Starved For Social Connections

Part four of a four-part series examining what malnourishment looks like in Metro Vancouver and exploring how we can address this unnecessary phenomenon.

In Part One of this series, we reflected on how malnourishment can be both widespread and hidden. Part Two discussed how people can be fed yet under-nourished. Part Three looked at how people can be over-nourished by unhealthy food.

A fourth root of malnourishment stems from inadequate social connections. We need people to help us access good quality ingredients and equipment needed to cook, to teach us culinary skills, and to help us find the motivation to eat well. Enjoyment of food comes from companionship, not just from the taste or the ease of hunger pangs.

For some of our more isolated neighbours, a community meal may be the only point of connection he or she has that day with others. Imagine someone who experiences social anxiety, or who is hearing impaired and struggles to make out what someone nearby is saying when there is background noise. Many charitable meals are crowded and noisy, not relaxed settings that foster conversations between tablemates. The BC Ministry of Health has a manual which outlines basic health and safety standards for residential care meal programs. The manual includes the Dining Environment Audit (p. 141), a useful list of questions to consider about the space where food is served, though it is focused on individuals who need more support than the typical guest at a community meal.

Or consider individuals for whom human friendships are too challenging, and they choose instead to care for pets. One guest at a community meal told me, “Its easy to scrounge for food. When I get money, I buy dog food.” Knowing what he had eaten that day, I find it hard to accept his priorities. But seeing the care he gives to his dog, and the connections they make with others, I want to make a safe space for both of them to enjoy their meals. While pets should be kept out of eating areas for food safety reasons, providing space for animals may open up new relationships.

The 2012 count of homeless individuals in Vancouver reports that 82% of our city’s homeless population identified as someone with one or more health conditions. When talking with people at community meals, I often hear comments like, “This food really helps. I have difficulty standing long enough to prepare a meal.” Another guest who is wheelchair bound told me, “I visit at least one food program each day. I can’t cook in my hotel room. Too many cockroaches.” Programs like Meal on Wheels or Loving Spoonful’s daily meals for people with HIV fill some of this need, but there is still a gap.

Food can be a delicious mediator between individuals and their communities. Through Planted, you will meet people who agree with Poppendieck’s vision in Sweet Charity of “Turning our kitchens and pantries into free spaces, places where people can meet and interact across the gulf of social class and the divisions of race and ethnicity, not as givers and receivers in ways that widen the gulf, but as neighbours and fellow citizens in ways that strengthen social bonds. Imagine that we opened community dinner programs in our public schools, where parents picking up their children from after-school programs could share a meal with them, where senior citizens could enjoy an inexpensive night out, where teenagers could learn culinary skills and earn a little spending money, where local artists could display their work and musicians could perform and poets could read. Suppose that churches and synagogues could purchase tickets for such meals and distribute them to the hungry people who now congregate in their soup kitchens and food pantries so that these people would be less isolated, more integrated with the larger community. Imagine anyone in need could earn dinner tickets by helping with food preparation or with clean-up. Imagine the discussions that might take place around the tables, the new ideas that might be hatched, the gardens that might be planted, the friendships that might be formed, the ideals that might be nourished, and the movements that might be built. Imagine the very different lessons we would be teaching our young people about how to overcome hunger and meet our common human need for food.”

Zsuzsi Dreams And Draws

Westside Food Collaborative Coordinator Zsuzsi Fodor talks about the vision behind the mobile market in this video: to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to Westside seniors in need, mobilize community and change food policy in the long run.

If you’d like to show your support for seniors experiencing food insecurity, please sign the Plenty Pledge at

First Mobile Market Day A Major Success

Written by South Granville Senior Centre’s Tania Ehret.

On July 18th our first Westside Mobile Food Market was a major success, selling out all of our produce. Our fresh products consisted of cucumber, lettuce, tomatoes, mint, cherries, cauliflower, onions, bananas, and new potatoes.

Project Coordinator, Annie, and volunteers Madeline, Elizabeth, and Raymonde set up an information table highlighting the campaign and asking for people to sign a pledge of support. The Mobile Food Market, which focuses on ending food deserts (districts or neighbourhoods with little or no access to affordable and nutritious food) in the Westside, will be promoted all over the surrounding area this summer as we participate in outreach events to raise awareness of food security issues for seniors.

Please join us every Thursday from 11am to 1pm as we set up our mobile food market at the front of our centre. There will also be a market from 2-4 at The Marpole Place Neighbourhood House on the same day.

Please contact Merrily Tan at, here at the centre, if you are interested in volunteering with this collaborative project!

For more information about the campaign and to sign the pledge, check out the Plenty Campaign website here.

The Plenty Campaign: Add Your Voice, Sign The Pledge!

Exciting news! The Westside Mobile Food Market is rolling out for the first time this summer to bring fresh, affordable fruits and veggies to seniors and other vulnerable people living on Vancouver’s Westside.

To help raise awareness for this great partner initiative, Planted is launching “The Plenty Campaign” today. Please take one minute to add your voice in support of fair access to food, and sign the Plenty Pledge!

