The Challenge of Upholding Human Rights Through Charity

The Challenge of Upholding Human Rights Through Charity

By Karen Secord

Last week someone dropped off a bin of second-hand underwear. This came on the heels of a donation of mostly expired tins from a “food drive”; a box of gross moldy produce, and toiletries that someone had partly used then discarded.

It is hard not to feel deflated. It’s why our commitment to creating spaces where wholesome food is the centerpiece for connection, health and belonging has been so important, our mantra – Food is a Human Right echoes throughout 30 Rosemount and 5 Hamilton Avenue.

It’s also why we try to direct the generosity of people away from “food drives” and towards long term, much more useful ways of contributing towards a solution. Our goal is equitable access to food in a system where there is individual choice. One that doesn’t look like, as my friend Graham Riches says, “leftover food for left behind people”.

Food is a basic human need that we all share in order to maintain good physical and mental health. In rich countries like Canada, there should be no question that all people at all times should be able to feed themselves with choice and dignity. At Parkdale Food Centre we have built an infrastructure that supports, (although tenuous at best, due to a nearly complete lack of reliable funding) multiple access points to fresh, delicious and nutritious food.

News reports of record food increases are like a slap in the face when many families are budgeting for their groceries each week. We buy produce by the truckload to stock the shelves at our Mino’weesini Grocery Program and distribute to our three no-cost Fresh Eats markets. Not long ago a case of romaine cost $55.90. This week it is $179.99. A case of tomatoes exploded to $89.95, while the price of pepper is $23 per case.

It’s the “perfect storm” – unheard of price increases, low wages, a severe lack of affordable housing, plus stagnant, woefully inadequate social assistance rates. 

The predictable outcome is more people unable to afford food for themselves and their families; more people coming from across Ottawa to access our programming, particularly the three no-cost Fresh Eats markets on Friday, Mino’weesini Grocery Program, our virtual cooking workshops with Chefs Anna & Troy, the Community Fridges and our community meals. While our basic commitment to the Ottawa Food Bank, like all of their 26 community food agencies, is to provide just three days of food once per month for each individual living in the area defined as our catchment.  Here we always offer much more than that. At Mino’weesini, Neighbours have agency; they not only shop for the food that serves them best but they can come back multiple times with the points they are given, depending on their needs.

We are proud of the community service we provide to Ottawa residents. However, we are worried and I’m asking for your help. We have a huge financial gap to fill by year’s end if we are to keep up the same level of service, given rising costs and increased demand. Here are our specific “asks” from you:

  1. We will not be running a family sponsorship program this year. We have started referring families to other organizations that provide these services. Instead, we are hoping that you will donate gift cards from Walmart, Giant Tiger or the Superstore.
  2. Please, support us on Giving Tuesday, by donating here, your contribution will be matched dollar for dollar. 
  3. If your family, office group or team wants to host a collective fundraiser, we would love to work with you! Be in touch with Heather  heather@parkdalefoodcentre.org

We are going to weather these difficult times together by helping each other. If you are curious about what we do, why not give me a call?! I’d love to have a virtual chat, or better still, come join us for lunch! There is no better way to understand the intersection of good food and good mood than visiting PFC at lunchtime on a Tuesday or Thursday.

We hope to see you around our table very soon!

When change is the only constant, we will find new ways to come together

By Karen Secord

When change is the only constant, we will find new ways to come together

When I turned 50 my family and friends had a surprise party for me. As I recall, I really didn’t feel much like celebrating anything; my life had been in transition and it often felt like I was floating in the dark, grasping for a “thing” that would ground me. But the evening took an unexpected turn when one after another young people who had spent time with me over the years stood up and told rehearsed stories about my, um, idiosyncrasies. Suddenly, I felt as though I was, and indeed always had been, exactly where I was meant to be. I laughed until I cried. And we all were reminded how much we had contributed to each other’s lives.

I must admit, I struggle with the notion of hosting a lavish evening as a way to raise money to support the work we do at PFC – after school meals, virtual cooking classes, community meals, social justice workshops in schools, employment support, an advocacy team, and a social enterprise for youth. But the reality is that half of the funds we need to keep providing these vital services comes from you. Not from any level of government. Not from big business. Not from the Ottawa Food Bank. 

We are a trusted voice and advocate for food security because you believe in us.

