Fighting food insecurity: alternatives to food banks?
The Institut national de santé publique du Québec defines food insecurity as inadequate or uncertain access to food, due primarily to a lack of financial resources or access to a sustainable food system that maximizes healthy choices.
During 2017 and 2018 in Quebec, 11.1% of households experienced food insecurity (Tarasuk V, Mitchell A, 2020). But only one affected person in five seeks assistance at food banks. The reasons for this include the limited accessibility of distribution centers, the poor quality of the food that is available, and the shame experienced by individuals living in difficult financial situations (Tarasuk V, 2019).
“Today, emergency food distribution remains very traditional in practice: Beneficiaries go to a point of service where they receive either a grocery voucher or a basket of non-perishable products. Whether the food that’s distributed is healthy and encourages a balanced diet is questionable. This is why, since we began working at the Société Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, Justine and I have been working to develop alternative solutions to promote the democratization of healthy eating. Food aid is essential for people living in precarious situations, but we can do more than just offer them a basket of non-perishables.”
Imagining a different experience
“We had been thinking about a model that would be different from the food bank’s—more supportive of access to healthy food. I proposed the idea of food baskets, not unlike GoodFood’s, containing fresh, high-quality, and nutritious products, but at a very affordable price. While there are currently several successful urban-agriculture initiatives, they are not financially accessible to people who use food aid. With our boxes, we wanted to offer a solution that’s attractive and practical for everyday life, as well as useful in developing culinary skills. The baskets would contain fruits and vegetables, which people don’t necessarily have economic or physical access to, along with simple recipes and food-preservation tips. It was this idea, which we called Healthy Boxes, that we sent to the MIS Civic Incubator’s call for projects.”
After being selected to the Fall 2020 cohort, Jennifer and Justine were delighted to have an opportunity to refine their thinking and begin the development phase of their concept. Although the two women originally envisioned Healthy Boxes as a personal project, their employer, the Société Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, supported their entrepreneurial vision and expressed interest in adopting the program.
But the project evolved dramatically during the course of their journey with the Civic Incubator.
“Quite soon, we found we were questioning ourselves. The workshop on the theory of change knocked us around quite a bit, in the sense that we had to ask ourselves real questions about the target audience, impact, and strategy. Having an idea in your head is one thing; putting it on paper is another. Our objective was clear, but were the boxes the best way to realize it? During workshop discussions, we were pushed to address the solution from every angle: from the beneficiaries’ inherent interest in cooking, to the kitchen equipment available to them, to the environmental impact of food packaging, to the question of product choice. In the face of these arguments, the concept of the boxes no longer made sense.”
“It hurt to give up on the boxes. I had thought about the idea so much, about how to bring it to life. I had even started to write recipes! A remark someone made during a workshop finally convinced me: ‘Don’t be more attached to the concept than to the impact.’ Hearing this gave us license to change the form of the project as long as we continued to address the problem. The boxes just wouldn’t have had the impact we wanted.”
When one question leads to another
The project evolved into a new form: a cooperative grocery store. But the objective—to democratize access to healthy food—remains unchanged.
A grocery store, the two women concluded, offers many advantages. It enables a customer to choose fresh products according to their tastes and their cooking skills. It promotes healthy eating practices. It creates social links via culinary workshops and group exchanges. It is also open to different models of inclusion for people in precarious situations.
“Once again, we’re asking ourselves: What if we could restore dignity to the recipients of food aid by choosing to broaden our target audience? By shopping at a store frequented by their neighbors, beneficiaries would feel less stigmatized. They would be customers not of a food bank for people in precarious situations, but of a grocery co-op where products would be priced according to a shopper’s financial situation. We can envision several models.” — Jennifer
In 2021, the grocery store will move to a Société Saint-Vincent de Paul location in Montreal’s Centre-Sud neighbourhood, where Justine and Jennifer are developing partnerships with various groups, among them Cyclistes solidaires (to provide delivery to people with mobility difficulties) and the Table de concertation en sécurité alimentaire (to collaboratively develop local food-service offerings).
All that remains is to choose a name for this food co-op! Visit the news section of the Société Saint-Vincent-de-Paul’s website for an announcement of the project, as well as the Société’s Facebook page, where a vote to select a name will take place soon.
- Civic incubator,
The potential realization of a positive-impact project idea—one that has long been brewing in the back of their minds—has motivated over one hundred change-makers to join the MIS Civic Incubator.
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