11/01/2011 01:13 EDT | Updated 01/01/2012 05:12 EST

Not Treats, Just Food to Eat


Call us nerds (not the candy kind), but Halloween makes us think of food security.

And we don't mean ensuring treats were safely wrapped and free of razor blades before indulging.

We're thinking of reliable and equitable access to nutritious food sources. After all, it's only the richest nations that can afford to give out millions of mini-Snickers bars and Tootsie Rolls to random children who bang on our doors.

Still, Halloween, even on the home front, hides the scary truth: hundreds of thousands of Canadians go hungry every day.

Last year, more than three million Canadians were considered poor, about one in 10. Of those, more than 600,000 were children. A staggering 867,948 Canadians relied on food banks in March of last year alone -- the highest single month on record in the 29-year history of Food Banks Canada, the national umbrella organization that represents Canada's food bank community.

Don't get us wrong. Kids are perfectly within their rights to dress up like vampires and sink their plastic fangs into kiddie-sized Kit Kats. But not all Canadian children are so lucky.

And not all trick-or-treating is created equal. Instead of soliciting candy door-to-door, local students are collecting canned goods for food banks, as part of initiatives like Halloween for Hunger, a program that uses Halloween's existing food supply and delivery system for a good cause. Look past the goblins and you just might see an earnest teen collecting non-perishables on your step.

It might be 18-year-old Taylor Quinn, who says Halloween for Hunger is the perfect excuse for teens to relive their childhoods. Though the costumes get a bit more ironic with age. Quinn plans to stick toy chickens all over his clothes and go as a "chick magnet."

Quinn just entered his first year of studies in international development at Dalhousie University, and is now heading up his social justice club's trick-or-treat food drive with Halloween for Hunger.

"Halloween is symbolic," says Quinn, "Kids pig out -- even parents sneak the candy the kids don't like -- so it's a great time to raise awareness for people who don't have enough food, let alone candy."

This grassroots campaign has been active across North America and in the United Kingdom for more than ten years. Last year, Halloween for Hunger participants across Canada collected more than 600,000 pounds of food--enough to feed 119 families of four for an entire year. It's now one of the largest single-day food drives in the country.

Quinn says his social justice group of 15 is "small, but passionate," and has plans to make a big impact by dispersing outside of the Dalhousie campus area into Fleming Park to maximize potential resources.

His group prepared local residents to receive trick-or-treaters over four-feet-tall by sending out a delegation last week. The team distributed fliers around the community, and spoke to dog walkers and lawn mowers outside of their homes. To further ingratiate himself, Quinn will "be sure to shave before heading out."

Quinn was inspired to trick-or-treat for canned goods two weeks ago while attending Halifax Connects. The event is a joint-venture among local organizations that offered more than 500 at-risk community members a day of free on-sight services, like legal advice. Quinn volunteered to serve food.

"What struck me was the number of babies and young children there with their parents. That really hit home for me." Nearly 40 percent of Canadians who rely on food banks are children.

Quinn and his group are collecting cans for Feed Nova Scotia, a charitable organization that distributes food to more than 150 member agencies across the province. While Canada's food banks tend to have more visitors between the months of September and October, they also see a drop in donations during the lull between Canadian Thanksgiving and the late December holiday season.

An October food drive bridges the gap for an increasing number of hungry Canadians. Over the past decade, Food Banks Canada has recorded a 19 percent increase in visits.

Nova Scotia saw one of the country's highest increases in food bank use between 2009 and 2010--up 11 percent.

Hunger awareness isn't meant to take the joy out of Halloween. In fact, we hope that the younger Halloween for Hunger trick-or-treaters will still overdose on sugar, while also collecting non-perishables to complement their candy.

On the surface, Halloween and hunger seem like strange bedfellows. Rotting teeth versus empty stomachs. But it's a perfect time for Canadians to think about our food resources while we're revelling in sugary excess.

Raising hunger awareness on Halloween also takes advantage of the one night a year that it's socially acceptable to canvass neighbourhoods for free food. Food drives just piggyback on an existing supply opportunity by forfeiting your own excess candy to help someone else get a healthy meal.

This Halloween, if a do-gooding goblin knocks at your door, have some canned goods handy.