Improving Access to Healthy Foods

Finding food at a low cost is challenging but finding healthy low cost food can be almost near impossible. Food banks often run on short supply of processed food and only give out a small 1-3 day supply once a month to citizens that fall within a small catchment area. Line ups in food banks are stressful and demoralizing.

The stigma of living below the poverty line (<$23000/year) is pervasive, leaving people to feel unworthy and hopeless. Ontario Works recipients receive only ~$7200/year and Ontario Disability recipients receive ~$14400/year. How are people to survive when securing a safe living space in the Toronto rental market costs on average $850/month, $10200/year for a one bedroom apartment?  How are people living when access to free or affordable food is limited?

According to the Social Determinants of Mental Health, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and decades of scientific research, shelter, food and love are REQUIREMENTS for health and wellness. It is no wonder 1 in 5 Canadians experience mental health challenges when many people are “living” in poverty and cannot get their basic needs met.

We know that balancing physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual aspects of life can cultivate recovery, health and mental wellness. We know that if our bodies don’t receive the right amount of essential nutrients, our minds and emotions don’t function optimally. Studies also show that increasing intake of Omega 3 fatty acids can contribute to mood regulation, increase memory & clarity of thought.

Using a Human Centered Design (HCD) approach, (See More Effective Peer-Support Groups Through Human Centered Design) the following 3 questions attempt to address some of the challenges mentioned above.

To improve access to healthy foods for individuals with low incomes:

  1. How might we change the culture, environment and perspective around receiving food support?
  2. How might we increase incentives to produce a locally sustainable supply of nutritious foods?
  3. How might we support a healthy mindset around physical & mental health and nutritional choices?

One incredible organization that has found ways to answer these questions is The Stop Community Food Centre. The Stop’s Mission is to “increase access to healthy food in a manner that maintains dignity, builds health and community, and challenges inequality”.

The Stop has two locations: the main office is at 1884 Davenport Road, which includes a food bank in a respectful and dignified environment with no demoralizing lineups. A small portion of the food includes produce that is organically cultivated by volunteers at local gardens in the city of Toronto. Despite the fact that food banks are a Band-Aid solution to more complex problems, it is a good start in changing the culture and stigma around receiving food supports.

Fortunately, The Stop has dug deeper into some of these complex problems and provides a drop-in centre with free delicious & healthy meals twice a day and partnership & referral services for dietetic counselling, ID clinic, housing & legal services, and settlement worker services. They also offer workshops on tenants’ & employment rights, and demonstrations on how to make low-cost, healthy, delicious meals. And they haven’t stopped there.  They provide education and advocacy on sustainable food production & systems, children & perinatal food education, peer support, and community action.

Their second location at Wychwood Barns, 601 Christie Street,  is the site for their state-of-the-art greenhouse, compost demonstration centre, and Food Markets & Bake Oven. The Stop’s Good Food Market is part of an initiative to bring fresh, local produce into a low income community where farmers have a hard time making a living selling. FoodShare developed this model where they purchase large quantities of produce from local farmers and the Ontario Food Terminal, then volunteers and community organizations sell the produce in market stands across the city. The goal is to provide as much local and culturally appropriate produce as possible at affordable prices.

The Stop is the founding affiliate of an national organization that works to improve access to healthy foods in low income neighborhoods through the creation of more Community Food Centres. For more information check out Community Food Centres Canada.

The Stop was inspirational in helping us come up with new ways and ideas to contribute to changing perceptions around food and poverty. Our HCD approach helped us come up with this prototype “Lots of Food”.

“Lots of Food” provides community gardens in parking lots in order to facilitate both community mental health and nutrition. Each planter acts as an incentive to companies by displaying corporate support of a local charity. Planters will be made extremely visible in centrally located, high-traffic locations with big “Call To Actions” (interest promoting instructions that note the various benefits). “Lots of Food” will provide produce to gardening group participants, local food banks, and community partners. The mental health benefits come from both the healthy foods and the social support of the “Lots of Food” peer support gardening group.

The initial engagement stage for joining the gardening group will be made simple. Individuals will hear about starting the program through social media, flyers and direct engagement with known participants. When we make the first garden, it will be noticeable to other potential users, and help spark interest in both the program and healthy eating. In our gardening group meetings, participants will socialize, learn about gardening, ways to use the veggies, and nutritional benefits.

Since we are in the early stages of actualizing this idea, we have much more work to do, for example, securing parking lot space for planters, soliciting companies for advertisement funds, fundraising, and looking for partnerships with community organizations, like The Stop.

Additionally, since iteration is fundamental to HCD, we need more community feedback and input to help this idea seedling grow.  Please comment and share!


For tips on making healthy food choices see Food Choices for This Season and Life

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