Friday, December 30, 2011

Food Hampers

Every year, my employer contributes to the Christmas Hamper program in our community. Staff from our office donate money and purchase, package, and deliver the hampers to our local community services association to be delivered to a family. This year, I pitched in to help. We had raised enough money to offer to adopt the largest family on the list. We adopted a family of 10. We were given a list of non-perishable food to purchase and and also bought age-appropriate gifts for the family.

For several years I have volunteered or donated to local food banks and hamper programs. I care deeply about the fact that so many Canadians are hungry every day, and in particular, children. Since becoming a mother, I feel sad and frustrated thinking about all the children, in our country, that don't eat well every day.

I have often written and talked about my passion for quality food and the food choices we make for our children. There is mounting evidence on how food contributes to physical and psychological development, long term health, and the general well-being of children. It seems obvious to me that we are what we eat. But it isn't that simple. So many of us are eating the wrong food and thinking that we are feeding our children well, when in fact, we are not.

The problem with poor quality food (or faux food as Michael Pollan would call it) is that it impedes brain development, physical health, and emotional well-being. Faux food is a major obstacle to children being healthy and successful. Faux food is contributing to the cycle of poverty. If you don't believe me (and my rather unscientific opinion) than read the countless studies that show the links from high sugar/processed food diets to poor academic and athletic performance.

So what are we to do when trying to help those in need, and are asked to purchase and donate non-perishable food? I have to admit, as I walked around the grocery store filling the cart with food for a family of 10, I felt sick to my stomach looking at what we had to purchase. We HAD to purchase what was on the list, and thankfully there were some really good things (oatmeal, canned vegetables and canned protein) but so much of it was highly processed food such as cereal, crackers, snack foods. On the one hand, I thought about how nice it was for this family to receive all this food but on the other hand, they weren't getting anything fresh.

When the most vulnerable people in our country are being given the non-perishable donations that are essentially filler and calories, how do we teach these families the importance of fresh, good quality food for their children? How do we get this food to them? (I know many food banks have some fresh food programs) And how do we teach them to prepare and cook on a budget with limited time?

When I see mega-food corporations such as Kraft donating food to food banks all I can think is that they are contributing to the problem. The more processed, poor quality food we feed our children, the less likely they will be strong, healthy, and make a positive contribution. They will be stuck in the cycle of poverty, once again relying on the processed food that got them there.

Our giving nature in Canada has put tremendous emphasis on "filling up" our food banks. Pounds of food, boxes of food, its all quantity over quality. Quantity at the expense of quality. I think its time to start putting more emphasis on quality food. Empower people who rely on food banks with better food and cooking knowledge. Teach their kids (who often need to feed themselves while parents are working) to be able to cook. Instead of continuing the cycle of reliance on processed food lets try to change this. I know that it takes more than this. But I really do think that this kind of change will make a difference. A lasting one. And change that is all too necessary.