We have seen a 41% increase in demand for our grocery program in the past two months. One weekly free produce market has now morphed into three. We are seeing so many Neighbours on the brink of homelessness and with needs that we had to create a new position to provide support. 

But then I remember my young friends and the gift of time, storytelling and fun they gave me all those years ago. (Well maybe not that many years!) And how much events like these are needed to buoy the human spirit. It has been three years since I have dusted off my fancy duds and told you how much your support has changed lives, and how much I have missed you!

The good work done by the Parkdale Food Centre cannot be sustained if we are in a constant state of hopelessness and despair. We can’t merely survive each day, watching as the number of people settling in around our dining table grows and the complex issues presented to us become more and more acute. We must have spaces to celebrate all the amazing ways our Neighbours have risen up despite the many roadblocks oppression, racism and economic equality have put in their way. I am really looking forward to sharing with you the myriad of ways our incredible staff have responded in the midst of the ongoing crisis to make our programs better than ever.

So we planned a big event and got excited. We even began promoting it. Maybe we were being naive.

Sadly, “Alight the Night” at Parlour has been cancelled. The rising cases of Covid-19 and recent news of new variants reminded us that having an indoor, maskless event featuring food, drinking and dancing probably isn’t the best idea. 

I still want to see you and we still desperately need your support. Maybe you could drop around and say hello?

Let’s talk about the right to food

Artwork by Kseniya Tsoy

Parkdale Food Centre asks City of Ottawa to Declare October 5 “Right to Food Day”

By Karen Secord

Canadians are hungry. And it’s not because we are a country without food or the financial resources to ensure everyone has enough food to be healthy. Instead, it is the growing economic inequality exacerbated by poor public policy. Canada, one of the world’s richest countries, legislates poverty.

On Wednesday, October 5 join Parkdale Food Centre and our partners in a city-wide conversation during “Right to Food Day”.

 In 2021, 5.8 million people in 10 provinces reported being food insecure (University of Toronto’s PROOF study). In April 2022, Parkdale Food Centre surveyed 324  households who accessed one or more of our programs, and 75% of respondents said that they ate less than they felt they should because they didn’t have enough money to purchase food.

When the Ontario government celebrates a mere $58 (5%) increase in disability support to Ontarians, bringing their monthly income to a woefully inadequate $1,227, and ignores the paltry $733 others receive from Ontario Works, they are knowingly legislating poverty. The consequences of subsisting in this kind of “deep poverty” has a very real cost. 

According to PROOF, “adults living in food-insecure households are more vulnerable to infectious diseases,poor oral health. injury,and chronic conditions, like depression and anxiety disorders, heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, back problems,and chronic pain. They are also more likely to be diagnosed with multiple chronic conditions.The negative implications for health are greatest for those living in severely food-insecure households.” 

Furthermore, a McMaster University study found a 21-year difference in life expectancy between the poorest and wealthiest residents of Hamilton, Ontario. (https://cwp-csp.ca/poverty/just-the-facts/) It isn’t a leap to imagine that economic stability provides opportunity and overall, a better quality of life.

When we opened our doors in late spring, to invite our Neighbours back to shop for their groceries at Mino’weesini (5 Hamilton Avenue North.), to drop by for coffee at 30 Rosemount Avenue, to enjoy a slow meal cooked just for them in our kitchen, a chat around our long wood tables and to access resources, we began seeing the impact years of Covid-19 isolation coupled with poverty have had. Not only are needs greater but they are showing up in different ways. Anxiety, anger, and hopelessness have surfaced in many actions and conversations. When seniors began lining up at 8am for a 1pm no cost market, we regrouped and added two more market locations in Ottawa Community Housing buildings. While we fill our community fridges up to six times a day, they rarely stay full for long. So, although a fire set in our community fridge enclosure and homophobic graffiti scrawled on the front may have deeply upset us, we weren’t really surprised. We recognize that hunger breeds desperation.

At Parkdale Food Centre it was nearly 10 years ago when we began questioning the misguided narrative that surrounds our response to food insecurity. There is nothing dignified about standing in a line only to be told how much food you can have once a month from a system than is outdated and unresponsive to the complex problems poverty creates, such as precarious housing (340 families in Ottawa are homeless living in motel rooms for up to two years without proper cooking facilities). We purchase and distribute crockpots to families and individuals who are not equipped to cook at home just to make life a bit easier. But we know it is nothing more than another bandaid on top of an already fraying bandaid; a temporary solution that is barely good enough until our advocacy for something much much better pays off.

