People and Places

“Poverty makes people sick” — Parkdale’s Karen Secord on solving hunger

Since she first walked into the Parkdale Food Centre in Hintonburg roughly four years ago, Karen Secord has been a voice for change in the way that Ottawa thinks about food banks.

Back in 2013, Ottawa Magazine spoke with Secord — now the centre’s manager — about some of the innovative ideas she was introducing — concepts such as cooking classes run by local volunteer chefs, and storage space and areas for food preparation offered to neighbourhood clients.

Food costs are expected to increase in the coming year and there will be a growing need by many in Ottawa for the help food banks provide. In light of this, we checked back with Secord about where the greatest needs are and how best Ottawans can help.

For the past four years, Karen Secord, manager of the Parkdale Food Centre, has pusehd people to think outside the box in terms of what a food bank can offer its community. Photo: Luther Caverly
For the past four years, Karen Secord, manager of the Parkdale Food Centre, has pushed people to think outside the box in terms of what a food bank can offer its community. Photo: Luther Caverly

In the past few years, what demographic has the biggest need?

Single people — For single people trying to get by on minimum wage for part-time work, Ontario Works, or disability it is impossible to meet basic human needs.

"We know that when children eat real food –whole food with nutrients that help the body grow – they do better at school, and when they do better in school they do better in life" — Karen Secord
“We know that when children eat real food — whole food with nutrients that help the body grow — they do better at school, and when they do better in school they do better in life,” says Secord

This past fall the centre introduced the Food & Finance: Growing Futures program, which engages children and youth in the area. It isn’t just aimed at low income areas, but how do you see this program assisting those, in particular, who have economic challenges? 

We believe that all children, regardless of the economic circumstances they are born into, are inundated with messaging that attracts and encourages them to eat processed, disease-inducing food. We know that when children eat real food — whole food with nutrients that help the body grow — they do better at school, and when they do better in school they do better in life.

Our goal is threefold: to connect children to the production, understanding, and enjoyment of real food; to foster in children a very practical understanding of money/finance and entrepreneurship/innovation; and to connect the community to the places where children learn by creating business relationships and “learning clusters” between young and old, new entrepreneurs and more established businesses.

Our hope is that if we can create a more physically and financially resilient next generation — because they understand and are comfortable making good food and financial decisions — we will all benefit.

The holiday season is typically a difficult time for people facing economic hardship. How best can people assist the centre during this period? 

We can use help in two ways: money to help us continue our programming and retain our few, amazing staff, and by informing yourself about the woefully inadequate social support system that has created the public health crisis we are now seeing — and then speaking out to demand immediate reforms. There is absolutely no excuse for families to have to live in a one-room shelter without their own kitchen or bathroom for over a year while waiting for an Ottawa Community Housing unit. It is a horrible shame that single people are forced to live in often bug-infested rooming houses because they don’t have the resources to rent their own home. We need people to raise their voices.

In the past, you’ve been critical of how typical food banks operate. In the past few years, have you seen improvements in the way food banks in Ottawa and elsewhere are sourcing, preparing, and serving food?

We were so excited to read the Ottawa Food Bank [2016] report. In it they talk about the importance of nutritious food and getting to the root of hunger in Ottawa. We all know that poverty is a complicated issue, but with the Ottawa Food Bank network’s collective voice we really can create a healthier, more caring city for everyone. More than ever before there is a sharing of ideas, resources, and potential.

The future of food banks/centres — What challenges do they face? What do you envision to be a practical, ideal solution for Ottawa? 

If we do nothing and continue along the path food banks have traditionally taken, without addressing the issues of precarious employment, and the inadequate social safety net for the most vulnerable, my fear is that the divide between the richest and the poorest will only grow, and with it declining health outcomes. Poverty makes people sick. … True innovation will come when every Canadian has the opportunity to work full-time at a wage that provides a living income and necessary health benefits, and people who are not able to work for whatever reason receive enough income to meet their basic needs, to live a healthy life. Offering opportunities for people to come together over food and friendship should be part of every community. We dream that one day distributing emergency food will only be a tiny part of what we do, because people will be self-sufficient.

Visit the Parkdale Food Centre website for more information about their programs and to donate.