Hello again. How times flies! With our group’s work with the Hastings Sunrise Community food network coming to an end, it seems as if the real work is only about to begin. At this point, we have attended several focus groups and are continuing to gather and organize information. Here we will update you with our experience in the first and second focus groups, and some of the discussions which took place regarding healthy, affordable food and food resources. Hearing some of the community members’ personal anecdotes regarding food insecurity was sometimes astonishing and always inspiring, in that we are now questioning what we as students can do for the Hastings-Sunrise community as our project nears its end.
On Thursday, November 17, some of our group attended the Thunderbird Community Centre for our first focus group discussion. Thunderbird is a low-income and very diverse neighbourhood, and some of the food outlets are far from the residential area. Hearing food related experiences from the community members first hand provided insight into the current food insecurity issue in the Hastings Sunrise Community, to an extent that we did not realize. For example, many of the members at the focus group are living off of welfare or pensions and receive financial support once a month. Depending on the time of the month, some do not have the financial means to pay for food. Most of the community members are single, and the majority of the community members in this demographic mentioned difficulties cooking for only one person as fresh food goes bad easily and the meal portion for one person is small. Distance and transportation is another major obstacle in accessing healthy and affordable food mentioned in the focus group. Mobility issues for the elders make it difficult to get to the Superstore, and in addition, they feel unsafe in the neighbourhood at night and do not want to walk to the store alone. In the focus group, we also discussed potential solutions in addressing food justice and the accessibility and affordability of healthy food. Some of the potential solutions mentioned at the focus group could be viable options for the Thunderbird community. One idea was a food shuttle design for people with mobility concerns to give them access to grocery stores. Another example is a mobile vegetable truck which could bring healthy food options into the community, which ideally would help those struggling with physical access to resources.
The second focus group we attended was on Thursday, November 24 at Kiwassa Neighbourhood house. The demographic of the group was different in that it was dominated by women who were responsible for feeding themselves and their children. This group was extremely open to sharing, and the atmosphere in the room was one of support. Many challenges coincided with the first focus group including not being able to walk to food outlets, or not having the time to bus across town. There was a focus on growing their own food, and this was expressed as something everyone there was interested in doing; whether by learning more about how to start your own garden, wanting to share garden space which they currently own, or by starting new community garden spaces, everyone was interested in collaborating with one another to improve this food resource. Education seemed to be a recurring theme as well. The majority of the attendees were immigrants (from China, Mexico, and Iran), who expressed struggling with adapting to cooking in North America and not being familiar with local produce. A solutions that the group came up with included bring more local, small scale food outlets to the community centres such as Kiwassa to decrease the distance from stores. Creating something like a weekly farmers market and increasing cooking programs year round was identified as being a priority if the community were to implement a plan to reduce food insecurity. Overall, this focus group was filled with openness and sharing, and even some exchanging of contact information between attendees. It was extremely heartwarming to witness small change like connecting an experienced gardener with a less experienced one as a direct result of the focus group project.
Attending our first food circle has been a pivotal moment in this project; one of great reward for a variety of reasons. Hosting food circles is what we’ve been waiting to do all term and after prep-work and training sessions, we finally made it! Sitting in on these sessions and listening to the stories that some of the community members were willing to share has been an eye-opening and an almost overwhelming experience. In our minds, it has given this project life and really made us realize that the statistics and numbers we often read about in academia each have a face and story behind them. Without recognizing who the individuals that are impacted by food justice are and their specific circumstances, we can’t appropriately understand how their access to nutritious, affordable food is being impeded (Dixon, 2014). We must understand food justice with this new perspective to make it more clear what forms of social activism can improve people’s circumstances and restraints to free choice (Dixon, 2014). Attending these focus groups has emphasized the importance of experiential learning as it has not only deepened our knowledge of food access and its barriers, but has instilled in us all a new personal passion and connection with the topic.
