02/04/2014 05:34 EST | Updated 04/06/2014 05:59 EDT

Eating Healthy? CRC's Hopeful Community Initiative

It's a big struggle to eat nutritiously. The food industry, with a mammoth budget for advertising and promotion, tempts us every waking moment with calorically dense, sugar and salt laden junk and serving and package sizes that seem to grow ever larger.

Then there's the cost of eating well. It's possible to eat healthy on a limited budget. Lentils anyone? But it is a lot easier to have a good diet if you have a thick wallet. Fresh fruit and vegetables, good cuts of meat, fresh fish, etc. aren't cheap. How many poor people do you see in Harvest Wagon, Pusateri's, Whole Foods etc.?

Ontario government's own Nutritious Food Basket pricing shows the incomes of people on social assistance or in low-wage jobs fall far short of what is required to eat a basic, nutritious diet. People with very low incomes too often experience "the hunger-obesity paradox": they are both large and ill-fed simultaneously. They turn to cheap energy dense foods to fill up: too many calories; too little nutrition.

How much government, through regulation etc., should intervene to promote healthy eating/drinking is a subject for much discussion and debate. Former Mayor Bloomberg's attempt to limit soda (soft drink) consumption was well intended but a failure. It was a bust for several reasons. Lack of public support was one of them. The soda industry did the expected thing by stoking the fires of opposition. But a variety of advocacy groups got riled, too, viewing His Honor's efforts as a veiled attack on the poor.

At the same time, there is an interesting experiment going on in Massachusetts: the Healthy Incentives Pilot (HIP). HIP offers those on SNAP (food stamps) a subsidy, a 30 per cent bump up, if the stamps are used to buy stipulated nutritious foods. The results of HIP remain to be seen and the pilot, itself, is imperiled by the attack on SNAP from the right in the US.

All this bring us to the Christian Resource Center (CRC) and its role in the renewal of Regent Park. Secularists take a breath. The CRC is not a bunch of fundamentalists but a group connected to the United Church that is more interested in rebuilding a beleaguered community than in converting people to any particular creed. The CRC is up to several good things but the one that needs mention here is that it has established a Community Food Centre. That program is the product of CRC partnering with Community Food Centres Canada, a national organization that's working with partners to build centres like this one across the country.

At the Community Food Centre, people in poverty, including the homeless, can get a warm healthy meal; something good in and of itself. But the Community Food Centre goes beyond simple provision of food to deal with the problem of hunger on a number of levels. The CFC works to help promote the food skills that will maximize healthy choices within the box created by poverty -- including how to cook healthy and delicious meals and offering opportunities in community gardens to grow their own fruits and vegetables and be physically active. The CFC also aims to provide opportunities for low-income people to speak out about their lives.

Fiscal conservatives take note: the Community Food Centre operates with little government money. Why is this? If we want folks to eat well, particularly giving kids a good start, why shouldn't public funds back such efforts as the Community Food Centre? Public dollars are scarce and we don't want them spent on ideas that sound good but aren't effective when implemented. That's one reason CRC and other Community Food Centres monitor and evaluate how programs impact the eating habits and the physical and mental health of the folks involved change over the long haul.

In the meantime such efforts remind us that producing a nation of healthy eaters is a long and difficult task. Government can't mandate it and shouldn't try. But governments can promote good habits in a variety of ways. The Community Food Centre is a kind of pilot project that we can all learn from. If there seems to be a promise of reasonable success we should all applaud -- and governments should loosen the purse strings in support