge, and encouraging behavior change with regards to healthy food and eating;
- Third, CFC programmes often run within one building, motivated by the goal to reduce social isolation and increase connections between people;
- Finally, they address poverty and food systems issues through advocacy work in the area.
All of these functions contribute to CFCs’ ability to be productive spaces challenging causes of food insecurity in Canada today. Especially important is the second point – a hands on approach that increases skills and knowledge around healthy eating. In Canada’s current food system, these skills and knowledge opportunities have been limited as a result of people experiencing every-day detachment from their food.
Why is there a problem with the food system?
Canada’s current food system often separates people from the food that they consume as many have minimal involvement in the cooking and preparation of their food due to the popularity of ‘ready-to-eat’ dishes and pre-packaged products. This means that people are not learning the skills needed to cook for themselves, instead eating these convenient, pre-prepared foods. Food producers take advantage of this process in order to increase the demand for and dependence on convenience foods2. Their motivation comes from the fact that these foods happen to sell at a higher profit margin2, making them more money than they would receive if they were selling other products.
How do CFCs help?
In the hope of facilitating more connection between people and the food that they eat, CFCs run several different hands-on programmes. For example, CFCs operate greenhouses where community members help tend gardens, open meal times where people prepare a lunch or dinner that they later eat together, and cooking
programmes built around specific skills needed for healthy food consumption. These may include sessions around cooking on a low budget, cooking for certain health needs (for example, pregnancy or diabetes), or cooking skills for different age groups. These represent opportunities to develop new capabilities and resources for daily eating practices that participants may not have had before.
(Community Kitchen programme at The Stop, photo source here.)
These programmes also have the potential to increase levels of health as ‘ready-to-eat’ products are replaced with meals that people prepare on their own. The increased profits of ‘ready-to-eat’ items often occur because companies replace certain ingredients with less healthy ones that don’t cost as much to use2. Unfortunately, because consumers aren’t included in the preparation of these foods, they are often unaware of the ingredients and the processes used3 and, therefore, may be unaware of associated negative health impacts of eating them.
So, could CFCs be the solution?
Despite the positives of the skills and knowledge programmes and the potential decline in convenience food consumption, I do acknowledge that not everyone has the time/ability to participate in this system. Some people aren’t readily able to attend programming or to change their daily eating habits away from convenience food towards home cooking due to conditions such as limited housing, time constraints, caring for dependents, and physical or intellectual ability. But that’s not the only way CFCs can make a positive impact on people’s food security. Luckily, some of the additional programming that CFCs undertake attempt to improve the food system in other ways, including advocacy to make large-scale changes that would address some of the barriers I’ve listed above.
Even though CFCs developed out of a specific historical situation in Canada, the food systems issues experienced today are taking place throughout the world. Therefore, people in other countries have started to recognize CFCs’ positive impact and have established some of their own; this is true even in the UK at the Sims Hill CFC in Bristol!
Community Food Centres Canada https://cfccanada.ca/en/Home
The Stop Community Food Centre – Toronto, Ontario https://www.thestop.org
Sims Hill Community Food Centre – Bristol, United Kingdom https://simshill.co.uk/community-food-centre/
- Scharf, K., Levkoe, C., and Nick Saul. “In Every Community a Place for Food: The Role of the Community Food Centre in Building a Local, Sustainable, and Just Food System”. Metcalf Food Solutions, 2010.
- Howard, Phillip H. Concentration and Power in the Food System. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.
- Sage, Colin. Environment and Food. New York: Routledge, 2012.