“Food charity allows the public to feel good about their donations of money, food, and time, while providing governments with an opening to neglect their right to food obligations. Charity shifts attention away from structural issues and leads to superficial fixes which are neither dignified nor long-term. Charity provides short term relief, but in the longer term, people experiencing food insecurity continue to risk facing the chronic and multiple realities of poverty because underlying causes remain unaddressed,” notes GSA. 

For the past decade you have stood by us and believed in us as we talked about and challenged food banking as the solution to food insecurity.  What was once a small food bank that walked in lock step with hundreds of others across the country has grown up, adding programs that equip, empower and inspire our community and others.

On “Right to Food Day” at 10am at City Hall, we will present our Knowing Your Neighbours II Survey as the launch to a day of robust conversation and meaningful events that we hope will create transformational change; the capacity we have to nurture our communities, each other and the environment. 

 If you believe in an Ottawa where everyone has the means and opportunity to live a healthy, connected, and fulfilling life, join us, we’ve saved a seat for you.

Simple Connections. Complicated Changes.

Simple Connections. Complicated Changes.

By Karen Secord

two children painting on a large white canvas with the PFC heart logo in the center

Connection (is) the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement,…”

~ Brene Brown

There is no worse place to be than being unknown in a room of people who are familiar with each other. I know well, that nauseous new-person-in-class breathless fear. 

My heart would race. 

My head would pound. 

Every single time I was the new kid. Five high schools. 

Dozens of classes. 

Hundreds of unfamiliar faces.

I didn’t realize at the time but the lessons I learned as a shy, stringy-haired, too-big and awkward teen would hold fast into adulthood. 

Humans may need time alone but we don’t thrive in complete isolation. We need to see ourselves reflected in others from time to time; desired, cared for, heard. We want to contribute to something, to someone, somehow. And we need others to value the person that we are or at least care enough to mentor us, help us to round off our rough edges in the creation of a unique gem.

At the Parkdale Food Centre we have seen the immense joy realized as individuals who never thought they could work again, weave their special talents and interesting personalities into employment. We’ve shared  opportunities for Neighbours to thrive through connections with others, skills development, laughter and sharing. It is slow and it’s certainly not perfect, but we have been witness to so many successes.

As we connect Neighbours with programming more and more our goal is to ensure not only that the programming is informed by their needs but, ideally,  that they are the leaders of the programs. Of course, as some programs become Neighbour-led a tension can form around the role that others play. Roles such as “shopping” with Neighbours may not be as prevalent, as Neighbours choose to select their own groceries and “check-out” themselves. Offering employment in the kitchen may affect the number of volunteer supports we require, just as offering Thirteen ASE alumni paid leadership internships has also shifted volunteer engagement.

The Parkdale Food Centre’s journey of transformational change, away from an undignified food banking system to a place of community connection and onwards to social justice action, education and entrepreneurship has been full of growth and learning. We haven’t always seen the path forward clearly but, perhaps, that has been because the road has been both rocky and winding. It isn’t easy to convince others that change is necessary, let alone show them that it is possible.

Make no mistake, what we have built at Parkdale Food Centre we have done together – staff, Neighbours, donors and volunteers. While Covid-19 may have thrown us off track, disconnected us, forced us to lose sight of the goals we had set, it has not defeated us. 

Earlier this week, as I watched my colleagues and Neighbours repaint the Community Fridge and Pantry shed after it was defiled by fire and hate speech, it reminded me how much can be accomplished together, with kindness, understanding and connection. It looks different than it did before, but the change is inviting.

If you want to talk about change, volunteering, programming, or you just want to have lunch, please join me on Tuesdays or Thursdays between 12-2pm. I’m looking forward to meeting you.

Love, Karen Secord

Boiled Potatoes and the Quest For Hope

Boiled Potatoes and the Quest For Hope

Portrait of Karen Secord Parkdale Food Centre ED

By Karen Secord

Earlier this month a mother of four told me that she had been feeding her children boiled potatoes because that’s all the food she had. Her income had gone to rent and utilities. Her youngest child was ill and she received a bill from CHEO for services and medication. Her anxiety level was high yet she spoke proudly about how wonderful and understanding her children are.

