07/18/2013 01:18 EDT | Updated 09/16/2013 05:12 EDT

How Three Vancouver Groups are Feeding More than Just the Body

Food is so much more than what fills an empty stomach. It helps better connect people with their community. Amid Vancouver's culinary abundance, three organizations are working to engage disenfranchised groups to nourish people with a renewed sense of purpose through food.

When it comes to food, we can all agree that Vancouver has an abundance. The variety of restaurants and cuisines from around the world can challenge and delight the most sophisticated palettes. From the city's growing food truck presence to what's being grown on our streets and backyards, the variety and bounty that graces our farmers markets is a loud sign Vancouver is a foodie's paradise.

Yet, in spite the this amazing bounty and abundance we still have people going hungry. Basic nutritional needs for all are not being met. How is this so? When was the last time you really felt hungry?

Personally, I've never felt that emptiness or the uncertainty of not knowing where and when my next meal will be. Can you imagine that anguish? I also wonder how an empty stomach manifests into a greater sense of emptiness, perhaps affecting one's sense of purposefulness.

There's no questioning that feeding people is a sincerely charitable act. It also seems we're not lacking in charities that are organized around this very purpose. While a charity has the purpose of helping feed the hungry, the bigger question to address is about helping the hungry find a purpose.

I've recently had conversations with people at three different Vancouver organizations working to address this very question. H.A.V.E. Culinary Training Society, Not So Fast | Food For All, and A Better Life Foundation all embody the notion that if you "give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." It's the act of teaching, and connecting versus simply feeding that has my attention.

Over lunch at the H.A.V.E. Cafe (374 Powell St.) with H.A.V.E. Culinary Training Society board chair Brad Mills and student counselor Glen Lamont, my first question was how the CEO of Mills Office Productivity (Mills) gets involved with a social venture like this?

It wasn't a big stretch. The company was already helping people who experience barriers to employment with opportunities within their warehouse. Wanting to do more for the community by starting the H.A.V.E. program was the next logical thing for Mills to do.

The H.A.V.E. Culinary Training Society has successfully trained 500+ students with over 75 per cent of their students gaining steady employment in the tourism and hospitality industry. Beyond just the numbers, this actually represents success at the individual level. Each of these students are youth and adults who are facing mental and physical disabilities, and working to get themselves out of the soul-crushing spiral of poverty, addiction, and homelessness.

Beyond acquiring culinary skills, Lamont says the program also plays an important role in connecting many of the students to additional services and support they need to begin feeling like a part of their community. It's one thing to take those first steps out of a dark, desolate and despondent place, but the complex myriad of social services can sometimes hurt more than they help.

Make a point of visiting the H.A.V.E. Cafe and enjoy a hearty, healthy meal. More importantly make a point of reading about their success. On each table you'll find real stories about individuals who have each found positive new paths in their lives.

It was being curious about a new Twitter follower @shiramcd, that got me clicking through a few links. McDermott's food blog "In Pursuit Of More | Living with (just a little) less," caught my attention for many reasons, but it was the charity tab that jumped out.

Not So Fast is a registered non-profit organization that provides not just food to those in need, but also education. Again, this leads to a conversation about our connection with food beyond the mere act of eating.

It's an organization that runs a regular weekly class in partnership with Strathcona Community Centre. Through this program they're working with groups of youth after school and teaching them basic skills for cooking in the kitchen. They're also creating simple healthy foods to send them home with, as well as a variety of recipes the kids and families can make at home.

Beyond teaching, cooking, and providing great food for families at risk, Not So Fast is challenging people to reevaluate our perception of abundance, to consider the value of going with just a little less in hopes to give someone else a little more. The challenge is giving up your favourite treat for a day or making some major lifestyle changes with a 40-day fast -- the choice is yours. In turn, the money you would have spent on treats is donated to Not So Fast or a food charity of your choice.

Not So Fast is guided by the core principle that food is a basic human right for everyone. They started as way to engage communities, respect dignity, enable transformation, foster awareness, and encourage compassion. It's a movement that encourages all people to slow down and think about how they eat, what they eat, and why.

A Better Life Foundation is also supporting people in need. Led by Vancouver restaurateur Mark Brand, the foundation was established in 2012. ABLF is both raising funds for providing food security to women, children, and those in assisted living, while also providing job training and employment opportunities for the community at-large.

There are four key programs that define the ABLF, and how it operates:

  • Plenty of Plates: provides the most basic human need, food. As one of "Canada's poorest postal codes," the program helps residents of select Single Residency Occupancy houses in the Downtown Eastside by feeding them a nutritious meal daily.
  • Breaking Down Barriers: provides training and an inclusive work environment for individuals who struggle with mental illness or addiction issues. ABLF provides safe, hands-on work placement.
  • Seed to Plate: works to increase food security and nutritional content of the meals distributed through the Plenty of Plates program, by growing and sourcing local, sustainable food.
  • Food for Life: works to increase food security by teaching cooking skills to those living in single room occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside.

Food is so much more than what fills an empty stomach. Food helps better connect people with their community.Through the efforts of organizations like the three above, hundreds are learning that food is also capable of nourishing people with a renewed sense of purpose. People living with purpose are also more likely to be citizens who are capable, willing contributors to a community of collective goodness.

"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have little." - Franklin D. Roosevelt