The Right to Food
By Phoenix Winter
According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food.” But in the DTES, that right to food can be challenging.
Like many, John Alan Douglas lives in an SRO. His rent is about $395. He has little left over for food on his welfare rate of $610. His doctor has said he is malnourished and has prescribed vitamins for him. “I’m a starving poet,” Douglas says.
He is one of the 55.5 per cent of people in Canada receiving social assistance who are food insecure. That statistic came from reports to a UN Special Rapporteur who toured Southern Canada in May. The problem with food security is so dire in Canada, that the UN decided to investigate. It is the first developed country to be studied.
The problem for Aboriginal people, many who live in the DTES, was highlighted as well. Of First Nations adults nationally, 17.8 per cent reported being hungry in the last 12 months They lacked the money to buy food. In some Northern communities, food insecurity is as high as 79 per cent.
Locally, there are challenges such as the line-ups for food. It can be “humiliating” to stand and wait, says Stacey Bonenfant, co-founder of the Neighbourhood House. She says education is key in changing this. Society as a whole needs to understand, it’s not just the giving that matters, but it includes the way food is served, and the dignity of no line-ups.
Also, the attitude that “beggars can’t be choosers” needs to change. “That has to go,” she says. Some people have gluten allergies, diabetes and heart problems. “Why should people be forced to starve because they have health issues?” she asks. The other issue is that people often give what they wouldn’t want to the DTES. “The poor will take the garbage” while richer people eat healthy, nutritious food.
The closing of a food line-up has an impact as well. A lot of people would line up afternoons for the soup and sandwich put out by the Franciscan Sisters of Atonement. Now that has closed, and people sometimes come to Oppenheimer Park looking for food.
Nothing has really replaced it.
Closing the food bank in the DTES was “the worst mistake they ever did,” says Bonenfant. People now are forced to go far away for food, to Mount Pleasant or the Longhouse church. Mount Pleasant is not a comfortable neighbourhood for those in the DTES, and when you are in line with over 150 people and don’t know anyone in the line-up, it can be stressful. The Longhouse church is about 20 blocks away, and for those who have no transportation the experience can be “cruel.”
One solution was put forth by Sam Snobelen: “The obvious solution to having agri-business companies telling us what to eat and how much to pay for it is to grow our own food in urban gardens. For that reason, we should be very supportive of urban gardeners in the DTES.”
Bonenfant agrees. She says people can be taught to grow their own tomatoes, even on the ledge of their window. There is already an organization called SoleFood growing plants at the Astoria, and there are plans to have a total of 4 urban farms, employing 25 Eastside gardeners. These people would be trained, and it would help with recovery and mental health.
So despite challenges to the right to food in the DTES, there are some hopeful signs.