Attending the focus group connected us to the issues on a more emotional level and developed a deeper understanding of the importance of food insecurity. Attending the first focus group, there was a sense of discomfort at times, possibly because although community members were appreciative of our help and were quite open, they may have also been hesitant in opening up to us because we were not experiencing food insecurity at the level in which they were. At the second focus group, there was a more diverse group of attendees, and there was if anything a feeling of slight uncertainty at first, but this soon dissolved into enthusiasm. While we have extensive theoretical knowledge gained through our education, applying this knowledge in a tangible, realistic way to implement positive change in a community can be difficult at times. Consequently, through the two focus groups and according to Mathie and Cunningham, it is evident that ratifying relationships with community members is necessary in bridging social capital of community projects (2003). When it comes to the designing of programs to address community food insecurity, it is imperative that we include community members in the planning and implementing process.
The opportunity to be part of hosting focus groups with community members has been an invaluable learning experience we could never have received in a lecture hall. It has demonstrated the importance of collaboration on a number of levels; between us as a group, between our efforts combined with the HSCFN leaders, and between our final collaboration with members from the community during the focus groups. This project has challenged us in our ability to integrate knowledge and skills obtained from the “real-world” in combination with those obtained from the world of academia. We realize that although these two worlds may conflict, both have important insights to offer. If approached in the right way, academia can play an important role in addressing food justice by recognizing issues that may otherwise be withheld and by thinking critically about these issues in order to create change (Allen, 2008). We are currently trying to find this balance so that we do not in any way impose privilege or power on the communities we are working to help but instead approach the issues at hand from a more bottom up perspective, and be grateful with insight and perspective community members are willing to share with us.
Focus groups provided opportunity for community members to express their voice. They were provided a safe environment in which they could freely state their concerns and personal lived-experiences. By gathering and involving community members in the process of identifying community barriers to accessing healthy, affordable food, it allows their needs to be specifically addressed and incorporated into the goals of the HSCFN. With the knowledge gained from this project, HSCFN leaders now have valuable information and personal experiences to back them while advocating for increased funding to support the implementation of more and improved programs to increase the community’s capacity for engagement within the unique Hastings Sunrise food system. Moving forward, the results of this project will provide the foundation on which the HSCFN leaders can build upon and keep in mind when advocating, discussing, planning and hopefully implementing community programs like gardening and education programs, community kitchen programs, or mobile meal kit or grocery delivery trucks to work towards improved food security in the Hastings-Sunrise Community.
It is evident that we can’t improve social justice without giving a face to the community’s stories and experiences that translate these conceptual frameworks into reality. We cannot simply improve food justice without abundant resources, knowledge and the critical and reflective eye of academia. To further our work towards increased food access in the Hastings-Sunrise community we must now integrate our research and writing skills obtained in academia and combine it with the knowledge and insight obtained from the community. We hope that with our report we may provide the HSCFN leaders with a competent resource for their future utilization in the process of applying for funding and grants to support their work in improving community resources.
Over the coming weeks, focus groups will continue to be held in community centres across the Hastings-Sunrise community. It is a busy time, and we are all extremely torn in balancing this project with our other subjects. Though we will not be able to attend all of the focus groups, we are remaining in close contact with the HSCFN leaders and will be collaborating with the facilitators to compile data from the focus groups. This project will continue into the new year when another LFS 350 group will pick up where we left off, hopefully utilizing the information we collected to help facilitate the implementation of some of the community members’ suggestions regarding community food security. Our report is only a stepping stone in this ongoing project, and we intend to be as thorough and critical as possible in order to make the most impactful changes which may eventually, after a few more LFS 350 projects, lead to implemented improvements of current community food programs.
There has been a lot of effort and support put into this project from all sides, and us students have certainly been captivated by the amazing work being done in Hastings-Sunrise. We will continue to stay up to date with the project, and some of us may even be able to attend the celebration taking place in January! We may have a deadline for our course, but our contribution to the project doesn’t end with the final words of our report.
For the final time, this has been Sonella, Sydney, Iris, Jenna, and Kimberly, signing off.
Allen, P. (2008). Mining for justice in the food system: perceptions, practices, and possibilities. Agriculture and Human Values, 25(2), 157–161
Dixon, B. A. (2014). Learning to see food justice. Agriculture and Human Values, 31(2), 175–184
Mathie, A., & Cunningham, G. (2003). From clients to citizens: Asset-based Community Development as a strategy for community-driven development. Development in Practice, 13(5), 474–486.