I wish I could say that these conversations are unusual or that the number of them were decreasing.

When I volunteered in Central America I learned to identify the signs of malnutrition in children;  bloated bellies, listless bodies, blank stares, stunted growth. The government doled out a fortified powder produced by Nestle a mega giant in the food industry whose unethical behaviours are well documented. I could argue that it was a corrupt government and greedy industry’s way of doing the minimum to keep people  alive without any consideration for the human spirit, their land, and their culture.

Back home in Ottawa I’ve often agonized over the malnutrition that is lurking in our schools, woven into neighbourhoods, in haphazardly appointed “family shelters” that offer  inadequate cooking and food storage facilities, in rental housing that is unaffordable for families or unlivable, and the insidious effects it’s having on growing young brains and bodies. 

Last week we dropped off boxes and garbage bags to a young couple, both with serious health issues, who report an extreme infestation of cockroaches in their studio apartment. Even an everyday task such as making a cup of tea has become an ordeal when they must first check the kettle, the cup, and the cupboard for bugs.

My first reaction (and maybe yours too) was to advise them to move. The eternal optimist, I scoured online ads for apartment rentals and they diligently followed up. Sadly, when you are disabled and young there aren’t many landlords who are willing to rent a well maintained place to you. 

Our grocery program isn’t open on Friday’s because we offer a free produce market on that day every week instead. However, last Friday I had offered to bring some food to a mother of three from the south end of the city who was housebound with Covid. We’ve stopped asking the question about why people need food. It’s an irrelevant question. If a parent is asking for food to feed their children, why would we need them to prove they qualify for it or prove that they are deserving?

Charlotte on camera for Sitting at the Table A human Right to Food, film created by Parkdale

I have listened, over and over again, to Charlotte Smith speak about this in our video Sitting At The Table – A Human Right To Food. Truthfully, I’ve felt ashamed by how long it is taking to dismantle the dysfunctional food banking system and to create something that is built around love and care, love and care for the environment and for each other. I have no doubt that powerful forces are pushing the system towards the unhealthy impacts we are all experiencing in one way or another. But I also know that together, as a community of Neighbours who care for each other, we can be the change we want to see.

So on June 1, Parkdale Food Centre began what will be a series of neighbourhood experiments. With the help of the Ottawa Mosque, Merry Dairy and a few very adventurous friends, we held a community dinner party in the parking lot at 30 Rosemount. It was the launch of a “neighbouring campaign”, designed to see whether if we set the table and invited people to dine with people they didn’t know we could help build a bridge to understanding. We plated and served 150 meals.

Chefs in the kitchen

Diners clapped to welcome a brother and sister from the Ukraine who were celebrating their first week in Canada. Neighbours from Salus sat with retirees who accepted our invitation while they were on an evening walk. Seniors from an Ottawa Community Housing  building were served their meals by children who took great pride in delivering the plates with no (or little) spillage! An impressive number of PFC staff arrived on a Sunday evening to enjoy good food among new friends.

On Monday, June 2, we were tired but hopeful. 

On Wednesday, July 20, from 5-7pm in conjunction with the Parkdale Night Market we will be hosting our second “Welcome to Dinner, Neighbour” event. This time we are closing Hamilton Avenue, North between Spencer Street and Armstrong Avenue, in front of the Mino’weesini Grocery Program location. Yasmine’s Syrian Kitchen,  A Cooking for a Cause partner  is catering the meal, Merry Dairy will be there and the PFC kitchen has promised a sweet treat and Dannielle Allard will be entertaining us with her beautiful music. This event is for everyone!

There is no rain date. We will eat rain or shine! The important thing is that we will be together, getting to know each other, sharing with each other, caring about each other. If we want to live in a city where everyone has the means and opportunity to thrive and no mother has to agonize over feeding her children only boiled potatoes, then events like this one are surely on the path to hope.

I don’t know about you, but I could use a little hope these days.

What makes you hopeful?

Bright red event poster. Welcome to Dinner event at 5pm on Wednesday July 20th, 2022. 5 Hamilton Ave North. Everyone is welcome!
Donate Now – Parkdale Food Centre (canadahelps.org)