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How Food Banks Are Transforming Their Communities

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EATING VEGETABLES
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Sometimes, eating a nutritious diet is no easy task. It seems like every day there is a new article about the latest "superfood," or that the healthy food of yesterday is now not healthy at all. Our busy lifestyles mean that many of us opt for what's fast, easy and can be eaten on go - and that doesn't always coincide with what's healthy. Despite the popularity of food blogs and reality TV shows, cooking skills are on the decline.

While we have so much innovation on the healthy food front, it seems like we're also inventing new barriers. But one of the biggest determinants to whether you have a healthy diet is actually one of the oldest -- income. People living on a limited budget, facing skyrocketing housing, hydro and transportation costs, often find there isn't much left for food.

Food banks see clients facing these challenges every day, and have responded with innovative programming that not only increases access to healthy food, but turns it into an opportunity to build community. Within the OAFB network, there are food banks in all corners of the province that offer innovative, healthy food options to clients. Here are just a few:

Unemployed Help Center, Windsor - Community Garden

The Unemployed Help Center overlooks an expansive community garden that is home to 200 garden plots for low-income individuals and families. Many of the families live in neighbourhoods that lack green space for gardening and gatherings. No gardening skills are required to sign up - just enthusiasm and a willingness to learn.

Last year, the garden provided 4,750 pounds of produce to the food bank and their affiliate agencies alone, not including the food that participants took home with them. Participants also gained a better understanding of healthy eating, and learned about vegetables used in other cultures.

Beyond the nutritional value of community gardens, there are a multitude of other benefits to their participants, including fresh air and exercise, a deeper connection with nature, a sense of belonging, and a learning opportunity.

According to Mike Turnbull, food rescue manager at the UHC, "The garden provided common ground for people of all ages and ethnicities to share their knowledge and passions with each other. The community garden has become a gathering place for families to not only garden, but to stay and enjoy the day. Kids are now enjoying some physical activity and learning to connect with nature. This is promoting physical and mental health in our community with so many diverse residents."

The Inn of the Good Shepherd, Sarnia - Mobile Market

Myles Vanni, Executive Director of The Inn of the Good Shepherd, says that one of the challenges they were facing at their food bank was ensuring that clients had ongoing access to fruits and vegetables throughout the month. This was especially true for senior citizens with limited mobility, and those who lived on the outskirts of town, away from fresh food markets and grocery stores.

The Inn of the Good Shepherd's mobile market aims to address this challenge by providing clients with an opportunity to receive fresh produce on a more frequent and accessible basis. Throughout the summer, the truck travels to 14 neighbourhoods throughout Sarnia and Lambton County, bringing 6,200 pounds of produce every week. It is sustained by donations from local gardens, farmers, and greenhouse growers.

The mobile market sets-up much like a farmers market, filling tables with up to 12 kinds of fresh vegetables. They also invite health promoters from the public health unit to connect and chat with participants and run cooking support programs to teach interested clients new ways to prepare fresh ingredients.

The success of the program can be seen in the response: 900 people access the mobile market each week in the summer. "There has been a great response from the community. At the end of each year, we do a survey, and respondents are very thankful for the extra boost they receive of fresh, healthy food on a regular basis," says Vanni.

And the program just keeps growing. Vanni is excited about this summer's plans to quantitatively measure their impact through a program in partnership with Lambton College: "We know that clients feel better because of the produce -- but how do we measure it? We want to track markers like blood pressure or blood sugar levels, so we can identify and quantify health impacts."

"The Ontario Association of Food Banks believes that everyone has the right to healthy food, no matter their income."

The Sharing Place Food Bank, Orillia - Orillia Food Council & Community Kitchen

In Orillia, The Sharing Place works in collaboration with a number of community partners to help ensure access to healthy food and nutrition.

"One of the big struggles in community programming is that everyone is so excited and has so many ideas, but we're not necessarily aware of what everyone else is doing and what we can offer each other," says Emily Wilson, The Sharing Place's Outreach Coordinator and current chair of the Orillia Food Council.

To solve this challenge, The Sharing Place helped found the Orillia Food Council in 2014 to bring stakeholders in the food system together to sit at the same table. The collaborative nature of the council makes it easier for everyone to pilot new initiatives around food security.

For example, early discussions at the Food Council identified food literacy (i.e. cooking skills, nutritional knowledge, and meal planning) as a priority. The Sharing Place wanted to start cooking classes, but didn't have space in their food bank. Through the council, they were connected with St. Paul's Center, an organization that just happened to have underused kitchen space in their church that they wanted to fill with programming.

Together, with the Simcoe-Muskoka Health Unit, they launched the Orillia Community Kitchen, with an aim to enhance healthy eating and local food knowledge, stretch food dollars, and build community. Programs they run include: sessions in partnership with the local hospital's childhood obesity outpatient clinic, a crockpot cooking session, and an introduction to canning your own fruits and vegetables. They've received enthusiastic feedback from the community, and many repeat visitors.

eating vegetables
(Photo: Achiy/Getty Images)

Ontario Association of Food Banks

At the Ontario Association of Food Banks, one of our primary objectives is to increase the amount of healthy food available to food banks and those they serve.

In partnership with many of Ontario's agricultural groups and food industry partners, we help facilitate province-wide programs that ensure Ontarians living with hunger have access to fresh produce, protein (like meat and eggs), and dairy. We also work with food companies and farmers to rescue healthy food that might otherwise go to waste through our Community Harvest Ontario program and its gleaning events.

Our grant programs increase the ability for food banks to provide good food: From our Capacity Building program that helps food banks increase their capacity to accept and store fresh products to our Rural Kids program that provides healthy snacks to children in small communities, to our new Community Garden program that helps food banks start or grow fresh food gardens, the OAFB is increasing accessibility to healthy food across the province.

The Ontario Association of Food Banks believes that everyone has the right to healthy food, no matter their income.

In honour of Nutrition Month, please consider making a fresh food donation to your local food bank (all OAFB member food banks have the capacity to accept perishables - you can find your closest one here: https://oafb.ca/need-help/find-a-food-bank/), or making a monetary donation to the Ontario Association of Food Banks (over half the food we distribute is fresh or frozen!) via https://www.oafb.ca/donate

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