By Jane Seward, Transitional Youth Worker, Bridging the Gap
You hear it in the news constantly… people around the world are going hungry every day. Growing up it was a phrase I heard at mealtime when we either complained about what was being served or didn’t want to finish what was on our plate.
How many of you can relate to feeling a lump in your throat or the slight sting of your eyes starting to tear every time you watched one of those charity organization videos of starving children in third world countries?
But what if the problem is in our own back yard? It may not be as visible or extensive, but the issue does exist for our families and our youth here in Halton. It is here amidst the huge homes, fancy lakeshore restaurants, and expensive private schools. So, let us take a minute to reflect on what is happening and what we can do about it.
In my role as a Transitional Youth worker for Bridging the Gap, I can observe firsthand how homelessness, discrimination, poverty, and food insecurity can affect our youth’s ability to thrive. Every week I am challenged by new levels of awareness concerning the barriers that exist for our youth to overcome these issues.
Youth neglect their food needs while securing a shelter
Food insecurity is but one of the numerous issues faced by youth who are homeless or at immediate risk of homelessness in our community. I am choosing to talk about food insecurity as it is an issue that often gets less attention but is just as concerning, as it pertains directly to the physical and mental health of the youth we serve.
I find it encouraging that there has been data collected to support the awareness of food insecurity especially for a population that is hard to study as they are transitory and hard to reach. It is not surprising that the data shows there is a higher percentage of visible minority youth that face food insecurity and a direct correlation between families and youth experiencing discrimination and food insecurity. The Halton Youth Impact Survey showed that children and youth who experienced discrimination were twice as likely to report some degree of food insecurity. Discrimination certainly exists and we need to ensure that we do something about it.
As a Transitional Youth worker, my role is to work with youth ages 16 to 24 years who are homeless or at risk of homelessness to support their goal of safe and stable housing. In my experience, a large percent of youth is experiencing “hidden homelessness”; scenarios in which they are couch surfing and staying with friends or extended family. It is these youth who scramble from day to day to ensure that they have a place to sleep. Their number one priority is the basic need for shelter. It is these youth that experience a high level of food insecurity. Yet the sad fact is that this basic need is pushed aside or forgotten in the face of the larger issue of homelessness. It is hard to think about where your next nutritional meal is coming from when your focus is on finding a safe place to stay.
When the goal of helping our youth to find safe and stable housing is met, we do our best to make sure that they have financial assistance through government aid or regional housing services to keep them in a longer-term living situation. To support their goals, we also work with them to ensure that they have the life skills to successfully live independently. We provide information and assistance to access food banks and food programs such as Food for Life. We are fortunate to have some funding for emergencies in the form of gift cards for purchasing groceries. In our program we have initial Start-Up program funding. We review wants versus needs when it comes to shopping and help our youth with budgeting skills. We support our youth with knowledge about community resources, including referrals and how to physically access them. I have personally had more success with youth using food banks and food programs if I walk beside them to help face some barriers such as the stigma attached to these programs, discrimination, and how to navigate their way.
It is important to discuss with our youth how food insecurity may be affecting their physical and mental health and how we can support them. Poor nutrition or unhealthy eating habits such as skipping meals or not eating regularly can lead to chronic health problems and mood dysregulation as well as other mental health issues. For our youth to thrive, they need to have food security. This will ensure better outcomes for their educational goals, employment goals, and well-being.
Making a Difference
How can we make a difference in our community? The first step is to become aware of the problem and the data that supports it. The next step is to decide to take action! Here are just a few ways that you can be intentional about making a difference in our community to help our children and youth experiencing food insecurity.
- Volunteer – You can make a huge impact by volunteering once a week at a food bank or other food delivery programs such as school lunch programs or Food for Life programs.
- Connect – Offer to take a youth out for lunch or dinner. You never know if that might be their only meal that day. Even if it isn’t, it will be a great way to develop a relationship and communication skills. Make and invest time to show that they are seen, known, and valued. It may help to break down barriers of isolation and discrimination.
- Donate – Donations allow organizations to purchase the food that is needed and offset the costs of making it available. Some youth depend on food banks to meet their needs on a weekly basis.
- Educate – Be knowledgeable about the food programs and assistance available for youth in the community so that you can spread awareness and educate youth on where to find resources. Make sure that you can help them with a plan on how to access them as this is a major barrier.
- Listen and Assess – It is important to be aware of the barriers to food security. Collect data from the experts and empower youth to talk about the barriers they are facing.
- Advocate – Create awareness of the issue within your organization and have discussions that question the steps being taken to address the problem, and more importantly if they are truly making a difference,
- Create – Plan community events specifically for homeless or at risk of homelessness youth who may be experiencing food insecurity. Gathering together to share in “breaking bread” of any kind can help to increase a sense of belonging and provide an opportunity to build social support networks.