Falling Through the Cracks: Westside Seniors Going Hungry

We were speechless. We were the Westside Food Security Collaborative (WFSC), a group of service providers, groups and citizens concerned about food issues in our community. We’d been meeting monthly in Kitsilano for about three years now and always had plenty to say around the table. But even with all that talking, we couldn’t answer the question from one of our members.

“I just had a call from a 63 year old woman,” said Clemencia Gomez, the Executive Director at the South Granville Seniors’ Centre. “She has no money and no food in her fridge. She asked if I could help her. I told her she could come here for lunch every day. She can’t pay for transportation, so she can’t get to the food bank. What else can I tell her? Where can she get food?”

I was stunned by our silence and gave Clemencia a call after our meeting to find out more. “Do you think she’d be willing to be interviewed?” I asked. Clemencia said she’d call her. The woman agreed. We’ll call her Debra.

“I worked from the time I was 17,” Debra said. “I have never had to ask for a handout.”

She took early retirement from her company, but the money only lasted a couple years. She couldn’t find another job after that. Her total monthly pension income is $1100. Rent is $850. She gets a $300 government rent subsidy, but that leaves only $550 for phone, hydro, food and other necessities. Transportation is an added expense and because she isn’t yet 65, she doesn’t qualify for the cheaper transit pass.

“The day before I called Clemencia, I had had nothing to eat,” she said. “I went to bed that night and actually prayed for help.”

When she got up the next morning she decided to look in the Yellow Pages under “seniors” and she saw the South Granville Seniors Centre there.

“You don’t know how much courage it took for me to call,” she said.

Debra has been very resourceful, selling off birthday gifts and CD’s to raise money. She managed to get to the food bank in the west end; the two bags of food only lasted about four days, but it helped. Unfortunately, it only operates three days a month, only two in July because of Canada Day. This woman is not an isolated case. There are three other women in her building in the same boat. They help each other when they can.

In 2007 we commissioned a study with Vancouver Coastal Health (Exploring Food Security in Vancouver’s West Side, June 2007). Two University of Victoria nursing students conducted the research and found a surprising result: there’s a malnutrition problem on the affluent west side. They identified several “in need” categories: single moms, people who had difficulty in preparing meals either due to a disability or poor kitchen facilities; seniors; and low income earners.

“Low incomes, health, the cost of food, and high rents are all factors that collide,” said Heather Pottery study co-author with Adrienne Jinkerson. According to BC Stats (2005), nearly 40% of Westside residents pay more than a third of their income on rent.

Focus group participants were also very reluctant to talk about their situations. “There’s a real social stigma to admitting you have needs on the west side,” says Pottery.

According to the report, “food insecurity does not mean that people are going hungry, instead it means that they are not accessing the best, or most nutritious foods possible.”

Looks like the situation has worsened in the last year however, as all of our member agencies report increased participation in their various meal and food programs.  To make matters worse, the Buy Low store at 4th and Alma just closed down, the only store for many low-income seniors living nearby.

Debra’s story spurred us into action. We never want to be without an answer again. We invited her to garden with us at the new Kits Neighbourhood House community garden. Gave her the list of free meals and cheap food compiled by Vancouver Coastal Health. Connected her with the woman who runs a monthly fruit and veggie box. Told her our group was going to be running a couple of pilot pocket markets this summer, so she could buy fresh fruit and vegetables right at the nearby seniors’ centre. Got a meeting with the food bank to see about setting one up over here. I’m thinking the empty Buy Low Store would make a great location.

This article first appeared in excerpted form in the Georgia Straight On-line.

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