The City of New Westminster was contacted by a senior who had received an eviction notice in order to facilitate renovations in her rental building. The senior had recently relocated to a nearby rental building; however, her monthly rent is considerably higher. As a result, the senior is finding it difficult to live on her fixed income and was inquiring as to food and meal programs in her neighbourhood.
In talking to the senior, she stated that she was receiving a rent supplement under the Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters (SAFER) program. She further stated that she had not applied for subsidized housing under the BC Housing Registry but had heard that there are long waitlists for such housing. (In April 2019, there were 214 seniors on the registry who are looking for subsidized housing in New Westminster.)
The senior had very limited knowledge of available food programming, which is understandable as she had never experienced food insecurity in the past, and she was apprehensive about crowds and lineups. Although not explicitly stated, there appeared to be a concern that others would see and judge her. As such, the stigma associated with poverty and food insecurity was a potential barrier to her receiving assistance. The senior also stated that she had diabetes, thus had a restricted diet.
This raised the question of how prevalent is food insecurity amongst seniors and what resources are available to assist them in New Westminster.
People are food insecure when: (1) they worry they will not be able to afford adequate food; (2) they eat sub-optimal food because they cannot afford better; and (3) they skip meals because they are unable to purchase enough food.
In March 2016, 103,464 people received food from a food bank in British Columbia; which represented a 32.5 per cent increase since March 2008. In 2017, 429 people received food in an average week from the Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society in New Westminster. A large number of people accessing a food bank are on some form of government assistance, including a pension. The high cost of housing is a key driver of food bank usage, with 66 per cent of people who use a food bank paying market level rents.
A complete, nutritious diet is critical to good health. As such, food insecurity is associated with an increased risk for conditions such as asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure. Seniors who are food insecure are 40 per cent more likely to develop congestive heart failure, 53 per cent more likely to report a heart attack and 60 per cent more likely to experience depression.
There are many organizations that are working to address food insecurity in New Westminster and several publications listing resources. One such publication is the Helping Hands brochure, which lists food and meal programs, including locations and times when they are available. Another publication is the Fraser Health Low Cost Food Directory, which also includes community kitchen and cooking programs.
For the senior in question, recent changes related to food bank delivery may allay many of her fears. For example, the Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society in New Westminster offers staggered entry hours to accommodate those requiring extra assistance and time; empowers users to make their own food choices; accommodates dietary needs and preferences; and provides opportunities for social connections.
In 2018, the City of New Westminster, with a grant from the Vancouver Foundation, developed a Food Security Action Plan. This plan, which involved over 30 community, faith, settlement and social service organizations in its development, identifies needs and gaps and proposes 38 actions to enhance food security. The New Westminster Homelessness Coalition Society and the New Westminster Community Food Action Committee, with a grant from the City, will be responsible for plan implementation.
The City of New Westminster is also working on a number of housing initiatives to address renovictions (when some landlords evict their tenants under the guise of performing major renovations and then significantly increase the rent), and increase the supply of below-market and non-market rental housing. The city has also partnered on a Rent Bank program, which provides low-interest loans to people at risk of eviction. These housing initiatives, plus others, recognize the important role that housing affordability plays with regard to poverty, food insecurity and homelessness.
In moving forward, it is envisioned that people who find themselves food insecure will have ready access to information about available programs; will be able to easily locate and utilize food and meal programs; will be able to meet their dietary needs and preferences; and will be able to do so in a dignified and respectful manner. In so doing, the senior in question will feel empowered and supported, and will not be forced to choose between buying food and paying other bills.
For more information on available resources and the action plan, please refer to the tab entitled Food Security Action Plan at www.newwestcity.ca/community-poverty-reduction-initiative.