United Way is improving food security in neighbourhoods across the GTA
When Nafisa and her daughter first arrived in Toronto from Afghanistan, it was hard to make ends meet. Nafisa’s Ontario Works cheque went mostly to rent, with just $200 left over to cover all other expenses, including food. The strain started to impact her mental health.
But Nafisa soon found the support she needed at the United Way-funded Rexdale Community Hub. She first saw a doctor at the hub’s health centre and was then connected to a food pantry, where she started to get groceries to fill in the gaps. When the pandemic hit, the hub delivered fresh food baskets to her door every week, which made a huge impact.
“The food program helped me manage my financial situation and also gave me some peace of mind that I had everything, especially for my daughter,” says Nafisa.
Nafisa shares how the food program helped her provide for her daughter
Not only did it help Nafisa become more financially secure, but volunteering at the program also made her feel more connected.
After receiving this critical support, Nafisa decided she wanted to give back, too. She started volunteering at the hub, helping with everything from packing food baskets to sewing masks. She started making friends and feeling like part of the community, which improved her mental health. Then, she got a job at one of the hub’s programs, which has provided her with even more financial security.
All of the support she received—everything from food baskets to volunteer opportunities to finding work at the hub—has improved Nafisa and her daughter’s well-being. All of it has helped them to become more food secure.
Food security is about so much more than food. It’s about having a support system during a crisis, it’s about being able to find a good job, and it’s about being able to afford where you live. That’s why United Way is going beyond providing food to our communities. We’re getting at the root causes of food insecurity and building neighbourhoods that are food secure for the long term.
Taking a holistic approach to food security
Across Peel, Toronto and York Region, people are going hungry. The housing crisis and high cost of living are forcing people to choose between keeping a roof over their heads or feeding their families.
But how do you solve a problem like food insecurity? Providing people with food may meet the immediate need, which is critical, but it doesn’t get at the root of the problem. It doesn’t prevent the cycle of hunger.
“There are always interrelated issues that people are dealing with such as mental health challenges, lack of affordable housing, financial insecurity or unemployment,” explains Juneeja, Senior Manager of Community Initiatives at United Way Greater Toronto. “Building food security requires a holistic approach that equally tackles other interconnected elements of poverty.”
That’s why United Way is supporting organizations and initiatives that not only help people like Nafisa access fresh, affordable and culturally appropriate food, but also engage the community in long-term solutions.
Canadian food prices are growing at their fastest pace in 40 years. Last year, 60 per cent of Ontario renters cut back on food so they could pay their rent.
The Rexdale Community Hub is an example of this approach in action. It provides a unique mix of community supports and services under one roof, connecting people to everything from food programs to services like housing, employment and settlement supports. It also brings residents together to address the issues affecting their neighbourhood, including rising food insecurity.
“The hub brings all these great things to the community due to this infrastructure that United Way created,” says Amra, the hub’s Executive Director. “We engage everyone in the community and build capacity through initiatives like the Food Access Committee. It’s not just us as an organization talking about food security, everyone in the community is talking about it. What the issue is and how the issue should be addressed.”
With funding from United Way, the Food Access Committee has been exploring different ways it can improve food security in the North Etobicoke area, including establishing an affordable community grocery store led by the hub and community partners. Other potential projects include creating an organic farm and indoor greenhouse.
These initiatives will not only provide residents with access to emergency food support outside the hub’s operation hours, but also help them have more agency over their local food system.
And this isn’t the only community where this kind of multi-level approach is making a difference.
Building community skills and connection
When we think of community gardens, we may not immediately think of food security, but these spaces are another essential part of United Way’s approach to strengthening local food systems.
“Community gardens and urban farms not only help people build their capacity to grow, harvest and distribute food locally, but also help residents develop critical skills and connect with one another,” says Juneeja. “Like so many of the programs we support, they move beyond immediate hunger relief towards engaging and enabling communities and residents to foster long-term household food security.”
This is exactly the work being done at Ecosource, a United Way-funded organization managing ten community gardens in Mississauga. The gardens are used by more than 500 community gardeners, about half of whom live on a low income. Together with volunteers, they grow more than 10,000 pounds of food annually. Not only does this mean gardeners and their families have access to fresh, affordable and culturally appropriate fruit and vegetables, but the organization donates produce to local food banks too.
of Ecosource’s gardeners live within five kilometres of the community garden they use.
“Residents can come together to grow the food that they want and need, rather than being reliant on what’s on the shelves in the food bank or what’s being served by a meal program,” says Britt, Ecosource’s Executive Director. “They have that agency over what’s grown and also how it’s used and shared, which we think is really, really important to people’s food security.”
Gardening has many other benefits, too. It helps residents improve their mental health and wellness, get more exercise, and connect with their neighbours, creating a better sense of belonging. It also offers a space to exchange knowledge about different growing traditions and preserving food, something Ecosource is building on through its partnerships with other United Way-supported organizations.
The Indigenous Network and The Dixie Bloor Neighbourhood Centre are both working with Ecosource on redeveloping one of the gardens and engaging residents in the process. So far, they’ve created spaces for different community groups, including for Indigenous youth to grow food following traditional practices. They’re also installing accessible beds and figuring out how to make walkways more accessible so everyone can enjoy the garden.
“It’s a really beautiful story of how gardens can be designed by communities to reflect what those communities want to see in those spaces and how they’re going to actually use them,” says Britt. “Without United Way’s funding, we wouldn’t have the resources to do this kind of in-depth partnership-building work.”
“My purpose in life is to garden and help people grow their vegetables so that they have food to eat. If you know how to grow food, you will not starve in the future.”
A food secure GTA
In a community as prosperous as ours, no one should go hungry. No child should struggle in school because they haven’t had enough to eat. No adult should have trouble focusing at work because they’re hungry. No one should have to decide between feeding their family or paying rent.
United Way is working hard to make sure that every neighbourhood, every person in Peel, Toronto and York Region has the food they need.
We do this by partnering with Nafisa, Amra, Britt and others across the GTA to develop real, lasting solutions to food insecurity at the neighbourhood level.
We do it through our research and advocacy work, which draws attention to the issues at the root of hunger—income inequality, unaffordable housing, poverty.
We do it by sharing our story with you. Because you’re a part of this work, too. It’s going to take all of us, united, to bring an end to hunger and poverty in our community. We hope you will be a part of this vital work.
You can join us in this work.
Help us connect people to healthy, affordable food
and build food secure neighbourhoods.