When $7.34 a Day Is All That's Left

October 24, 2019 / By: Nancy Harper, United Way WRC Editorial Content Creator

"One of the bravest acts in a community like ours is to ask for help."

Families living in poverty in Waterloo Region have a mere $7.34 a day*, on average, to buy necessities such as food after they’ve paid their rent and bills. It’s an impossible situation for thousands of people, and it means that even in a place as prosperous as Waterloo Region, the risk of falling through the cracks is very real. Many of the organizations reaching out to help are United Way partners — and as a fundraising organization whose job is to get money into the hands of those best positioned to help, United Way will be providing opportunities for community members to give directly to a “Fighting Hunger” fund this holiday season to help ease the burden.

It can be hard to imagine that in a place with such abundance, thousands of children will go to bed hungry on any given night in Waterloo Region.

These same children will wake up not knowing if there will be breakfast. They might even go to school with nothing for lunch.

If they’re lucky, the next day will be different.

But the reality for many families living in poverty is that after paying rent, utilities, child care, clothing and other essentials, healthy food almost always falls to the bottom of the list.

In fact, once a person living on social assistance has paid all their bills, they’re left with about $7.34 a day* for all the other things they need to participate in society.

There are kids’ shoes to buy. Backpacks to fill. Bus tickets to pay for.

Too often, a meal will be hot dogs or packaged noodles because anything else is beyond reach.

And it’s not that there’s a shortage of food in Waterloo Region. We are surrounded by verdant agricultural land. Local farmers grow a ton of food. Supermarket shelves are overflowing.

According to Clare Wagner, Interim Community Services Director at the House of Friendship, the problem is a food distribution issue, not an availability issue.

“There’s no lack of food around here,” Wagner says. “So we have to be careful when we say we’re fighting hunger when really we’re talking about a symptom of poverty. Food is the first thing to go whenpeople’s budgets shrink. Why? Because it’s invisible. People are breathing down your neck to pay your rent and utility bills but no one is knocking on your door to see if you’ve bought food this month.”

Those left with no choice but to turn to emergency food assistance in Waterloo Region number in the thousands, including 22,000 a year at the House of Friendship alone.

They are people from every demographic — every age, race, religion and ability. They might be living paycheque to paycheque. Many belong to traditionally marginalized groups: single-parent households, people with physical or mental health challenges, refugees who have fled traumatic situations. Some are living on the street.

About one in four of those who access food assistance in Waterloo Region are children. For them, not having enough nutritious food to eat is linked to poor health, lower performance in school, and social barriers that keep them from getting ahead in life.

“One of the bravest acts in a community like ours is to ask for help,” Wagner says. “We have a community where there is a lot of wealth and where a lot of people are doing well. Independence and resilience are very important here, so to have to say, ‘My fridge is empty’ is hard.

“When people come to our door and ask for support, we’re seeing them set aside their feelings of pride and dignity. So we do our utmost to build those qualities and values into the way we serve people with dignity and choice.

“Food charity is the band aid to help get people through a day. But we’re also trying to really ask those questions about what do we do as a community as a whole to get past needing food charity at all.”

Siobhan Bonisteel, Food Procurement and Local Food Development Manager at the Cambridge Self-Help Food Bank, says that when people are in need in our community, it’s imperative we help however we can without debating who is and isn’t worthy.

“It is not our job to pass judgement but instead to lend a hand when we can, to offer compassion and as a community start addressing the root causes of why people are struggling,” Bonisteel says. “Some members of our community lack buying power and yet the system we live in values people based on what they can purchase. The compounding pressures of poverty are often intensified by a lack of support services and options that people in crisis really need. Lack of services and lack of overall equitable resource distribution — food distribution itself is an excellent example of a lack of equity — is a failure of our system, our community and our government, not a failure of the person who is in need.”

The Cambridge Self-Help Food Bank, which is both a distribution centre and a frontline agency, serves 1,600 families directly each month through their Ainslie street location and three off-sites in Hespeler, Preston and Ayr. The Cambridge Food Bank also supports more than 20 agencies across Cambridge and North Dumfries with food — this includes all the local shelters and meal programs — and moves on average 85,000 pounds of food every month.

“The Cambridge Self-Help Food Bank is vehicle for the donor to create the world we all want to live in and benefit from,” Bonisteel says. “When everybody is well and fed and cared for and feels like they belong, you have a reverberatory effect that creates a better world for everyone. It’s not really just about filling bellies, it’s actually about creating community around food. Food itself is a vehicle for improved health, wellness, connection, community and sustainability.”

***

Fighting Hunger Through United Way

As both gatherers and distributors of food, the Food Bank of Waterloo Region and the Cambridge Self-Help Food Bank play a key role in fighting hunger.

Actively sourcing fresh, frozen and non-perishable food, they are at the centre of the Community Food Assistance Network of Waterloo Region, a network of more than 100 community agencies and food programs that provides food and connection to other vital supports for children and families in need.

This holiday season community members will have the opportunity to give directly to United Way’s “Fighting Hunger” fund, which will help boost efforts to reach the most vulnerable people in Waterloo Region. With filling and healthy meals, they will be better able to focus on the things that matter to them, and make use of the tools that will help them get ahead in life.

About United Way Waterloo Region Communities

United Way Waterloo Region Communities is dedicated to helping people live better lives in every one of the seven communities we serve. We are fundraisers and community builders who support a network of agencies whose programs and services are locally focused, informed, connected, and deeply invested in helping people reach their full potential.

To find out more about United Way Waterloo Region Communities’ Fighting Hunger Fund and how it affects our community, please contact 519-888-6100 | info@uwaywrc.ca.

*SourceCambridge Self-Help Food Bank

A Snapshot of Hungry Families: Statements from people accessing food assistance in Waterloo Region (gathered through an anonymous survey)
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“I need stuff for my kids and I’m out of any other ideas on how to get them food.”

“Have job interview today but almost nothing for meals until I get work or next cheque.”

“Rent is so high that after utilities, we sometimes need to come here”

“No money to buy food and no food to feed my children.”

“I had no lunch for my kids. This month we had to pay heat treatment for bedbugs — $220 plus $418 for mattress and box covers. Hard month.”

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