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.”

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