To learn more about the market and whom it helps, watch our short video.

Market On Wheels Rolls Out To Help Westside Seniors

If the people can’t come to the food, then the food must come to the people!

That’s the concept behind the Westside Mobile Food Market: to bring fresh food to people who need it. From July 18 until the end of September, this not-for-profit market on wheels — the first of its kind to service the Westside — will stop at community gathering places and deliver fresh, affordable fruits and vegetables to seniors who would have a hard time accessing fresh produce otherwise.

It’s a little known fact that Vancouver’s Westside is home to “food deserts” — zones with few or no grocery stores or produce stands. Some neighbourhoods on the Westside don’t have a single grocery store within its limits.

Due to mobility issues, and a limited budget, seniors and other vulnerable people are having a hard time accessing fresh food — like Westside senior resident Marcia Eleccion.

“The next grocery store within my budget is far away,” she says. “If my arthritis flames up and I am feeling achy on a day I need to go shopping, I have to pop painkillers to be able to actually go.”

To meet Marcia, learn more about food insecurity on the Westside and the mobile food market, please watch this video.

To kick off the mobile market’s first season, “The Plenty Campaign” (in support of the Westside Mobile Market) will raise awareness for Westside seniors experiencing food insecurity. The public will be invited to show their support by signing a community pledge — online or at Vancouver Farmers’ Markets and various other community events.

To sign the pledge and learn more about the campaign visit

If you are interested in volunteering with the Westside Mobile Food Market this summer, please contact Annie Lambla at

Malnutrition Through Over-Nutrition

Part Three of a four-part series examining what malnourishment looks like in Metro Vancouver and exploring how we can address this unnecessary phenomenon.

In Part One of this series, we defined malnourishment and reflected on how it can be both widespread and hidden in our city. In Part Two, we discussed how people can be fed yet under-nourished, not getting enough of the kinds of food we need to thrive.

Malnourishment, however, can also be linked to “over-nutrition”: people consuming too many things our bodies are not really designed to digest. In this light, someone who appears to be a healthy weight, or even overweight, can still be malnourished.

Too much caffeine can leave us jittery and unable to sleep. Too much sugar can lead to diabetes and its many related complications. Too much salt can lead to high blood pressure. Too much fat can lead to heart disease. Too much food in general erodes our ability to appreciate it. One cannot experience the physical joy of being satisfied when one is perpetually over-satisfied.

These conditions are far too common and can be fatal. Together, they are sometimes referred to as the metabolic syndrome, or Syndrome X, and further limit the body’s ability to maintain ideal blood pressure or glucose levels. If allowed to progress too far, they cause irreversible damage to eyesight, nerves, and blood vessels, as well as increased risk for a stroke.

Food-related ailments, however, don’t need to be permanent. Simple shifts in our eating and physical activity habits can have significant impact in returning blood sugar, blood pressure and waistlines to healthier levels.

For those who rely on charitable food sources, changes in diet may not be possible without a commitment from service providers to source nourishing food.

Should charitable organizations refuse foods that staff members would not eat themselves?

Here’s what Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis, authors of The Stop, write about the food policy at their community food centre in Toronto. “We’ve been turning down damaged cans and opened packages since we got here – partly because of safety concerns, but also because being given such throwaways makes food bank recipients feel like second class citizens… The food bank experience is often a slow painful death of the spirit – forcing yourself to visit a crowded, ill-equipped, makeshift place, answer personal questions, swallow your pride as you wait in line-up. Reaching the front of the line only to be offered bizarre processed food products” (p. 41).

When I asked a participant at a community consultation what he would say to the person who planned the meals, he said, “As a senior, I need a lower sodium diet. Most places serve mostly canned food and bread, things you would get from a food bank. Please also consider serving lower sugar, lower sodium meals. People can add salt themselves.”

Along with an excess of food items our bodies aren’t designed to digest, too much of a certain kind of charity can lead to dehumanization.

During a recent visit to a community food program, I was seated at a table, introduced to my tablemates, and given a bowl of soup before I could protest that I was there to observe, not because I needed to be fed. The volunteers who served me were kind and generous, nevertheless I was made to feel inadequate as I was served rather than welcomed onto the team of volunteers.

As Janet Poppendieck says in Sweet Charity, “Charity ‘wounds’ because it excuses the recipient from obligation to repay that are deeply embedded in both culture and psyche and fundamental to human social life” (p. 251).

What can we do?

Poppendieck has an answer: “The simplest and most obvious strategy for promoting dignity is also probably the least employed: the common meal that blurs or erases the distinction between givers and receivers, providers and clients” (p. 248).

When planning to feed the poor, let’s plan like we’re eating with neighbours – because we are! Let’s plan a meal that everyone would want to eat. Let’s serve it in such a way that everyone will feel included and honoured, not set apart by this or that “need.”

Planted exists to promote this kind of community building and to share the stories that will inspire others to dine with us.