In 2013, Maria Mayan received research funding to study maternal health in and around Edmonton. Typically, this research consists of little more than tracking weight gain throughout pregnancy. But when Mayan — a professor and interim dean in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Extension and an assistant director of the Community-University Partnership — and her team studied more vulnerable communities, they learned that weight gain during pregnancy was not the biggest issue.
Her team then surveyed these communities and found that, out of 250 mothers, a third said that in the past year, their kids had gone a whole day without eating. “They literally did not have same-day food,” she says. “So we thought, OK, it’s not about broccoli and exercise, it’s about, truly, they don’t have enough food to get through the day.”
Allen is now the city lead of Edmonton’s branch of the Leftovers Foundation.
“The way Leftovers works is, we have our app that has different service agencies and vendors, and we match them up with a route,” Allen explains. Volunteers deliver excess food from one of the now 23 vendors to one of the now 12 service agencies. By absorbing a part of the original Grocery Run program, the Leftovers Foundation coordinates runs, directs food from a larger vendor network and frees up funding for other vital service agency programs in housing, education and employment.
Freeing up funding for other services is actually the most important part, because the Grocery Run program, like all emergency food distribution services, is more of a stop-gap measure. The program temporarily increases food access — specifically for perinatal, pregnant and postpartum women in Edmonton’s immigrant and refugee communities. But food access is only one part of becoming food secure, which means never worrying about from where — or if — any meal will come. Helping these people get affordable housing, education and work is what breaks the cycle of needing food access to begin with. “The Grocery Run program happens once a week, so people can access one or two days’ worth of food,” Allen says, “but they aren’t choosing their types of food or accessing the quantities they need, so they’re still food insecure.”
Edmonton has enough food to feed everyone. But not everyone can get good food — physically or economically. “There are certain pockets of mostly inner-city areas that will have a gas station, but no grocery options,” Allen says. “So, yes, technically they can buy food nearby, but they’re going to pay three dollars for a banana, or have to eat a microwave hoagie.”
These areas are known as “food deserts,” where healthy, affordable food options are a few bus transfers away.
Taking it to the Street
So Allen and her team brought a mini-oasis to these deserts. Fresh Routes is a mobile grocery store that transports healthy, discounted grocery store food to pop-up stores in barriered neighbourhoods in a refrigerated food truck. It started as a 2018 pilot project in Calgary, where it now serves around 60 locations per month, primarily in post-secondary institutions, Indigenous and low-income communities. In October 2019, Allen, who is also the city manager with Fresh Routes, oversaw the launch of the program in Edmonton, which debuted at the Clareview Community Recreation Centre. What’s key is that as a social enterprise (as opposed to a service agency or charity), it generates revenue and can therefore become self-sustaining and more easily expand, just like in Calgary. Already, it visits the Callingwood Twin Arenas, West Edmonton Village and The Orange Hub each week.
Most importantly, it helps pregnant women, new mothers and anyone who needs it become food secure in a meaningful way that may seem subtle to the haves. “It’s been reported in numerous studies that people often experience a sense of shame in accessing charitable food,” Allen says. “And it makes sense, because we want to be able to purchase what we’re getting, and not rely on handouts forever. So the idea was to offer a sense of dignity by making it more accessible to people who are living on limited income, and offering that choice so people could decide what they’re getting.”
The whole process — of studying the city’s most vulnerable and turning that knowledge into something tangibly helpful — is something Mayan hopes to see more of. “It varies from one faculty to another, but, in general, you’re still rewarded for grant money and publishing,” she says. “But I know people are taking it much more seriously and doing what’s called knowledge translation or knowledge mobilization, where you take responsibility to make sure something is done with this.”
The Four Pillars of Food Security
The “supply side” of food security is determined by the level of food production, stock levels and net trade.
An adequate supply of food does not in itself guarantee household level food security. Vulnerable communities still face physical, economic and structural barriers to healthy food options.
Good care and feeding practices, food preparation, diversity of diet and intra-household food distribution, combined with good biological food utilization, determine the nutritional status of individuals.
Even if your food intake is adequate today, you are still considered to be food insecure if you have inadequate access to food on a periodic basis, risking a deterioration of your nutritional status.