Hamilton is a “bellwether” for positive changes in the food system that Ian Bird says will eventually be acquired across the country — but the city still faces a high number of people accessing food banks.

Collaboration among stakeholders, nutrition programs, community gardens and food banks are among the positive factors in Hamilton cited in a new report on food security across the country from the Community Foundations of Canada.

“Hamilton is becoming a different place in front of our eyes,” said Bird, the foundation's president, noting the city’s urban geography surrounded by rural landscape as well as its shift from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy as contributing factors.

“It’s a local example that really…paints the picture of the pattern for Canada.”

Bird said the Hamilton Community Foundation is an innovator that is “often at the forefront of trying new strategies” such as the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction.

He said he’s optimistic that solutions being adopted in Hamilton will be a bigger part of the long-term trend for the country.

Food security still an issue

But according to the annual Vital Signs report released Tuesday, Hamilton is still subject to the same food security issues plaguing the rest of the country. These annual reports evaluate key quality of life indicators in 26 locations across the country. This year's focus was on food.

The report cites the city stakeholders’ ability to collaborate to find solutions, and noted the community is making strides to reduce need in the city through the nutrition programs, gardens and food banks.

'''There are a lot of things happening that are positive and not just Band-Aid solutions in food.'- Sara Collyer, co-chair, Community Food Stakeholders Committee

“The principal cause of hunger is poverty,” the local report reads, adding that while communities have responded to hunger with food banks and other strategies for 30 years, food bank usage isn’t slowing down.

“Combine this with food prices that are rising at nearly twice the rate of the Consumer Price Index, and it’s clear that this problem won’t be solved with food donations,” the report reads.

The Hamilton Community Foundation found that almost 7,500 local households — more than 17,000 people, including 6,000 children — accessed food banks this past March.

While this number has slightly decreased from March of last year, it’s still around 10 per cent higher than before the recession.

Collaboration

Matt Goodman, vice president of grants and community initiatives at HCF, highlighted the community’s ability to collaborate and address these challenges.

Sara Collyer, the co-chair of the Community Food Stakeholders Committee and the director of programs and partnerships at Open Doors St. Christopher’s in Burlington, said Hamilton is in a “unique position” with food banks working together to solve problems as well as preventative food programming like community gardens, which are scattered throughout the city. 

“There are a lot of things happening that are positive and not just Band-Aid solutions in food,” she said.

Neighbour2Neighbour Centre has close to 20 community gardens, which fit into the organization’s “full-systems approach” by offering more than just food, said Clare Wagner, the centre’s manager of community food.

Community gardens can offer physical exercise and break down barriers of social isolation, she said.

“There’s a lot more to hunger than just where food is coming from,” Wagner said. “It’s sort of the whole look at a person’s ability to access food – physically, financially, culturally.” 

Root causes

The Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction’s director Tom Cooper said much is being done locally to better meet the needs of those going hungry in Hamilton, but he’d like to see the provincial government provide adequate social assistance and increase the minimum wage or shift to a living wage.

A lot of Hamiltonians go to work everyday but still aren’t able to provide enough for their families, he said.

“From my perspective, we really need to, as a society, start addressing the systemic root causes of hunger,” he added. “We can’t get all the way there on the local level.”

Both Goodman and Cooper said that 75 per cent of people accessing food banks receive social assistance — Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program.

“We know those individuals don’t have the income supports that are needed to purchase their own food,” Cooper said.

Collyer said food is the “ultimate prevention” on all fronts because of its effects on health, social inclusion and the environment.

“If we ensure that everybody has (food), it’s going to solve a lot of other problems that we have in our community,” she said.